Publisher Erin Klassen is one of those people that you find yourself immediately drawn to. I first met Toronto-based Klassen through her independent publishing company, With/Out Pretend when she held an event titled UNRESOLVED FEELINGS. The event was inspired by one of the independent books her company had just released titled, Portraits (2017) at Burdock Brewery. The room held space for women and gender non-conforming folks to share their stories while inviting everyone to feel connected and engaged with one another.
Since that day, I’ve been following Klassen and have taken notice of her trajectory within the Toronto’s independent publishing scene and storytelling community. Simply put, she is a force to be reckoned with. She has the ability to connect people and find the emotional essence of stories while keeping people safe and comforted. Her presence is powerful and uplifting, which is why many people seem to want to work with Klassen at her latest project, a zine called The Vault. We decided to sit down with Klassen for a quick #FounderFiles Q&A to ask about what she does and what makes her tick.
Edit Seven: Tell us about your business, what do you do?
Erin Klassen: With/out Pretend is a publisher and producer of stories — we’re specifically committed to sharing the kinds of stories that don’t normally get a platform or stage, told by the voices who don’t often get a space to share their voice, like women and non-binary folks. We like to think we’re in the “big feelings” business. We host events, publish collaborative books, and we launched a magazine called The Vault last August. We’re a team of 12, and my role is founder and Editor-In-Chief.
E7: How did you start your business? What inspired you to start?
EK: I started really small, self-publishing my own work and collaborating with local artists I knew. As a writer with a major hangover from academia, I felt like a writing career wasn’t something that was accessible to me unless I got my MFA. I felt there wasn’t an obvious path in Canada for writers and artists like me — emerging voices that had important stories to tell — but weren’t really taken seriously by the “old boys club” of the existing literary community. I guess I always had a vision of the long-term, that With/out Pretend could be wider reaching and produce multiple projects per year. The goal was always to work with as many writers and artists as possible. I started with the folks I knew and we grew organically from there.
E7: Why do you love what you do?
EK: There’s magic in the editorial process for me. I am a sucker for a beautiful sentence and I love working with writers to help them realize their work. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve cried during the final proofing stage of a story, when we’ve laid everything out with the art that was created especially for the story, seeing it come together feels so special, and all the hours of blood and sweat feel worth it.
E7: What have been some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned from running your own business?
EK: The most important thing I’ve learned about running a business is that you need to pick a few things you really care about and focus on doing those few things well. You might have a hundred great ideas, but you can’t do it all. I’ve learned the importance of saying no, even when it’s to myself! I remind myself that if an idea is good enough, or right for the business, we can always wait and try it next year.
E7: Did you have any mentors when you were first starting out?
EK: I’m the kind of person who needs to constantly bounce my ideas off of others, so there have been dozens of people who I can thank for how this organization has taken shape. I have so many friends who encouraged me to keep going and to listen to my gut. I also drew a great deal of inspiration from indie publications like Little Brother (by Emily Keeler and Charles Yao) and Future You by Nada Alic and Andrea Nakhla. They seemed uncompromising in their vision, you got a sense of confidence and honesty the moment you opened those publications. That was inspiring.
E7: Do you think there is a problem with women’s media, or with media in general? How are you hoping to change that?
EK: I have always felt that worlds of “women’s media” and “respected lit” are at odds in people’s minds. I am interested in creating a space where a woman’s “personal story” is not automatically seen as trite. There’s a stigma associated with women’s feelings — and to be honest, I often worry that our way of framing With/out Pretend and The Vault as “women’s stories” or loudly declaring that “feelings can be art” makes it harder for some people to take it seriously. But you have to show up in the world as yourself — it’s too exhausting to be something you’re not! So my hope is that we outlast everyone’s expectations. That we remain focused on the goal of taking women’s experiences seriously and slowly changing minds. We’ll have to let the work, the books, the events, do the talking. Snazzy marketing copy or bandwagon hashtags won’t matter 10 years from now, or 50. But the work will remain, and it will tell an important story.
E7: Is there anything you wish you’d known before starting your business?
EK: Not really! I think you just have to jump in and learn as you go. This approach has always served me — I learn at least a dozen new things every day, because life (and business) happens in motion!
E7: Can you share with us any struggles you’ve had about living up to other people’s expectations or even your own?
EK: Ouf. I’m really hard on myself, I always have been. To battle self-doubt and self-criticism I try to remember all of the things we’ve accomplished instead of dwell on all the things we haven’t done yet. A good example is that we started hosting events at Tranzac because it is a more accessible space than the venues we’ve held past events, and meeting the access needs of our attendees (wheelchair access, more seating for attendees, gender-neutral washrooms) is important to us as an organization. But the current venue isn’t perfect either — the stage doesn’t have a wheelchair ramp, so this limits who we can invite to tell a story at an event. We’re also actively seeking funding to be able to provide ASL interpretation at our events, but this is a cost we can’t cover without grant money or finding a sponsor. Balance is the key, in my experience — it’s important to set goals, and plan towards making improvements, but equally important to remember how far we’ve come from where we started.
E7: What is a challenge you’d tell future entrepreneurs to prepare for?
EK: The only way to survive as an entrepreneur is to be able to adapt, or pivot. Life doesn’t take a straight path and neither will your business. You need to practice self-compassion, so you can forgive yourself for failing. You will fail, things will go wrong, but successful people get back up and try again.
E7: How do you stay organized, balanced and motivated?
EK: I am so lucky that With/out Pretend is not just me, shouting into the void — I now have a whole team of fantastic women who help keep me accountable and motivate me to stay organized and moving forward. Balance? That’s tougher! I work every day of the week, but I make sure to leave room to take a walk in the afternoon or curl up on the couch with a book for an hour. I like to wake up really early to get work done so that I have time later in the day if I need to shake it all off for a bit, and take some time for self-care.
E7: What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
EK: My friend Jessika Hepburn who is a writer and community organizer in Nova Scotia introduced me to the wisdom of Margaret Wheatley. I think everyone should keep the poem “Turning To One Another” by their bed, or tape it up beside their bathroom mirror. Wheatley says, “Trust that meaningful conversations can change your world.” It keeps me going!
(Story by Contributing Editor, Ama Scriver; product image photography by Angela Lewis)