Over the past 40 years Diana Douglas has built Self-Counsel Press, a publishing house that now boasts 300 how-to titles. Her next challenge: how to bring it online .
After navigating the rain-slicked roads of North Vancouver, I turn off the main drag only to find myself immediately surrounded by loading docks and transport trucks. This well-hidden industrial corridor is the last place you’d expect to find the office of Diana Douglas, CEO and co-founder of one of B.C.’s most prolific book publishers. But here, far from the glass-and-steel towers of Toronto, or even downtown Vancouver, Douglas’s Self-Counsel Press has flourished.
A lean outfit with only 11 full-time employees, the 40-year-old publishing house specializes in do-it-yourself guides ranging from Starting a Successful Business in Canada, to Start and Run an Adult Boutique (a title that, unsurprisingly, is not a great seller in the more conservative states south of the border). However, with a big smile Douglas is quick to point out that the company’s most popular publications are not nearly as racy. “We’re divorce, death and taxes,” she sums up.
Focusing on untapped markets from the outset, in 1971 Douglas and Jack James, at the time an articling lawyer, published a do-it-yourself divorce guide. Since then, Self-Counsel has published approximately 12 new titles every year, continually adding to its current backlist of 300 titles. Not bad for a company that started in Douglas’s own New Westminster bookstore.
Douglas finds herself squarely at a crossroads of generational change, and nowhere is this more evident than on her large wooden desk, a remnant from an era when inboxes overflowed with paper. Amid the clutter of magazines, papers and books sits a new e-reader that could probably hold the entire contents of her office on a chip the size of a thumbnail.
Still a firm believer in the power of print – she reads all of her daily newspapers in their paper-and-ink form – Douglas is acutely aware of the importance of digital publishing. With stores like Chapters Indigo increasing the floor space dedicated to non-book merchandise such as games, photo albums and toys, the time when digital publishing was a choice rather than a necessity has long passed. However, Douglas has been cautious as the industry moves into digital publishing. “We’ve been slower off the mark than other people because we wanted to control it ourselves,” she notes. Wanting to get it right the first time helps explain why Self-Counsel is only now releasing its first wave of e-books, upwards of 30, through online distributors including Apple and Barnes & Noble. Douglas plans to jump wholly into digital publishing, saying that the transition is “extremely close for us now.”
Douglas also finds herself squarely between generations in a very personal sense. Her father, Jim Douglas, co-founder of Douglas & McIntyre publishers, is widely recognized as a patriarch of print publishing in B.C., while her son, 33-year-old Tyler Douglas, just might represent the future of her company.
Despite the similarity of their ventures, the father and daughter duo have kept a surprising professional distance from one another, with Diana guessing that she has entered the offices of Douglas & McIntyre (from which her father has retired) maybe three times over the years. She admires the kind of publishing her father did, which involves taking huge risks in the hopes that a title will catch fire with the public, but says that her approach to business could not be more different. “They have winners and they have losers,” she says. “I’ve never been that kind of a gambler.” Self-Counsel only publishes titles that Douglas is confident will sell out.
Douglas says her three children “avowed that they wanted nothing to do with the industry.” However, they did not all escape the publishing bug, and her youngest son, Tyler Douglas, came on board as Self-Counsel’s marketing manager in 2010. Publishing, it would seem, has become a reluctant family business for the Douglas clan.
As for the road ahead, Douglas is cautiously optimistic about the future of publishing, even if she doesn’t know what that future will look like. “People will always want information,” she says, “but the business model for most publishers, well, we’re all still searching for it.” When it comes to Self-Counsel Press, Douglas is open to whatever comes her way, hinting that selling a partial, or even a majority, share of the company is never off the table. But ever the flexible entrepreneur, she’s fast to add, “If that doesn’t come up, who knows? My youngest could be trucking along for another 40 years.”
Before we leave her office, Douglas proudly shows me a vestige of the print world she’s so committed to: a 1988 edition of BCBusiness magazine that just so happens to include a feature about her. Looking at the weathered magazine, it’s hard not to think of all that has changed in Douglas’s life, and the life of her industry, over these last 23 years.