Philip Cercone, executive director of McGill-Queen's Press


The press that's a success

BRONWYN CHESTER | As the new year begins, Philip Cercone has a conundrum on his hands: Does his publishing house, McGill-Queen's University Press, organize to celebrate its 30th anniversary or does it wait a year and mark the millennium with a 40th anniversary? If you think the math is a little off here, you're right. But there is an explanation.

MQUP formed officially in 1969, the result of a partnership between Queen's University and McGill University Press which had existed since 1960. Hence the 40 years. This month, the board of directors, equally represented by both universities, will make its decision.

Cercone, who has directed the press for almost 14 years, could go with either anniversary. "Thirty years is a good relationship," he says, referring to the partner universities, and he's very proud of how well the Kingston and Montreal editorial teams function. "The trick is we never meet," he says in a mischievous tone, explaining the equal editorial status and equal financial participation of both universities. The head office, comprising production, design, marketing sales and advertising and business management, is in Montreal.

His fellow senior editor at Queen's, historian Donald Akenson, concurs: "We're very lucky. We have hypercommunication," he laughs, referring to the six full- and part-time editors who assess the hundreds of manuscripts received annually. "If Philip, John [Zucchi] or Aurèle [Parisien] want to do something, I have complete trust in them," he says of the McGill-based acquisition editors.

University of Western Ontario professor of history Peter Neary, an MQUP author, calls the press "one of the success stories of Canadian academic life in the '80s and '90s." MQUP turns out 85 books per year, making it the number two scholarly press in the country after the University of Toronto Press in terms of output. In terms of quality of editing and production, however, not to mention the quality of the press's list, Neary believes that the two are "in the same league."

Furthermore, the press has shown a profit for the last four years, publishing books that don't appeal to the John Grisham crowd and in a period of drastic budget cuts for universities. How is this all possible?

The short answer, some say, is Philip Cercone. "He's a very good fundraiser," in the words of Harry Van Ierrssel, one-time vice-president of finance at the U of T Press, now a publishing consultant for scholarly presses.

Before arriving at McGill, Cercone was the director of the Aid to Scholarly Publishing Program of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. "I had seen the writing on the wall," he says, in his office on McTavish Street. "Scholarly presses were not going to be able to rely only on public sources of funding; tough times were going to come."

So when Cercone arrived at MQUP, he knew that he was going to have to find money beyond that provided by McGill and Queen's, the ASPP, the Canada Council for the Arts and the Book Publishing Industry Development Program. "Fundraising is the biggest part of my job," he says.

It's a job that he seems cut out to do. Having acquired a certain business acumen early on -- at age eight, he was running the family farm in the Abruzzi region of Italy while his father worked in Venezuela and later, managing a restaurant during his high school years, when the family immigrated to London, Ontario -- Cercone went on to complete a master's degree in American colonial history at the University of Western Ontario. His goal: to be a scholar.

As fate would have it, Cercone fell into a job at the SSHRC and, at the tender age of 27 found himself directing the publications division. Nine years later, MQUP coaxed Cercone into leaving the comfort of his Ottawa life to lead the fledgling operation when then co-director, philosophy professor David Norton, was about to go on leave. (At that time, 1985, the press was just finding its feet again after being closed down in 1980 due to bad management. Norton, Akenson and English professor Kerrie McSweeney had put the press back in the hands of academics where it has remained. All of the editors are academic appointments and the press answers to its board of directors, which is presided over by the vice-principal of one or other university.)

"So began my madness," laughs Cercone.

Why "madness"?

"Because scholarly publishing, like having children, is not meant to pay," says the father of two teenage boys.

True, most of the press's books do not make a profit on sales alone. A scholarly book, for instance, which on average costs $30,000 to $40,000 to produce, will, in most cases, not sell more than 300 copies. But Cercone has a rule: every book, be it through government agency funding, help from sponsors and/or through its sales, must pay for itself.

At the same time, the book must fit into the press's mission: "To serve the Canadian and international scholarly communities as a vehicle for the publication of scholarly works of the highest international quality, and to assist McGill and Queen's to fulfil their educational missions by publishing books which, while adhering to the highest standards, are intended to inform and serve the community at large."

That latter point is one of the ways in which the press has blossomed over the past few years. "Trade titles," books that are scholarly but have popular appeal for the "educated reader," as Cercone puts it, now amount to one-quarter of the press's output. Their print run is a minimum of 1,000. Donald Akenson's Surpassing Wonder: the Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds, for instance, published last fall, had an initial print run of 5,000, most of which has been sold. Surprising for a 672-page, $40 tome on Yahweh?

One might think so. But Cercone believes that there is a highly educated segment of the reading public that does not work in academia and is not particularly well served by trade publishers.

Furthermore, the press supported this book, which had no government subsidy, with big advertising bucks. Under the initiative of sales and advertising manager Bruce Walsh, a full-page ad featuring multiple images of the book ran in The Globe and Mail last fall and high-profile shelfspace was purchased in the local Chapters bookstore.

True to the innovative style of MQUP, the ad was no ordinary ad. Just above the press's name at the foot of the page were the names of approximately 100 independent bookstores. Surprisingly, they paid not a cent for the $8,000 ad.

The pay-off for the press was an agreement from the bookstores to purchase a minimum of four copies of each of the books. Why four? Because, given the width of the spine, that number ensured that the cover would be face-out on the shelf. Furthermore, says Walsh, "supporting the independent bookstores is good for us because it helps prevent the monopolization of the selection of books by the superstores."

Walsh's cheeky ads -- which have poked pun at Howard Stern and Oprah's Book Club -- help the cause. Creative promotion and financing are essential at the press.

There are books, for instance, that don't qualify for government funding or whose unwieldy size or printing requirements make it expensive to publish even with subsidies. In these cases, Cercone will look for co-publishing arrangements or guarantees of purchase from a sponsor related to the book. The only way the 1989 publication of Dykelands, a stately 19" X 10" book of 26 duotone photographs, each accompanied by a poem, could be published was thanks to the pre-purchase of 200 editions for corporate donors by Mount Alison University in New Brunswick, where both the photographer and poet work.

While Cercone is pleased to have the occasional best-seller among the press's books -- and very pleased by such long-lasting best-sellers as (former McGill historian of architecture) Peter Collins's Changing Ideals in Modern Architecture -- he's far more impressed by the glowing reviews in scholarly journals and the prizes granted by scholarly organizations that a wide range of MQUP books receive.

He gets a little dewy-eyed when he speaks of The St. Petersburg Dialogues: Or Conversations on the Temporal Government of Providence, originally published in 1821 by Joseph de Maistre and edited and translated by Richard Lebrun for the 1993 MQUP edition. "We have sold three to four hundred copies," says Cercone, "but this is the most important book in Western society after The Republic.

"Our books have long legs and will be around a long time."

The same might be said for the MQUP and its director.