About Sono Nis
The name of our publishing company is derived from the first book we published, Man in the Glass Octopus. Sono Nis was the name of a character in that book. Sono in modern Italian means "I am"; Nis in Anglo-Saxon means "are not"; so we are and we aren't, and have and have not been since 1968.
Founded by J. Michael Yates, the company began as a literary house specializing in poetry and fiction. Richard Morriss of Morriss Printing bought Sono Nis in 1976 and moved it to Victoria, B.C. He continued to publish poetry and added high-quality regional non-fiction to the list. Many of those early non-fiction works have been reprinted numerous times and are still in print.
When Richard Morriss passed away in 1994, his daughter Diane took over the company and in 2002, Diane and her husband, graphic designer Jim Brennan moved Sono Nis from Victoria to Winlaw, a small community in the Kootenay mountains of southern British Columbia. Sono Nis' office and warehouse are situated on a thirty-three-acre mountainside overlooking the picturesque Slocan Valley.
In 2013, Sono Nis celebrates 45 years of publishing: more than 400 titles, 200 authors, and an award-winning string of poetry and history titles that have been nominated for almost every major Canadian book award. For more than four decades we have been devoted to our authors and committed to supporting Canadian talent and industry - from authors, artists, and photographers to editors, designers, and printers. We publish an average of five to eight books a year and have approximately 140 titles in print.
We are very thankful for the stalwart support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund and the Canada Council for the Arts, and the province of British Columbia through the BC Arts Council and the Book Publishing Tax Credit, Ministry of Provincial Revenue.
Sono Nis: An Established Publishing House Moves to the Kootenays
In the Sono Nis main office entranceway, many handsome and interesting books are lined up on display. Diane Morriss and her husband Jim Brennan both have their workspaces in the recently finished building, and the abounding stacks of cardboard boxes in the shipping area testify to a steady flow of physical product. In the morning, Diane walks from her house across the yard to the office building then takes her dog and cats for a walk down the long driveway. When she comes back in, it's to start organizing the day's work. Her first task is to start doing up the invoices for her daughter Jen, who packs the books for shipping.
"Sono Nis" - from sono, Italian for "I am," and nis, Anglo-Saxon for "are not" - was the name of a strange character in the company's first book. The publishing company with the unusual name was well established long before Diane moved the business to the Slocan Valley. It's a company in full stride. Even as Diane gains her initial confidence in driving our daunting winter roads (this being her first cycle through our seasons), her authors are already starting to visit her here.
Diane's work is an inheritance - not just the legacy of a publishing company but of words, stories, typesetting, and even the actual handwork of making finely bound books. Diane is the granddaughter of Charles Morriss, who was born in Winnipeg in 1907 and moved with his family to Victoria in 1910. At 14, Charlie Morriss began to apprentice in a printer's shop. It was a benevolent trade that eventually enabled him to travel down into the U.S. as he found work in one print shop after another (over 100 in all). After starting his own family, and then later serving in the Navy in World War Two, Charlie opened a print shop on Victoria's Fort Street.
There were lots of different sorts of jobs, but the first book Charlie Morriss printed in his own shop was Who's Who in British Columbia, 1953. By this time, Charlie's son Richard ("Dick") had become a partner in Morriss Printing. Morriss Printing made its mark, becoming the province's best-known printer of books in the 1950s through '70s. The Morriss' turned to publishing limited editions. Sometimes this meant getting their hands into the fine art of book binding. From his initial grounding in the craft of printing, Charlie grew into a highly accomplished, and noted, book designer.
In 1976, eight years after Sono Nis Press had been founded by J. Michael Yates, Dick Morriss acquired the little company that up to this point had specialized in both short fiction and poetry. Dick kept poetry as one mainstay, and added regional non-fiction to his list. He put a focus on the formative decades of the province: the history of the resource economy and the development of the indispensable railroads were a house specialty.
Sono Nis became known for non-fiction that was intensively researched, well written, and beautifully illustrated. Titles like Terry Reksten's Rattenbury and Robert D. Turner's West of the Great Divide and Sternwheelers and Steam Tugs are, still today, library stalwarts. The company's books have always been unabashedly Canadian in subject matter, attitude, and even spelling. Through the years, Sono Nis became one of the B.C.'s leading publishing houses, and a nationally respected small press.
Writers and artists made up Dick Morriss's social circle. Dick also became a patron of the visual arts, as his daughter remembers. "My father rarely took a day off, so needless to say, many of my childhood memories are of playing at 'the shop' and trying to help my father around the office. My dad acquired Sono Nis in 1976, the same year I graduated from high school. Several years later, I ended up working for him - what once had been play as a child became a paying job. I started working in the bindery, learning the craft of making books - in those days, most books were hardbound, book covers were made by hand, and each book was individually sewn on a sewing machine. Then I graduated to typesetting on one of the first computerized typesetters in Victoria - people were fascinated with this new process of producing books - until then, everything had been typeset using hot lead. Soon I discovered my true passion - Sono Nis: I worked at the press until life eventually led me away and marriage and motherhood became my main focus. After a divorce, I found that managing two young children and being the sole supporter of a household left little room to think about what I'd really like to be doing. I was tied to a government job, the benefits being the main reason for going to work every day. My father had been ill for several years, and when he died, my brother, sister and I inherited his two companies that had gone downhill without having him at the helm. My brother sold the printing company (Morriss Printing) and wanted to shut down Sono Nis. I couldn't stand to see the company disappear, so I was determined to give it my best shot.
It was not an easy transition. "I bought a large house in the Rockland section of Victoria and moved myself and Sono Nis into the same quarters, so I could be around my two daughters," Diane says. "After taking over the company, I hadn't realized how much work would be involved in running a publishing business and it was important to me to be with my daughters as much as possible." Diane discovered that it was in the very nature of the work that she always seemed to be behind or up against a tight deadline - trying to get books and catalogues off to the printer, grant applications completed, advertisements written and designed, and books sent off to reviewers and entered into contests. There were meetings with authors, editors, designers and artists, and the every day running of the business: invoices to be done up, orders packed, bank deposits, bills to pay, month-end bookkeeping to be completed, debts to be collected, and royalties and commissions to be calculated. Then there were all of the "submissions" that have to be read and, sigh, rejection letters written. This whirlwind, it turned out, was the norm of the publishing biz.
The company's books have been nominated for almost every award and have won some prestigious ones too. And for more than 30 years, both before and after Diane took over, Sono Nis was a cultural cornerstone in Victoria. But when miserable jolts in the national book-sales and distribution systems jarred Sono Nis not long ago, Diane knew changes needed to be made. "In September 2001, our main distributor, General Distribution, was showing signs of going bankrupt. Many of our accounts were affected by this, and in turn, didn't have the funds to pay us. Needless to say, the company and myself were in debt up to our ears, and I was pretty stressed. Book orders stopped completely after the terrorist attacks and after several weeks of not receiving any orders, I knew I had to make some serious decisions. Jim and I decided to get married and move to his property in the Kootenays.
Shift the scene to the Slocan Valley, where Jim has owned a house and quiet acreage since the '80s. "I first visited the Kootenays in 1999," Diane says, "And it was love at first sight. I felt I had come home. I was amazed at how many incredibly talented and interesting people lived here." It was a season of change, and this past summer, Diane sold her Victoria house and moved home and business to the Valley. And so her company is now operating out of the new quarters up a hilly, curving mountain road in Winlaw. The same communications and transport conveniences that have made careers so much more feasible here for our artists and craftspeople are also well serving the most recent addition to our publishing community.
Diane continues to keep the favourites among the Sono Nis classics in print and carries on with house tradition in the subjects of regional and transportation history. And she's clearly put her own stamp on the business, as well. Juvenile fiction figures strongly in the new catalogue, as does biography (A Curious Life: the Biography of Princess Abkhazi) and fine photography (Morning Solitude). The catalogue actually bristles with intriguing books, the images of the more recent ones made all the more enticing by Jim Brennan's fine cover art.
Why the departure into juvenile fiction? "I was an avid reader as a child," says Diane, "I've always enjoyed juvenile fiction. I think I have a better understanding of it than I do of many other genres we publish." The first Sono Nis project along these lines, by author Nikki Tate, sold well. The diversification seems healthy for a company that is a seasoned veteran in the rugged world of independent Canadian publishing. Unlike Sono Nis, a lot of small presses cannot afford the high cost of advertising, and a lot of smaller bookstores will not stock many books that aren't favoured with the advantages of promotion. No wonder that by time Diane moved the business a number of independent presses had already gone down, or been bought up by larger firms.
And so it goes. Books provide joy to our lives and contribute to the fabric of Canadian culture, but it takes a lot of work and commitment to be a publisher. Diane Morriss's fine new quarters in a lovely spot, up a steep mountain road in Winlaw would seem to offer life-giving balance to publishing's daily grind and occasional rough-and-tumble. And, another way of seeing it: Victoria's loss has been our gain. May the Kootenays bless Sono Nis with the continued good fortune this Canadian institution deserves.
Joel Russ, winter 2003
In the basement of Diane Morriss's house are boxes of books. And boxes and boxes. The 1910 Rockland home doubles as Morriss's office and warehouse for Sono Nis Press, celebrating 30 years of publishing this fall.
The present and past are represented in the basement. Morriss scoots between rows of books, picking them up, flipping through and eventually handing over a sentimental favourite Relationships, a book of portraits by Myfanwy Pavelic.
The page Morriss turns to shows a portrait of Dick and Darryl Morriss, Diane's father and brother. Another portrait of Dick by Pavelic, a close family friend, draws a visitor's eye upon entering Diane's home.
Dick began Morriss Printing with his father Charlie in 1950. In 1976 he bought Sono Nis Press from Michael Yates, who began the press eight years earlier, mainly to print poetry.
"I think what spurred my father on (to buy the press) was that so many people would come to him about printing books that needed a publisher," Diane says. "There weren't a lot of publishers around then."
Small literary presses in Canada burst out of the woodwork in the mid to late '60s. But Diane is right. Not a lot of publishers were picking up books like the first one her father published, Pacific Princesses by Robert Turner, the first of a series of British Columbia historical transportation books.
"He's still with us," Diane says of Turner. She gestures to books lined up on one of the shelves. Trains and ships decorate the covers.
"You think people buy just one of Turner's books and that's it. But they become hooked. They buy one and then they have to have them all."
Transportation books are the press's mainstay. The latest book in the transportation line was just released, Helicopters: The British Columbia Story by Peter Corley-Smith and David N. Parker. A couple of years ago, authors of a book like that may have had to turn to a larger publisher on the mainland.
With the death of Dick Morriss in 1994, serious business decisions had to be made. The printing company was sold by Diane and siblings Darryl and Debbie to former employee Keijo Isomaa. Diane kept Sono Nis Press.
"My brother, as executor of the estate, wanted to shut it down, which was understandable. Nobody was really running (the press) after Dad died and it was this far from going under," Diane grimaces and measures an inch between her fingers.
Dividing her time between a part-time government job and the press, Diane kept Sono Nis running, eventually becoming a full-time publisher about two years ago. Last summer she sold her Victoria home and her shares in the Morriss Printing building downtown to purchase the St. Charles Street home/business.
She introduced juvenile fiction to Sono Nis, through Nikki Tate's StableMates series.
"You just can't make it on poetry, art and regional history; you just can't stay alive," she says. "I want to see our books go all across Canada."
Which is why Sono Nis is publishing a women's safety book in the spring, and why it has hooked up with General Distribution, which handles both the actual shipping of books and money collection.
The ability to collect money from accounts is obviously most important. Without the weight of a larger organization behind it, a small publisher has more difficulty getting paid. The distribution company does take a 14½ per cent cut for the service.
But with the growth of such chain bookstores as Chapters, a distribution company becomes essential for small presses such as Sono Nis.
Figures from the U.S. indicate that 20 years ago independent publishers would get 70 per cent of their sales from independent bookstores or "non-national accounts" and 30 percent from national accounts. Today that figure is reversed making it crucial for small publishers to have access to major chains and wholesalers. By the early 1990s small publishers found themselves spending more time trying to distribute than finding manuscripts.
About five manuscripts a week, mostly poetry, arrive at Sono Nis. Only about 10 titles a year are manageable for the company, although Diane published 14 books in 1998, four of which were reprints.
A friend once told Diane that going into publishing is like flushing money down the toilet, though as a publisher she remains unfazed.
"It's one of the best decisions I've made," Diane says about her leap into Sono Nis. "I feel like I'm doing what I'm meant to do with my life."
Judith Isabella, The Islander
Victoria Times Colonist
December 20, 1998