Publisher Brian Lam didn't waste anyone's time in accepting a Community Builder Award last night (November 24) from the Asian Canadian Writers' Workshop.
It took the head man at Arsenal Pulp Press fewer than seven minutes to deliver a fact-packed history of his life and book selling in Vancouver.
He opened his speech by discussing how his immigrant father and mother suffered hardships.
"My parents experienced the kind of systemic and personal prejudice that so many of their generation experienced," Lam revealed at the literASIAN literary festival closing gala at the Pink Pearl Chinese Restaurant. "And as a result, they wanted their children to have the kind of life that was denied to them. Right up into the 1960s, I was raised to speak English and encouraged to read as much as possible so that I might earn a job in the real world. But I realize now that this sent me on a path toward writing and literature."
His most treasured gift was a typewriter, which he received as an eight-year-old boy. And his big break came as a University of Victoria student in 1984 when he was given a summer internship at Pulp Press, as it was known back then.
"I packed book orders," he recalled, "I took authors to media interviews, I read manuscripts, I reorganized Pulp's first filing system. I also got to hang around with Pulp's early stalwarts, such as poet Jon Furberg, novelist Tom Osborne, his brother and my mentor Stephen Osborne—now the publisher of Geist magazine—and the late D.M. Fraser, one of Canada's greatest unsung writers and Pulp's editor at the time."
Lam revealed that Fraser would "compose beautifully written rejection letters that were usually more than two pages long, typed on long yellow scrolls".
Upon Lam's return to university, he knew that he would return to book publishing.
He also expressed nostalgia for the pre-Internet days when there were 25 independent bookstores in Vancouver, including nine Duthie Books outlets, four Blackberry Books stores, the Granville Book Company, as well as an architectural bookstore and an aboriginal bookstore.
"Whenever one of our new books was published, I really enjoyed jumping in my car and delivering stock around the city to booksellers, who were grateful and enthusiastic for the service," Lam said. "There was no Internet then, of course, but then more importantly, there were no multinational online booksellers like Amazon to compete with, and the storefront leases were relatively cheap—and ebooks were nonexistent."
He then explained how the digital revolution transformed the book industry, triggering a wave of mergers and takeovers.
"Coles merged with W.H. Smith, which became Chapters, which then bought out Indigo to control 60 to 70 percent of every book purchased in Canada today," Lam said. "As well, McClelland & Stewart, the largest and most venerated Canadian-owned publisher in the country, was purchased by Random House, which then merged with Penguin to become one of the world's most dominant publishers."
He said that in this "cutthroat industry", being small is better—if small is defined as being "nimble enough to respond quickly and efficiently to the vagaries of the industry".
Small publishers also have to be sufficiently creative to tap new revenue streams and attract new audiences.
"We've always prided ourselves on the close-knit relationship we've developed with our writers—from editorial through production through to marketing and promotion," Lam declared. "And we're eternally grateful for their trust and support."
He characterized Asian Canadian Writers' Workshop cofounder Jim Wong-Chu's 1986 Chinatown Ghosts as "the first Asian-themed poetry book ever published in Canada".
In 1999, Wong-Chu collaborated with Andy Quan on an anthology of Chinese-Canadian poetry called Swallowing Clouds, which was also issued by Arsenal Pulp Press.
"The book is 14 years old now and in addition to including poems by such established writers at the time as Evelyn Lau, Fred Wah, and Paul Yee, it included many who were being published in book form for the first time," Lam said. "Today, it is astonishing to realize how many of those new young writers have gone on to publish their own books of poetry and fiction."
Since then, Arsenal Pulp Press has published works by Asian Canadian writers as Larissa Lai (When Fox is a Thousand), Terry Watada (Kuroshio: The Blood of Foxes), Gu Xiong (The Yellow Pear), and David H.T. Wong (Escape to Gold Mountain).
"But our task of connecting books with readers around the world pales in comparison to the solitary creative output of our writers who, despite their relatively paltry compensation, are passionate in their dedication to tell the stories that they want to tell," Lam said.
He also thanked the staff at Arsenal Pulp Press for their professionalism, saying the award belongs as much to them as it does to him.
"It's a terrifying, back-breaking business, but one that I personally can't imagine ever leaving," Lam said.