The detached home at 238 Willowdale Avenue in the heart of North York is one of Willowdale’s best-kept secrets. The two-inch-by-one inch square brass plaque nailed to the front door is the only sign that identifies this as the home of Heidy Lawrance’s production house, WeMakeBooks.ca. Since 1987, Lawrance has been working in the background assisting authors, editors and publishers to get their books to press.
With over 30 plus years of publishing experience, Lawrance was an accidental intruder into the publishing business. As a young immigrant to Canada, she began her career as a sales representative’s assistant at Nostrand Reinhold, a publisher for professionals in architecture and design, industrial sciences, hospitality, and business technology. Following a convoluted series of mergers and acquisitions, Lawrance landed at Nelson Canada in 1980. For the next 14 years, she moved through Nelson’s book publishing business, ending up as a publicist and promotions manager with a staff of assistants. Lawrance was one of Freeman Patterson’s early publicists. She remembers tootling Patterson to photography clubs in the Golden Horseshoe in her Datsun hatchback promoting his first book Photography for the Joy of It. Lawrance recalls one snowy evening with her car doors frozen, and Patterson and her, “just climbed in through the back, crawled into the seats, closed the hatch and went on. Book promotion is its own world.”
In 1988, coinciding with the introduction of desktop publishing, Lawrance’s boss closed her department, offered her a computer and contract work, and shut the door behind her. With no other job prospects, she took the offer and began word processing manuscripts from her kitchen table. And that was the kick-off to Lawrance’s love affair with books, book publishing and book production.
Within three years, she had four permanent employees and access to numerous freelancers and printers. Her business prospered. However, working from home was intruding on Lawrance’s private life. “The disadvantage was you had to keep the house clean and tidy at all times. I couldn’t walk around in my nightdress when I had freelancers working there or when a client happened to come by,” she said.
Agitated by the stress placed on her family by her booming in-home business, Lawrance took her profits from her kitchen table business and, in 1991, purchased the property at 238 Willowdale Avenue for her production house’s permanent location, Heidy Lawrance Associates, which subsequently she rebranded as WeMakeBooks.ca.
In the 90s, WeMakeBooks.ca produced hundreds of books a year.
“Manuscripts just appeared and you did them. But that’s all gone now,” she said. When the new millennium dawned, digital books were itching to displace paper, and big-box retailers were consuming independent bookstores. The headlines in the entertainment sections of the Toronto dailies read like the obituary of prominent Canadians. McArthur and Co., independent publishing house, closed shop in 2013. In October 2012, Douglas & McIntyre, an iconic presence in Canadian literature for 40 years filed for bankruptcy protection. “It’s weird how word-of–mouth gets around. In life don’t burn any bridges or tick anyone off. Have a great attitude. People prefer to be with people who are positive.”
Patrick Crean, publisher and editor of Patrick Crean Editions, HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. and former Editor of Thomas Allen Publishers, recalls Lawrance as being a “key production person” who knows the creative process is messy and a book has to be, “fussed and loved into existence.” WeMakeBooks.ca produced both of Thomas Allen Publisher’s two Giller prizewinners: Austin Clarke’s the Polished Hoe in 2002 and Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan in 2011.
David Chilton, author of the Wealthy Barber says flexibility is important when producing a book. “The print industry is deadline driven. When one misses a deadline you want the people you work with to be flexible without sacrificing quality.”
Lawrance oozes books. Place a book in her hands and she caresses it like a newborn baby. She runs her fingers over the contours and surfaces of the book with the speed, attention and accuracy a blind person does when reading Braille, attentive to every detail. Lawrance is generous in offering her expertise to authors on how to get their masterpieces to press. “Heidy knows how to take a book from A to Z,” Fina Scroppo, author of The Healthy Italian Cooking for the Love of Food and Family.