The Early Years of Dundurn: A Q&A with President Kirk Howard

The Early Years of Dundurn: A Q&A with President Kirk Howard

Posted on February 7 by Kyle in Interview
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In 1972, Kirk Howard began Dundurn Press on his own. Why? How did he do it? What challenges did he face at the time? After asking around the office, I realized that many of us didn't know a lot about the early years of Dundurn. After compiling the questions that stumped many of my colleagues, I sat down with the one person who could share the story, the President and Publisher of Dundurn, Kirk Howard.

What was it that compelled you to create Dundurn?

It was 45 years ago and I was teaching Canadian studies, literature, history, among those subjects. I found there wasn’t a good deal of Canadian teaching material that I could put my hands on. So I thought, gee, this is simple, all I have to do is print the stuff and sell it. Turns out it’s far more complex than that. In all, it was to fill a void that I had discovered.

Did you have any business experience prior?

None whatsoever. I didn’t even have anyone to give me some advice. I cashed in my pension, had some business cards printed, and started handing them out to people. At that time I was living in Sarnia, Ontario.

At the time you began Dundurn, what was the state of Canadian publishing?

There were a few small companies and few larger companies that were internationally-owned. In that way there’s always been two sides to the publishing coin. The Canadian publishing industry was still young at the time; many books were originally coming from either the United States or the United Kingdom. International companies, like Oxford and Macmillan, had quite strong operations in Canada.

How did it make you feel to enter into an industry so heavily dominated by multinationals?

I might have felt daunted had I known the full picture but not knowing too much about publishing at all kept me from feeling the full scope of things. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.

What made your choose the name “Dundurn”?

I really wanted the name to reflect our interest in Canadian history. I was born in Hamilton, grew up looking at Dundurn Castle, and admiring it. There were a number of publishing companies being established at the time, many using the name of the publisher for the company name, which has been tradition through the centuries.
The unfortunate result of the name is that many people can’t spell it. For many years we were on a mailing list and it was addressed to “DumDum Press”. 

Tell us more about the early years of Dundurn. Where was the first office and who were the first employees?

The very first office was in Sarnia but after we moved to Toronto, it was in a little Victorian townhouse on Spadina near College. Our office was actually the kitchen. Literally, just the kitchen.

My first employee was Bob Stacey, who is no longer with us unfortunately. He was the grandson of the famous Canadian artist Charles William Jeffreys. He did… well, everything. Both of us did everything. We’d edit the books in the morning and pack the books in the afternoon. So in the kitchen wasn’t just everything we needed to edit the books, but it was our warehouse as well.

So in this tiny Victorian home’s kitchen, you had the publisher, distribution centre, and entire office made up of two people.

It was two people only sometimes. Often it was just one. Just me. I acquired the books, edited, marketed, and sent them out. And for the first few months after moving to Toronto, I lived in that kitchen as well. We’ve had several offices in Toronto over the years but I’ll certainly never forget that room.

While we’re on the subject of “firsts,” what was the first book that Dundurn published?

The first book we published was a journal, a diary of a young Scotsman who came to Canada in 1845 to visit his uncle. This was the age before trains. He kept the diary everywhere he went in Ontario and Quebec, and the United States. It’s called The New World Journal of Alexander Graham Dunlop.

If you were to go back and give the young Kirk Howard in 1972 some advice, what would it be?

Hang in. Plan. Don’t be afraid to take advantage of any lucky opportunities that come your way. I’ve bought thirteen companies over the years. We made an offer to Carleton University Press, which I’ve always admired. We didn’t get it unfortunately. 

Are there any milestones that you feel particularly proud of? Ones that help put Dundurn on the map, so to say?

One milestone, that did particularly well for us, was when Mulroney was Prime Minister, he had established a royal commission on party financing and electoral reform. He wanted to publish background papers on various aspects of voting in Canada, anything to do with getting people into parliament. So the committee met with many people over the course of five years. In total there were 110 background papers put into 23 volumes, French and English. It was a very prestigious project, and a nearly million-dollar one at that.

Concerning the Canadian industry, I’ve always believed that publishing is a fairly collaborative effort. We’re not that competitive, publishers. I think the strength of Canadian publishing has been the ability to organize projects that benefit a number of publishers. I think we’ll continue that.

And lastly, the questions many people in publishing get, did you ever consider writing a book yourself?

Oh no. I write cheques. Joking aside, I realize how much effort is involved. When somebody commits themselves to writing a book, you’re talking a year out of their life. I may not envy authors but I certainly admire them. Perseverance and creativity are inspiring traits.