Inside CANAV: Tales from the publisher’s dungeon

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Publisher Milberry on site at Friesen Printers (Altona, Manitoba) while "Pioneer Decades" was in production last fall. Note the huge 4-colour press in the background.

Against the advice of all its “expert” associates, the usual busybodies, know-nothings, etc., CANAV Books does its printing and binding in Canada. On the whole, this has been a good policy. “Canada First”, eh!

Besides … CANAV’s publishing schedule, which always seems to include last-minute tinkering with a project, has done best with a local manufacturer. Something else good about this is not having to wait 6 – 8 weeks to ship a new book from Hong Kong. CANAV’s also always found more favourable credit terms locally. Well, to each their own, as they say.

CANAV began in 1981 with Bryant Press, then gave some work to T.H. Best. Pretty well Canada’s oldest book manufacturers, both were handily located in Toronto. They did serviceable work but used terribly outdated equipment. It was always amazing to watch the massive 4-colour Harris 72-inch presses clanging away, crews scampering over and around them, praying that nothing would blow. Break-downs were frequent, but such beauties as The Canadair Sabre and The De Havilland Canada Story somehow kept coming off the line.

One day I was visiting Bryant. There in the lot were a couple of big flatbeds loaded with a rusted-out Harris press. “Great”, I thought, “they’re finally getting rid of the old junk.” Well, fat chance. This was a “new” Harris press being delivered and this is what Bryant thought was progress!

My last job at Best was Power: The Pratt & Whitney Canada Story, a very tidy job for a small Canadian publisher. The initial run was for something like 24,000 casebound copies.All went well until the book got onto Best’s newly installed bindery. It seems that the bugs weren’t yet out of this equipment. Several thousand books had gone down the line before someone noticed that too much glue was being used. The glue was oozing into the pages and the books were ruined.

After a few days, replacement sheets were printed, but something else went afoul. Apparently there was a problem with drying power, the ink stayed wet and, as the sheets sat awaiting “folding and gathering”, it was off-setting from sheet to sheet. Tons more paper went for recycling (boy, who was getting paid to keep an eye on this stuff). The job finally was delivered and, if you know this book, you’ll agree that it was worth all the aggravation.

Soon after this debacle, T.H. Best went belly up. Bryant disappeared about the same time. Neither would adapt to advancing press and bindery technology. In the end they were driven out of the biz by producers using the latest equipment.

Meanwhile, Friesen of Altona kept pace and modernized as required. We first worked together in 1997, when I gave them Air Transport in Canada. This 2-volume title was the largest aviation history book done to date — 5 kg, 1030 pages, about a million words and some 4000 images. Friesens produced a masterpiece and we have been partners ever since. On the whole, they’ve delivered beautifully-made books at a fair price. Sometimes, when I had gotten a quote from offshore, Friesens still beat it.

The usual know-it-alls take great fun in pointing out how CANAV has blown a bundle by dealing with home-based printers. Point is, these folks rarely have a clue. Few have ever published a 2-page newsletter, let alone a major book. However, the wind-bags and such can create a certain amount of buzz, maybe cause some minor irritation and get a fellow a bit riled. That’s when I recall my mother’s good advice: “Never argue with the experts — they’ll only drag you down to their level.”

CANAV has tried other Canadian manufacturers. Tri-Graphic of Ottawa did Typhoon and Tempest: The Canadian Story. Marquis did The Leslie Corness Propliner Collection. All such companies seem to CANAV to be competitive and turn out decent products.

Maybe Canadian publishers should cut all their blather about how great it is getting books done in Timbuktu or wherever. CANAV’s still around 28 years after kicking off its “Canada First” policy. Meanwhile, scads of others who used to love boasting about their trips to Italy, Singapore, etc. to do press proofs are long gone. Imaginez-vous!

Usual cheers … Larry Milberry

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