by Jennifer Bessell
This year is an exciting one for Breakwater Books. They are celebrating 50 years as a publishing house here in Newfoundland and Labrador. I have been fortunate to chat with the current president and publisher, Rebecca Rose, as the company marks this milestone. Much like the province we call home, Breakwater Books has experienced and persevered through many challenges over the years, and while they exist to help others tell their stories, they have a remarkable story of their own.
1. How did you come to be in the publishing business?
Books are really in my DNA. Breakwater was the family business, so I grew up behind the scenes in publishing, helping out with various aspects of the industry for my entire life. I don’t know that I ever intended to pursue publishing specifically, but I did work in most departments over the years, so I came to learn the business by experience. It sort of gets into your blood. After a few stints of working out of province and overseas, I eventually came back into the business permanently in 2002. Breakwater acquired another publishing house (Jesperson Press), and I was tapped to run it. Eventually, we amalgamated that house into Breakwater’s regular operations and reached a succession plan through which I purchased Breakwater from the family in 2009. And I’ve been running with it ever since, taking it in new directions while honouring the legacy of the original mandate to have Newfoundlanders and Labradorians telling the stories of Newfoundland and Labrador.
2. What are some of the challenges you have faced as an entrepreneur and how have you overcome them?
Where do I start?! Seriously, independent publishing is itself, by definition, a challenge—partly because it’s an industry that exists in a model where 85 to 90 percent of the market is controlled by the top five multinational publishers, thereby leaving all other publishers in the world vying for the remaining market share. These factors, coupled with high wholesale discounts to suppliers and a model based on returnable product (suppliers can return books up to a year after ordering them), mean that we have to work especially hard for the sales achieved. This results in some serious limitations and constraints for publishers of our size within the marketplace. If the main venues for publicity (newspapers, magazines, websites, etc.) are dominated by major corporations with generous budgets and large staffs, who loses out? The little guys. We know the quality of our books can stand against most others out there, but our local literary offerings and those of other independent presses are being squeezed out of national and international attention-generating venues, making publicizing and marketing the titles that much more difficult.
And here in Newfoundland, that’s even further complicated by unique regional issues such as lack of bookstores, small population, and our geographical spread. That said, over the course of its 50-year history, Breakwater has managed to overcome many of those hurdles—primarily through resilience and flexibility, but also through experimenting with non-traditional markets. For instance, we built a very successful educational market when the provincial government was focusing on and investing in local and provincial content and business development. This had the company producing textbooks for various grade levels in the province across subjects such as social studies, religious education, and culture. And in the trade market, to account for so few bookstores, we’ve built good business relationships and partnerships with non-traditional retail outlets: hotels and B&Bs, gift shops, gas stations, any retailer willing to make books available to fill the gap. We’ve also been successful with translations and international import/export business, having introduced many international authors to the North American market and sold as many Newfoundland authors into foreign markets. We’ve recently finalized a four-book deal to Germany for Kevin Major’s crime series, so it’s exciting to be able to augment our reach beyond the province and the rest of Canada.
In the end, publishing is a long game for success, so you’ve got to be willing to take a chance on certain authors and books without knowing the likelihood of return. The real trick is having the guts and patience to wait out your investment in hopes of achieving the anticipated returns.
3. Who have been mentors, role models, and allies for you during your entrepreneurial journey?
My primary mentors were authors published by the company. When I first got involved in management, I made a point of meeting with our most successful authors to learn what their publication experience with our company was like—what worked, what didn’t, how satisfied they were—and I used that feedback to inform and build my management approach to leading the business. I also consulted with and learned from other women business owners—both here in the province and nationally within the publishing industry. Having these women be significant industry mentors to me was invaluable.
Locally, I was fortunate to be part of NLOWE’s inaugural Mastermind group with some of the best women business owners in this province. We all learned so much from each other, making that professional development experience invaluable not only to me as a business person, but in an ongoing way socially—we’re all still supportive colleagues to this day.
As a woman entrepreneur, I think it’s important to seek help from (and provide help to) other women in comparable management positions, or those running companies with publishing mandates and logistical considerations similar to mine. Where else would we learn about the millions of variables inherent in publishing regional authors/content, courting and mentoring new and emerging authors, and engaging and nurturing diverse authors in an inclusive publishing environment?
4. You obviously have access to some great books—what do you enjoy reading during your down time?
I studied psychology at university so I retain an active interest in texts that keep me in the loop in that realm. From Gabor Maté’s The Myth of Normal (currently reading) to self-development like The Mountain Is You to personal and professional development, like anything from Eckhart Tolle to Brené Brown.
I also have a deep interest in women’s historical fiction, but not the traditional kind. Local writer Trudy Morgan-Cole is a good example of what I mean by that—through her novels she’s rewriting history through a feminist lens and is presenting a more accurate perspective on much of Newfoundland and Labrador’s history. More people should be reading her!
Other favourites include Joan Clarke, Glennon Doyle, Lisa Moore, Colm Tóibín, Michael Crummey; Bridget Canning is likely my favourite contemporary Newfoundland writer right now. I was delighted to publish her first book, The Greatest Hits of Wanda Jaynes, which is currently being adapted to film and has won multiple awards. Breakwater has since published two more books by Bridget, and I’m really looking forward to what she writes next. Melissa Barbeau and Shelley Kawaja have both debuted some beautiful novels that are favourites of mine—they are definitely writers to watch!
5. What has been the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
Credit to Brené Brown coupled with Roosevelt for that one: “If you’re not in the arena also getting your ass kicked, I’m not interested in your feedback.”
It took me years to get to a place of being comfortable with that perspective. I spent too much time worrying about what others thought about what I was doing or how I was doing it. I’m glad I was able to do the work on myself and find the right colleagues and business mentors, to get to a place of focusing on who and what truly matters. It’s easy to get distracted by the noise—from others as much as from myself—so I’m happy to have learned how to filter it.
6. What has been your greatest business accomplishment so far?
That’s a tough one, in part because there’s a quantitative answer and a qualitative one. The quantitative answer has to do with visibility, recognition, and sales. We’ve taken Breakwater from a local press that was servicing the province’s literary scene to one servicing the national and international scenes as well. Our books are featured across the country and abroad, and so our authors and their stories have followed. We have established and engaged national and international sales teams, distributors, and printers—allowing us to cut costs and outsource fulfillment work while concentrating more on the quality of editorial and marketing.
Qualitatively, I’ve spent the last 20-plus years building bridges with other literary entities, from publishers to festivals to newspapers and magazines to booksellers and authors. And part and parcel with this have been my efforts to increase diversity and inclusion in our lists. We are now publishing authors who might never have received a second glance in the past because of their marginality or their distance from the centre of literary life in the province. If you look at our lists now versus in the earliest days, the representation from authors who deal with issues of race, gender, Indigeneity, disability, religion, mental health, and so forth has increased dramatically. And the demand for this is part of what drives our sales.
Also in this realm is our concentration on advocacy. As we say here, a rising tide lifts all boats. But that tide doesn’t rise on its own. Many individuals and organizations are engaged in helping support, grow, and protect the publishing industry. As the leader of Breakwater, I’ve had the privilege (and sometimes frustration!) of not only sitting on the boards of but also leading advocacy and industry organizations such as the Atlantic Publishers Marketing Association (APMA); the Association of Canadian Publishers (ACP); and the Literary Press Group of Canada (LPG), of which I’m currently chair. Being part of these groups allows me not only to learn from other publishers but to help steer them in directions that benefit our province as much as the others. In turn, I loan my expertise on regional publishing to them. It’s a win-win, as far as I’m concerned. But it’s also a duty I take very seriously—representing our province in the lobbying organs that will affect the entirety of the independent publishing world in Canada.
7. You have enjoyed tremendous growth over the last 10 to 15 years. How has your leadership contributed to that growth?
I think my willingness to make mistakes—and be unsure of potential outcomes while moving forward anyway—has contributed to our success. I’ve learned over the years the fine balance of building a program that offers new books with unknown potential coupled with books we’re most confident in and know will produce sales.
In a typical year with 18 to 20 new books, we know about 3 or 4 of those are going to pay for themselves (and help pay for the others), but we also know that the factors listed above mean many won’t find their ideal market. It has taken me many years, and many tries, to develop a formula that allows us to keep putting out that many titles with such a minimal window for return. But I think we’ve finally found it!
Also, I don’t take myself too seriously—I’m very personable and get along with most folks. And I’m honest to a fault, so people know they’re getting the truth when working with me. Trust is a major asset in any business, but it’s extra important in this field because we are dealing with artists as well as business people. Building and maintaining that trust has been a major priority for me.
In the end, it comes down to this: the combination of reliability (in terms of quality and scope), along with the longevity (the history and legacy of being Newfoundland and Labrador’s first, and largest, literary publisher) means people are able to rely on and cheer for a brand that has 50 years of Newfoundland and Labrador history behind its name. This creates a sense of authenticity that has opened many doors for our business.
8. Fifty years is a great milestone. What do you see on the horizon for Breakwater Books?
I see many things on the horizon! But in specific, there are opportunities to be found in alternate formats of content, many of which are already underway. From print books to ebooks to audiobooks to accessible books—podcasts, book trailers, multimedia adaptations of books—there are so many alternate formats and delivery mechanisms for creative content available now, and those of us producing in the industry are learning how to integrate and make that content available across as many sectors as possible. I see great opportunities through that lens for the educational sector as they reframe the way they look at and engage with curriculum and how to deliver it. And accessible and alternate formats are helping us open content to audiences previously blocked out and present additional opportunities for content engagement.
I ultimately see a return to our roots as having the greatest potential for true success right now—focusing on the local, hoping our customers will prioritize our Newfoundland and Labrador writers and their books when seeking to engage with literature. We unquestionably have some of the best storytellers in the world writing and publishing in this province, and support from their home audience is instrumental in maintaining that reputation.
Jennifer Bessell, CEO, NLOWE
Jennifer is the Chief Executive Officer at NLOWE. Jennifer is also the chair of the Women’s Enterprise Organizations of Canada (WEOC), a volunteer with Junior Achievement of NL, a board member with Women in Science and Engineering Newfoundland and Labrador (WISE-NL), a board member with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Eastern Avalon, and a former member of the Women Presidents Organization (WPO). She considers coaching and mentoring a responsibility of leadership and is driven to help women and youth realize their potential.
BREAKWATER BOOKS LIMITED 709-722-6680 www.breakwaterbooks.com