Howard White

With its August publication date looming, Harbour Publishing's ambitious British Columbia Encyclopedia is hurtling toward completion. A project of this size — more than 700,000 words contained in 4,000 entries, involving work and research by some 500 people over 12 years — acquires the momentum of a juggernaut, sweeping everyone involved along in its draft. Of course, encyclopedic projects also pick up financial momentum, generating staggering research, writing and editing costs, never mind the printer's bill — expenses that have flattened more than one publisher in the past.

Even as the B.C. Encyclopedia is set to go to press, Harbour's Howard White is aware of the cautionary tales: of Mel Hurtig, whose landmark 1985 publication of The Canadian Encyclopedia ultimately resulted in Hurtig Publishers being sold to McClelland & Stewart in 1991, and of former Province writer Chuck Davis, whose The Vancouver Book got into trouble when it took steroids and became The Greater Vancouver Book, and ran into the red. Observers shake their heads at the hubris of Harbour Publishing -- founded by White and his wife Mary to publish the historical magazine Raincoast Chronicles and the work of blue-collar poets and writers — and hiss that the whole works could go down the toilet if the B.C. Encyclopedia tanks.

"I'd have to say it's cost about a million dollars," Howard White says when asked to estimate the bottom line. He manages to utter this with the aplomb of the tycoon who once quipped, "What's a million?" Well, even if you're a fairly successful regional book publisher, a million is still a lot of money, as White knows only too well after 30 years nurturing local writers and building Harbour into one of the province's most successful publishing concerns.
"If we'd walked into a bank or government office and asked for a million-dollar loan or grant to do this, we'd have been laughed out the door," he admits. Whereas Hurtig received at least $4 million (some estimates range as high as $10 million) from the Alberta Heritage Fund for its Canadian Encyclopedia, Harbour has not received a dime of direct funding from federal or provincial governments. Even having friends at court (White once stood for election on the provincial NDP slate) wasn't good for anything more than a handshake, although sponsors such as ICBC, Telus, Telefilm and the University of British Columbia Special Collections have kicked in. The trick to avoiding the bailiffs, White points out, was in spreading the outlay over a time frame of more than a decade, during which other publications subsidized expenses.

The idea for the B.C. Encyclopedia was originally suggested by Abbotsford teacher and librarian Vicke Bassewitz. "Vicke had this book called The California Companion as an example and, thinking like a librarian, he suggested he could do the whole thing on library index cards and we could just publish it," says White. "He made it sound so easy.

"Unfortunately, librarians tend to see the world in terms of the Dewey Decimal system." Bassewitz, says White, was soon so overwhelmed by planning the encyclopedia that little actual work was done. At that point, more than a decade ago, White sprung the idea on historian Daniel Francis, author of The Imaginary Indian and National Dreams: Mis-Memory in Canadian History. Francis had worked on Hurtig's Canadian Children's Encyclopedia and Horizon Canada's historical encyclopedia, for which he was editorial director. The circumstances were not exactly auspicious. "Dan and I were driving home from White Rock in a blinding snowstorm," White remembers, "We'd just been to see a retired labour leader whose biography we were supposed to be doing, but nothing we did or said could please this crusty old bastard and the meeting ended with him basically firing us."

Fired, fed up and far from home, the pair drove into a literal and metaphorical white-out. Frustrated and grumpy, Francis tried to salvage something positive from the disastrous day. "Dan kept saying, `So what else have you got? What can we do instead?' I finally suggested, `Well, there's this B.C. Encyclopedia thing ...' Dan said, `I'll do it' and that was that. I didn't really believe it was humanly possible and I'm still not so sure, but we got home through the snow talking about it and it went on from there."

"Dan's approach was the total opposite of Vicke's," White says. Instead of working out some intricate master plan, "Dan made a habit of going through the papers every day, clipping out stories on subjects he thought ought to be included, then quickly writing them up and tossing them into a big box."

After a couple of years of what White took to be desultory clipping, Francis announced that the firm might have to spring for a bigger box. By then, White estimates in retrospect, Francis had identified some two thirds of the encyclopedia's entries. "What Dan discovered was how small the number of main entries really is. We only have about 20 major industries in the province, a fairly short history of about 200 years and about 200 really famous people. Once you've done that, you've done a big chunk of the story."

Francis, who was busy with his own career, says that while the B.C. Encyclopedia was "more or less a hobby until about three years ago," it was an undertaking he took more seriously than White's light-hearted account might suggest. Aware of publishers' deep and often well-grounded suspicions about writers' output, he simply printed up all his computer files and threw them in a box for White to see. "That," says Francis, "is how he got the idea the whole thing was in a box."

"It's when you get down to the small stuff that it really starts torturing your brain," White says. "Who goes in? The obscure author of a couple of books, or someome like Sheila Watson, whose fame rests entirely on one small book that's very important? Making those judgement calls is the hardest part. In the end, the big topics are easy and the less significant ones take much longer and require much more thought."

Like all publishers of encyclopedia, Harbour approached recognized experts wherever possible. "This can result in some wonderful writing," White enthuses. "Bibliophiles will still buy an older edition of an encyclopedia just because Albert Einstein wrote the entry on physics." Among White's favourites are historian Jean Barman, author of The West Beyond The West, who wrote the entry on B.C. history, and Mary Schendlinger, who contributed an all-important section on slugs. Then there are the experts behind the experts, people contracted simply to vet the entries for factual accuracy whose egos, possibly bruised by not having been invited to write the entry themselves, want to use the process as an occasion for academic debate.

"If you want a difference of opinion, just ask two experts," White remarks wryly. "The ironic thing is that when most people open an encyclopedia, they read it as if it came from on high and that's what you're aiming at. If they only knew how many people were involved and how hard they worked."

White took a lesson from the examples of both Hurtig and Davis. "In fact, Mel did all right with the first Canadian Encyclopedia, and Chuck Davis' first Vancouver Book also did well for him," he says. Chuck had some bad luck with The Greater Vancouver Book and he was overly generous to his contributors. Five cents a word doesn't sound like a lot of money until you start multiplying by hundreds of thousands of words. A calculator could have told him this wasn't going to work. Mel would still be a publisher today if he hadn't brought out a revised and expanded edition three years after the first. Our research suggests that an encyclopedia is something people regard as a once-in-a-lifetime buy. They look at a new edition and say `I already bought that three years ago'. The message is pretty clear. Stick with the first book." In lieu of updated editions, White plans to maintain an encyclopedia web site.

Harbour needs to sell around 10,000 copies of the $99 encyclopedia to recoup its investment. Ever the optimist, White believes he can peddle at least that many. "At every stage, every time there's been a little bit of publicity about this project, we've had this flood of calls and letters, people volunteering, wanting to know what they can do to help," he says. Finally, after more than a decade, the day is rapidly approaching when the best they can do to help is write a cheque.