Publishing from the Margins
A Dramatic Shift in Editorial Focus
As the son of Hungarian playwright Julius Hay, Peter Hay came
from a theatre background. In 1965 he was hired to teach drama at Simon Fraser
University. Unable to locate Canadian play texts to teach, he eventually
approached Talonbooks with the rights to two plays, and offered to become Talon's
freelance drama editor. With few Canadian plays being published at the time, and
since the potential (but small) market combined well with Talon's emphasis on
Canadian poetry, his offer was accepted.
Talon's first drama title, published in 1969, was James Reaney's "Colours in the
Dark." It was followed in 1970 by George Ryga's "The Ecstasy of Rita Joe," still
the bestselling title on Talon's backlist. In retrospect it can be seen that this
initial foray into drama was perhaps the most significant move in the evolution
of Talon's editorial policy. Fueled by an enthusiasm that Eleanor Wachtel later
compared to "the zeal of a missionary" (Wachtel 1979), Talonbooks was gradually
clarifying its house identity, its sense of self.
The concerns and debates initiated by the 1970 sales of Gage and Ryerson resulted
in a significant bolstering of the amount available to Canadian publishers
through the Canada Council. These funds became available in 1972. That year
Talon's project grant from the Canada Council was $7500, up significantly from
the $1350 received the previous year. While Talon had optimistically published
fifteen titles in 1971, they had been forced to cut back production to nine
titles in 1972. With the increase in grant revenue in 1972 Talonbooks was able to
plan for a step up in title production, and produced twelve titles in 1973 and a
further eighteen in 1974.
From the publication of their first plays in 1969 and 1970, Talon began to
increase their emphasis on drama. Of the fifteen titles produced in 1971, only
one was a drama; in 1972 four of their nine titles were drama; in 1973 four of
twelve titles were drama, and in 1974 seven of eighteen titles were drama. The
plays chosen for publication were selected by Peter Hay from "the best of new
available Canadian offerings, ... plus a few older 'chestnuts'" (Wachtel 1979).
This increased emphasis showed Talon's intention of consolidating their identity
as one of Canada's foremost publishers of drama.
Known at first as a regional play publisher, Talon began to expand their focus to
the national scene. They actively went after playwrights such as Toronto's David
Freeman and Quebec's Michel Tremblay, publishing works by both writers for the
first time in 1974. Acquiring the English language rights to Michel Tremblay's
plays was a major coup for Talonbooks, their entry into the big leagues of
national drama . Talon published six of Tremblay's plays within three years, and
he became their best-selling author.
The emphasis on drama continued to grow. By 1979 Eleanor Wachtel was discussing
the next logical step in Talon's expansion in an article on Talonbooks, an
article with the subhead: "A Canadian house goes international by a process of
evolution" (Wachtel 1979). Their first international drama publication came in
1978 with "Ashes," by Briton David Rudkin. In 1979 Talon published two volumes of
plays by Sam Shepherd, as well as two plays by New York's Israel Horovitz.
Unfortunately discussions between Talonbooks and Edward Albee, mentioned in
Wachtel's article, did not come to fruition.
Peter Hay eventually became a full partner in Talonbooks, although the
relationship ended somewhat acrimoniously when he left the company in 1980. In
December of 1981 he was asked to resign as a director of Talonbooks. A lawsuit
followed which was finally settled in 1986.
Today Talonbooks, while still retaining a commitment to drama, has reduced its
emphasis to the point where the company that "used to devote half its list to
plays, now [...] publishes only two to four plays a year" (Hunt 1989). There are
now a number of competitors for Talonbooks in the field of drama publishing.
Talon has, however, been very successful in obtaining titles which are of
interest to University instructors: currently nearly 60% of Talon's sales are
through course adoptions.
Talonbooks: Publishing from the Margins. © April, 1991 Michael Hayward