Returns of a different sort - MoneySense

Returns of a different sort

Singer Emily Haines on investing in her father’s legacy.


My father always supported my aspirations as a musician, from when I was a young child. I still remember the day I wrote my first song. I was seven years old, and he set up a tape recorder beside the piano. He stressed the importance of documenting my most personal work so that others could someday appreciate it. Years later, I found myself applying this lesson in a way neither of us could have predicted.

Before he died in 2003, my father was a prolific poet and writer. The writing of Paul Haines spanned five decades, three continents, and two languages (English and French). He wrote short stories, essays, haiku-like poems, lyrics, liner notes for legendary jazz records, as well as articles for various musical publications.

When the writing stopped, I found myself obsessed with the idea of bringing his work together in the form of a book. I quickly realized it wasn’t going to be easy. Choosing the right pieces for the book would be difficult. His libretto for Carla Bley’s epic double-album Escalator Over the Hill along with his lyrics for Tropic Appetites could fill an entire book on their own. And I discovered that finding the right publisher for the task was almost impossible.

The problem was that books of poetry don’t move serious numbers in Canada, so there is little incentive for a conventional publisher to make the investment. To make it work, I needed a business plan that would make the project financially viable for a publisher, while also providing me with the services and infrastructure I needed.

Over the next three months, between touring Europe with my band Metric and working on my solo album in Los Angeles, I dedicated myself to the project. In hotel rooms, airports and backstage dressing rooms, I made lists of requirements that had to be met. For example, it was important to me that the book was associated with a respectable publishing house. I didn’t want my father’s name lined up on some random website next to a bunch of cookbooks or self-help manuals. This book was his legacy, and I wanted to frame his life in a context that would lend legitimacy to his esoteric approach to the written word.

A friend suggested Coach House Books, which turned out to be the solution. As the name suggests, this literary publisher is based in a little coach house tucked away in a back alley near the University of Toronto. Its staff were receptive to my approach, and we were quickly able to come to an agreement. If I paid to produce the book, they would handle the layout and proofreading. They would also offer guidance on aesthetic decisions, like the placement of photographs and the design of the cover.

They were sensitive to the emotional significance of the project from start to finish. We had a working title, but as we were nearing the deadline my brother suggested a new title that my family liked better: Secret Carnival Workers. By this point I was in the habit of bicycling across town several times a day to oversee the process, so everyone at the Coach House office was used to seeing me appear at the bottom of the stairs, breathless and perspiring. Still, they had never seen me arrive looking quite as anxious as I did the day we changed the title from Word Music to Secret Carnival Workers. To my great relief, the layout department seamlessly switched gears and incorporated the change.

In exchange for my lump-sum investment of approximately $20,000, I owned the books and I was free to sell them anywhere I pleased. A portion of the inventory would be consigned to Coach House at fair cost, and they would handle the conventional distribution and fulfillment of orders that came though their website.

Now I get an email from the Coach House offices every few months telling me they have sold the books they have in stock, and they need more. They deduct their commission from the revenue, and send me a cheque for the balance, which goes toward recouping my initial investment. I keep the boxes of books in our recording studio, where they serve as makeshift shelves, so every time I make a shipment it changes the furniture.

I didn’t set out to get rich by publishing my father’s writing. Good thing too, because I never will. But I’m close to recouping the cash I fronted, and with any luck, I’ll start to see a profit this year. Some would say that’s too long to wait for a return on investment, but I disagree. For 10 years, I invested every spare penny and every waking hour into making Metric what it is today. Those seeds are only beginning to bear visible fruit now. But that’s the best kind of investment: the kind that produces real value over the long term. In both endeavors, the real payoff had nothing to do with money, but for me, it was immeasurable.