While it’s true that we’re celebrating ten years in business, the FriesenPress story actually begins over a century ago on the prairies of Manitoba.
Friesens, our parent company, was founded in 1907. From humble beginnings as a general store, Friesens has grown into the premiere short-run book manufacturer in Canada, producing over 5,000 titles and 25 million books every year in its 250,000 sq. ft. facility.
But you don’t become a 112-year-old company by relying on good fortune alone. The print industry entered a time of upheaval and uncertainty in 2008, but Friesens weathered the storm, and today’s readers and self-publishing authors can be thankful it emerged stronger than ever.
We spoke with Friesens CEO Chad Friesen and David Friesen, the son of Friesens’ founder and himself a former CEO, to learn how and why the book industry continues to thrive. Here’s Chad and David on the hard times in the publishing industry that led to FriesenPress’ creation, the importance of eco-printing, and why the printed book persists in the digital age.
Take us back to 2009 when FriesenPress was founded. What was the state of printing and self-publishing industries at that time, from your vantage at Friesens?
Chad Friesen (CF): It’s difficult to talk about 2009 without first discussing 2008. In 2008, the US economy hit the great recession, and it was the first time [Friesens was] really rattled by markets. In the past, our business had navigated some tough times relatively well.
But in 2008 there was a perfect storm in that there were three major challenges facing us: the aforementioned US recession, the rise of China as a printing alternative, and the emergence of eReaders.
Through the early 2000s, China had emerged as a significant low-cost competitor in the book manufacturing space. The third piece of the trifecta was eReaders, which were first introduced when the Kindle was launched in late 2007. We were staring down the technical disruption and were unsure if eReaders were going to have the same effect on the book business that mp3 players had on the music business.
David Friesen (DF): In 2008 and 2009, self-publishing was on an upward trajectory. Being in the book business, we were often approached by people who wanted to print or publish their own book. In fact, we had so many requests over the years that I ultimately wrote a little booklet for authors on what to do and how to do it. The booklet covered things like why you needed an ISBN and how to copyright your book—all the little things would-be authors wouldn’t know.
It was time-consuming for us, but we didn’t want to simply turn them away. I can recall, one year, spending more time with a woman from Winnipeg who was publishing a cookbook than I did with our biggest customer in Toronto! We certainly knew there were lots of people out there with wonderful stories to tell, who needed help sharing them.
CF: We were bracing for the storm. That was one of the reasons why the Friesens leadership group and board was looking down the road and asking, “What if we’re in a slow, steadily declining industry? What are we going to do long term?” Our core business was under siege; we needed to grow in a way beyond books, and that was really the a-ha moment for FriesenPress publishing services.
How has the printing industry evolved in the last decade?
DF: Printing has always been in a state of change. But 2009 doesn’t go back very far—I go back a lot further. When I started in the business, hot metal was used to make type, which was used to print using a letterpress process on paper. Offset came along in the ’60s and ’70s, and that was the primary printing process for many years.
CF: One of the biggest changes in the last ten years has been in digital printing technology. In 2007 and 2008, we were just starting to invest in digital presses. Up until that point, much of the industry was conventional offset printing, and it was basically a high-volume game. You’d have to produce thousands of copies if you wanted a decent unit value per book. In the ten years leading up to 2008, we’d been seeing a slow and steady decline in the quantities ordered per project. Publishers were ordering fewer and fewer copies per title.
Digital technology offered us the opportunity to lower printing costs on a variety of projects. Our yearbook projects were among the first to benefit, becoming much more affordable for schools. And it certainly opened up the door for the breakthrough of self-publishing authors producing 25, 50, 100 books at a time, whereas before you could not afford to produce such low quantities.
Most FriesenPress authors’ books are printed using the digital machines we purchased in 2008. It’s been transformative for the printing industry.
Friesens is known for being very green. Why is eco-printing so important to you?
CF: Our leadership team is wired toward sustainability. Long before anybody in the print business was recycling, Friesens was looking for ways to reduce the amount of waste going to the landfill.
Back in the ’70s, we knew we wanted to renew and recycle as much as we could. Part of that approach comes from our Mennonite influence and is perhaps also influenced by a generation that experienced the Great Depression. Within our local Mennonite culture in Altona, there’s an ethos of ensuring that you’ve got every use out of an item before it goes to waste.
There’s also an influence of the ’30s and the Great Depression—a lifestyle of simplicity. Way back in the past, the culture of Altona was a more minimalistic type of culture, and I think that transcends generations. There’s a kind of affinity to ensure everything is well-used.
We seek to treat the earth sustainably and leave as little waste behind as possible.
Do you have any advice for first-time authors?
CF: If someone was planning to publish for the first time, one of the first things I’d tell them is: “Be patient.” Not in any one aspect, necessarily, but publishing a book is a multi-faceted process, and there’s a real learning curve. You have to be part author, part publisher, part marketer, and part logistics person. FriesenPress helps with a lot of those things, but I think first-time authors need to be prepared to be more than simply an author. They have to put on their business cap and understand what it takes to get a written product to the market. Learning anything new takes time, dedication, and patience.
What is your favourite book that you’ve seen run through Friesens’ printers?
CF: My children grew up reading Love You Forever. Robert Munsch has become somewhat of an institution here at Friesens. We’ve produced millions and millions of copies of the book—most employees who are parents have a deep connection to Love You Forever.
I’m also fond of the projects we do locally. We’ve printed a number of titles about Altona, including a children's book about the town. Those always resonate with me because those books help tell the story of who we are, in a humble way.
As our parent company, Friesens has been there for every milestone along the FriesenPress journey. What’s it been like to chart the growth of FriesenPress, from our start-up days to now?
DF: Tammara has done a fantastic job of taking FriesenPress from a fledgling company to one that has really hit its stride in recent years, becoming a key component of the overall Friesens business. It was our hope that FriesenPress would be as successful as it is but also wasn’t necessarily something we expected when we first got into the business. That’s a real tribute to her and the staff in Victoria.
In our eyes, FriesenPress is a real star.
Looking into the crystal ball, what does the future hold for the printed book and book manufacturing in general?
CF: What I’ve learned over my career is that people don’t buy printed books solely for the content. They buy printed books for an experience.
Digital readers ate up about 20% of the market over the last ten years, but eBook sales have tapered off over the last three years. Physical book sales, meanwhile, have been incrementally growing over the last three years.
If people bought books solely for the content, eBooks and audiobooks would dominate. But it’s clear that people have a tactile relationship with books. They’ve evolved into an outlet to disconnect from our daily lives filled with so much screen time. Grabbing a book and just disconnecting is therapeutic for so many people.
My belief around the future of the book is that it’s here to stay. There’s always going to be a need for the printed book.
David G. Friesen entered the family business (then known as D W Friesen and Sons Ltd) in 1969. He held many different positions in the company before becoming President and CEO of Friesens, a position he held from 1986 to 2007. He was Chairman of the Board until 2017 and is now an honorary director. He currently resides in West Vancouver, British Columbia.
Chad Friesen joined Friesens in 1993. He has held many positions throughout the company, from prepress and service positions to project management, marketing, and leadership roles. He was named to the board of directors in 2015 and was appointed CEO in 2017. Chad and his wife, Gina, reside on a rural acreage outside Altona. In addition to his leadership role at Friesens, Chad is a director on numerous additional boards, both locally and provincially.