Fame (1999): 217 Miles from MoTown

Tim Inkster

The publishing industry is arguably one of the most avidly studied sectors of the Canadian economy. I call your attention, for example, to a book entitled The Perilous Trade: Publishing Canada’s Writers — a 450 page study written by Roy MacSkimming in 2003 in which the author suggests, on page 260, that the Porcupine’s Quill may well be Canada’s pre-eminent small press, which is very probably not true.

But it was nice of Roy to say that.

‘Reading Canadian: Youth, Book Publishing and the National Question, 1967-2000’ was a research paper commissioned by Heritage Canada and written by Robert Wright of Trent University that was subsequently published by Canadian Scholars’ Press as Hip and Trivial: Book Publishing and the Greying of Canadian Nationalism (which is a mouthful).

Mr Wright was candid in admitting that his background was actually in the recorded music industry, when he e-mailed me a questionnaire that asked a lot of questions about book publishing. In response I asked him to …

Consider the case of a young(ish) Canadian literary publisher who, in 1983, invested $5000 of his own money in the career of a then-unknown poet and followed that four years later with an additional $10,000 investment in that same unknown author’s first collection of stories.

What if the publisher were prescient? and improbably fortunate, against staggering odds?

And what if the unknown poet eventually came to be recognized as one of the most celebrated novelists of her generation?

And what if the poet was Jane Urquhart?

And what if the publisher, was me?

Given the level of risk inherent in a publishing ‘investment’ in an unknown poet, and given the return on investment one might expect attached to one of the most ‘celebrated novelists of her generation’, imagine my dismay when I discovered (in 1999) that my $15,000 investment, after a dozen years, had depreciated to $8,309 — the total sale price for an assignment of contract to Storm Glass and The Little Flowers of Madame de Montespan when I sold the titles to McClelland and Stewart.

I do not mean to suggest that the M&S offer was niggardly, quite the contrary. I have every reason to believe that Ellen Seligman went a goodly piece out of her way to be as generous as she could, but still — a loss of $6691 on an investment of $15,000 after a term of twelve years is not a good return. In any business.

Robert Wright, in researching his book Hip and Trivial: Book Publishing and the Greying of Canadian Nationalism, once suggested that he thought the Porcupine’s Quill was ‘kindalike’ MoTown Records.

This is, arguably, not true.

It is conceivable however, though not particularly likely, that Mr Wright MAY have remembered that Gladys Horton and Georgia Dobbins, two of the original members of the Marvelettes, both attended highschool in Inkster, Michigan — which was founded by one Robert Inkster of Lerwick in the Shetland Islands, which is not that many miles from Burra, in the Shetlands, where my father’s father was born.

Berry Gordy Jr started Tamla-MoTown Records in 1959 with an $800 loan from his family. In his first year of business a song called (appropriately enough) ‘Money (That’s What I Want)’ by Barrett Strong hit #2 on the Billboard R&B chart.

‘Shop Around’, recorded by the Miracles, sold one million copies for Tamla-MoTown in 1960, Berry Gordy’s second year of business.

‘Please Mr Postman’ by the Marvelettes was Tamla-MoTown’s first Number One hit on the Billboard pop charts in 1961, and from that point Tamla-MoTown went on to release no fewer than 110 Top Ten hits in ten years.

I have it on good authority that Jane Urquhart once did sing a duet with tenor Michael Burgess of the Broadway production ‘Les Miz’ and apparently acquitted herself surprisingly well, but still, I am not persuaded that the author Jane Urquhart is in any way commercially comparable to the singer Diana Ross of the Supremes who sold several tens of millions of 45rpm vinyl recordings for Berry Gordy before she left MoTown for RCA.

In 1988 Berry Gordy sold Tamla-MoTown to the Music Corporation of America (MCA) for 61 million dollars.

The Porcupine’s Quill sold, over twelve years, 4572 copies of Jane Urquhart’s Storm Glass; and 846 copies of The Little Flowers of Madame de Montespan over sixteen years before we sold our interest in the titles to McClelland & Stewart.

The Porcupine’s Quill, at 68 Main Street in Erin Village, is located just about exactly 217 miles from Berry Gordy’s original Hitsville USA office at 2648 West Grand Boulevard, Detroit, Michigan

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The Porcupine's Quill would like to acknowledge the support of the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts for our publishing program. The financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF) is also gratefully acknowledged.