It’s 12:30 on a Thursday afternoon in a large Victorian farm house in the village of Camden East, about 40 kilometres northwest of Kingston. The staffers of Harrowsmith and Equinox magazines have filtered down from their offices in the building’s upper floors and are queued up in the communal kitchen, trying to get a glimpse of what’s been prepared for lunch. Bart Robinson, a former mountaineer and Equinox‘s rangy managing editor, ladles some freshly baked casserole onto his plate. “What a surprise,” he says. “It’s fish.” He explains that fish has been on the menu every day for weeks because of the impending publication of a cookbook devoted entirely to fish recipes. Resident gourmet and author Alice Pitt has a captive clientele for taste tests.
Several editors from the two magazines congregate at one of the large wooden tables in the adjacent eating area. Equinox‘s science editor Sylvia Wright-a self-confessed A-type personality who worked previously at Kingston’s The Whig-Standard-gingerly samples her lunch. “I think it’s turbot,” she announces. Harrowsmith‘s managing editor and resident yippie, Wayne Grady shrugs. “All fish tastes the same to me.” Eventually talk turns to the staff’s tomato-growing competition. The rules are simple. Everyone gets a seed from the same lot and whoever’s tomato ripens first is the winner. Chemical fertilizers cannot be used.
The winner of the last contest has not yet come down for lunch. James M. Lawrence-publisher of Equinox, publisher and editor of Harrowsmith (and now also publisher and editor of the recently created AmericanHarrowsmith)-is still sitting in what was once the house’s upstairs parlor, tapping on the keys of his Apple computer. Outside his bay window, the branches of an immense maple sway in the north wind and the swollen Napanee River flows by. Inside, his 13-month-old daughter lies sleeping in her crib.
Despite the framed magazine covers and awards on the walls of his office, it is difficult to reconcile the man at the Macintosh with his accomplishments. Lawrence, 38, is reserved and soft-spoken. His round, bespectacled face, framed by thinning hair and trimmed beard, does not suggest an entrepreneurial cunning or ferocity. Answering questions, he seldom meets the eye of the interviewer. Yet in less than 10 years, this man has founded two of Canada’s largest paid-circulation consumer magazines. In 1984 Lawrence’s Camden House Publishing Ltd., which includes mail-order and book publishing divisions, grossed about $7 million. Last year, he began work on an American version of Harrowsmith that may well prove more lucrative than either Harrowsmith or Equinox.
His achievements have been remarkable in a business where launching a new publication is never easy and the survival rate is low. Partly through choice and partly through circumstance, Lawrence has been confronted by a number of hurdles. He has cleared most of them, thanks to what some admiringly call his determination and what others-such as a former staffer who remembers Lawrence as the “ogre of my life”-call a ruthless singlemindedness. Along the way, he has won and lost more than a few friends, but Lawrence prefers not to dwell on past troubles. “There have been,” he says simply, “some rocky times.”
They began with the first issue of Harrowsmith in May, 1976. As Lawrence remarked in his introductory editorial, the magazine had a ridiculous beginning. He produced it with the help of his then-wife, Elinor, and several unpaid cohorts in the kitchen of a rented farm house in Camden. The charter issue was financed by a $3,500 bank loan using the Lawrences’ car as collateral and a Chargex card with a $2,000 limit. Business was conducted on a party telephone shared with eight other families.
If the start was inauspicious, the neophyte editor’s stated objective that Harrowsmith “serve as the first point of national communication for Canadian thought on alternatives to bigness and urban living” seemed less humble. Whatever, Lawrence perceived a void in the Canadian magazine market and decided to fill it.
The idea of creating a magazine was not a sudden one. Lawrence traces its genesis back to his youth in Binghamton, N.Y., a town about 240 kilometres due south of Kingston. “My father was a voracious reader-the house was always full of magazines.” Despite the early interest and a stint as editor of his high school newspaper, it was not until he had spent four years studying preveterinary medicine at Cornell that he seriously considered a career in journalism. He transferred into communication arts and was rewarded with straight A’s. Then he left school and went to Colombia as a Peace Corps volunteer.
He was accompanied by Elinor-they had met as teenagers at his parents’ cottage in Ontario and married while the two were at Cornell. During their two-year sojourn in the Andes, they produced a weekly mimeographed newspaper for local farmers written in Spanish-a second language for both the Lawrences and their readers.
Lawrence returned from South America with new enthusiasm for periodical publishing and enrolled in a master’s program in magazine journalism at Syracuse University, where he became the first student assistant director of publications and editor of the alumni magazine. He resigned when the university administration censored a small story about racism at the university.
When he graduated in 1974, husband and wife headed north to Ontario. “I’d always liked the people when I’d been there in the summers and we just decided to go,” Lawrence remembers. He spent several months looking for work and finally his persistence with The Whig-Standard in Kingston won him a job as a police reporter. Elinor found work as a teacher.
Newsroom associates remember Lawrence as being shy, but determined. After finishing beat assignments, he would work late on his own stories. Editors were impressed. Little more than a year later, he became what he calls the paper’s only investigative reporter. But even then Lawrence felt reined in. “I remember writing a long piece on unemployment. When it ran, the Whig sold out. The next day, I was assigned to cover a story about a litter of abandoned kittens.”
At 29, Lawrence decided the time was right to launch his magazine. He named it after the village of Harrowsmith (population 909), which is not far from Kingston. Its first 64-page issue included articles on growing your own food, solar heating and the questionable nutritional value of fast foods. Though only 707 people paid in advance for the charter issue, Lawrence printed 25,000 copies and sent most of them to Canadian subscribers to the American Organic Gardening and Farming magazine.. Afterward, he had only enough money left to refund the 707 subscriptions if the magazine were to fold.
What would he have done if Harrowsmith had failed? “I’m not really sure. I’ve never had to answer the question.” By the end of its first year, the magazine had a paid circulation of 41,000. A year later, the number of subscribers had more than doubled. Despite the magazine’s espousal of all things rural and its back-to-the-land philosophy, early readership surveys revealed that subscribers were actually evenly divided between rural and urban areas. Harrowsmith offered a refreshingly simple alternative to those not fully enamored of their ways of life.
The editorials about life behind the scenes at the magazine suggested a rustic existence and appealed to readers as much as the articles did. When Harrowsmith moved from the farm house into an old bank building in nearby Camden East (population 157), Lawrence wrote of the trials of producing a national magazine in rooms previously occupied by pigeons. Readers learned that back issues were stored in a granary; that the staff had to make do with the washrooms at a Texaco station across the street; that village postmistress Hope Hartman was singlehandedly coping with the magazine’s increasing mail. Lawrence played up the bucolic ambience. As former staffer John Barber says, “The Harrowsmith mythology was a personal mythology. It was James Lawrence. It was very useful to him as a mechanism for retaining reader loyalty.”
Allegiance was further secured by editorials discussing Harrowsmith‘s intentions and policies. When the magazine’s first automobile ad resulted in a spate of angry letters, Lawrence provided the readers with a list of his advertising guidelines: “No cigarettes. No liquor …. No advertising that is in bad taste.” By inviting comment on such issues, he created a strong bond between the magazine and its readers. Harrowsmithenjoyed an enviable renewal rate of 85 per cent (circulation directors in Canada feel they’re doing well if their renewal rates are 55 to 60 per cent) and subscribers wrote that they considered the magazine to be as much theirs as his.
Just as readers were attracted, so too were some magazine professionals excited by the possibility of something new and different. “The whole situation down there was pretty intense,” says former assistant editor David Lees of Toronto, one of several to escape the confines of slick city journalism. “It was so far from [Toronto]. You had this enclave of creative people dedicating all their energy to the project. Most of us were rebelling against the Toronto magazine establishment. Except James. He is not a rebel by nature. He has never really been defying anyone.”
The result of the hard work-which included investigative and analytical pieces-was critical acceptance from the magazine world on which some had turned their backs. At the 1977 National Magazine Awards,Harrowsmith received the Director’s Award for Outstanding Achievement. Many other accolades were to follow.
But Harrowsmith‘s survival was not yet certain. During its formative years, the magazine grew beyond its means. Its production quality improved, its frequency jumped from six to eight times a year in 1978 and the number of pages doubled. But advertising did not keep pace. Some advertisers were reluctant to invest in so young a magazine; others were deemed unacceptable by Lawrence. As a result, Harrowsmith operated dangerously close to extinction. Staffers worked long hours for salaries, or “compensations” as Lawrence calls them, that were low. The magazine scraped by thanks to money from sales of The Harrowsmith Reader-a collection of early articles.
By June, 1979, however, the magazine was on much surer footing. The advertising, which Lawrence says “just started to come in,” increased dramatically to the point where it accounted for almost one-third of total revenue. Paid circulation was moving beyond 120,000 and The Harrowsmith Reader was continuing to sell well. As the staff neared 30 in number, Lawrence decided to find larger quarters. The new home would be the Williams’ Place-to be renamed Camden House-a renovated three-storey farmhouse overlooking the Napanee River. Harrowsmith has been there ever since. Lawrence has not.
To the most prescient of Harrowsmith readers, the first sign of trouble in paradise was the slight change in the magazine’s masthead of October, 1980. Thirty earlier issues had listed Elinor Lawrence as an associate editor. But that month the name changed to Elinor Campbell Lawrence. Three issues later, Elinor, who had long stood atop the list of associate editors, was dropped to the bottom. When the magazine hit the newsstands in August, 1981, Elinor’s name was nowhere to be seen.
Readers with an eye for such detail and a penchant for melodrama might have surmised that all was not well between Elinor and James. They would have been correct-the Lawrences had separated in July, 1980. But few would have guessed that the disintegrating marriage was just the tip of the iceberg, an iceberg that would nearly sink a publishing company just learning to stay afloat.
When Camden House Publishing Ltd.-Harrowsmith‘s parent company-was formed in 1977, federal regulations required that at least 75 per cent of the shares of a Canadian magazine be Canadian-owned. Because Elinor was Canadian she held 82½ per cent of the shares and was the company’s sole director. The couple agreed James would be given controlling interest when he became a Canadian citizen.
Before the separation, Elinor had played a minor role in the actual production of Harrowsmith. For the magazine’s first 18 months, she had continued teaching to provide what she called “the only reliable source of income” for her husband and herself. Later, she worked on the publication of Camden House’s first children’s book, The Mare’s Egg.
When James became a Canadian citizen in November, 1980, three months after the split, Elinor transferred 32½ per cent of the shares to him. But she decided against giving her husband the extra one per cent he needed for control; she wanted to sell her shares to James and thought she could get a better price if she negotiated from strength.
At about this time James began planning the birth of a new bimonthly publication to complementHarrowsmith. As he was later to write, he wanted to create “the most beautiful magazine in Canada… a magazine that captures the imagination of its readers, a magazine that covers this country and the world as no Canadian magazine has ever done before.” He would name it Equinox, after the times of the year that “are pivotal points… the most important turning points.” Not surprisingly, when Equinox Publishing Ltd. was formed, James was the sole owner.
The large red brick and granite farmhouse became the home of two separate publishing companies. James and the staff worked on both publications. Elinor continued work on The Mare’s Egg. As the months passed, she became increasingly anxious over the sale of her shares. By August, 1981, negotiations between Elinor and James had broken down and they seldom spoke. Elinor worried that the assets of the company she was trying to sell-already diminished by a postal strike-were being decimated by her husband’s use of staff and facilities for his new venture. She was also upset that he had cut Harrowsmith back to a bimonthly. On September 11, she wrote James saying that “in view of the shaky financial position of Camden House, I cannot let any more money go to Equinox.”
Her ultimatum came at a time when James was having difficulty arranging financing for his new publication. Neither the federal or provincial governments nor the banks would give him a startup loan. When Gordon and Gotch (Canada) Ltd., his newsstand distributors, agreed to lend him up to $350,000, he told Elinor he would have the money for Equinox by December 3, 1981.
Elinor was not satisfied. On November 18, she sued him for $129,138 for the use of Harrowsmith facilities, staff and assets. Fearing that he “was in a position to ruin our company,” she gave him 24 hours to agree to concentrate his efforts on Harrowsmith. He did not respond. The next day, James was fired and the locks on Camden House were changed.
Only two weeks before the charter issue of Equinox was to go to press, James and about half the staff-they had quit to join him-were looking for a new home. They settled in an old school house across the river and the Texaco station was once again pressed into occasional service. Despite the disruption, the first issue ofEquinox came out on schedule in early December.
It was an immediate success as Lawrence had predicted. Much more sophisticated planning had gone into its launch than that of its predecessor. A direct-mail sales blitz had helped the first issue net a paid circulation of 116,000. A year later, the figure had climbed to almost 150,000. Advertising revenue was twice what had been predicted-the magazine grossed $3 million in its first year.
Once again, James had met a demand. Equinox-subtitled “the magazine of Canadian discovery”-contained stories on travel, science and geography and was labelled Canada’s National Geographic. James says that its creation was in part motivated by Geographic‘s Canadian circulation of 844,000. Equinox is similar in appearance-glossy, perfect-bound (like a book) and full of high-quality photographs on premium paper. It was selected magazine of the year by the National Magazine Awards Foundation in 1982.
On the other side of the village, Harrowsmith continued under new management. Elinor imported experienced magazine staffers and assured readers in her first editorial that “changes in management in no way signal a change in philosophy.” Joann Webb-formerly a senior editor at Maclean’s and managing editor at Toronto Life-was hired as the new editor.
Webb says she was surprised by the dearth of editorial material awaiting her. “It seemed to me that the magazine was in a very precarious position. It’s well-known that when there’s a birth, the other sibling suffers. Such was the case with Harrowsmith. But that doesn’t mean that James couldn’t have pulled it off.”
Despite a reduced staff, the transition under Webb was a smooth one-she retained Lawrence’s editorial philosphy. Not surprisingly there were readers who wrote that the magazine had gone downhill under Webb. But an equal number felt it had improved.
Gossip travelled back and forth across the village, but there was little interaction between the two magazines. Then, on December 2, 1982, the staff of both magazines came together again, in the Frontenac County courthouse in Kingston. Since Elinor’s initial suit, James had countersued for $165,200, claiming he had been underpaid at Harrowsmith.
Spectators will long remember the trial. “There was unbelievable bitterness,” says Whig-Standard reporter Ian Robertson. “Harrowsmith staff sat on one side of the room and Equinox staff sat on the other.” For Joann Webb, the proceedings were a wrenching experience. “If only James and Elinor had been able to keep their emotions more in check, it might have been easier.” Though originally expected to be a two-day trial, it stretched over four days. Supreme court Justice Richard Trainor urged the “two very talented and intelligent people” to settle out of court rather than force him to make a judgment.
When the proceedings came to a close, the decisive evidence was Elinor’s admission that an agreement had existed whereby James was to have received a controlling interest. This prompted Trainor to grant a motion, introduced by James’ lawyer, asking that James be given control. The trial was adjourned until January.
It never did reconvene. An out-of-court settlement was announced on Christmas Eve. James bought his wife’s shares for an undisclosed amount, saying only that it was more than he had been suing her for. Both claimed to be happy with the settlement. For James, it was the end of “the year of living strangely.” It was also time to put Harrowsmith “back on track.”
When James and his staff returned to Camden House, all involved knew changes would be made. He envisioned once again sharing staff to save an estimated $400,000 a year. Layoffs were inevitable.
Joann Webb-who had just been named publisher-was the first to go. “I had hoped that I might have been able to stay on as editor, with James as publisher,” she says. “But he felt the need to take control of everything himself. I wasn’t fired and I didn’t resign.”
During the next few months, several employees who had been hired in James’ absence or who had not accompanied him across the river also left. James says they were not fired. Others disagree. Two ex-employees-including long-time staffer Tom Pawlick who had written an award-winning investigative piece on Three Mile Island-have since sued for wrongful dismissal.
One former staffer says James “went out of his way to disown the previous magazine.” Though the February/ March 1983 issue had already gone to the printers, James pulled Joann Webb’s editorial. In the next issue, he told readers of his involuntary exile in an editorial that some members of the Toronto magazine community considered tasteless. He wrote of “the editorial hoppers [that] were left empty” and of the “editor’s mailbox … found to be festering with discontent.” He reassured readers that an “unexpected and unsettling chapter is now closed forever.” Joann Webb thinks it was little more than a case of “sour grapes. But I can understand it. It was a magazine that he had given birth to.”
Though some might have argued that he was already sitting pretty, Lawrence decided to create still another magazine-this time in the United States. An American consultant, says Lawrence, “advised me that my operation was like a two-legged stool-it needed another leg.
“For some reason, there suddenly seemed to be a window open for a magazine like Harrowsmith in the States. No one else was doing anything like what we were doing and we thought we might try.” Lawrence again crossed the border, this time as a Canadian heading south. By last July he had set up the offices for the American Harrowsmith in a renovated timber-frame creamery in Charlotte, Vt.-a one-stoplight town “very similar” to Camden East. “It’s a little more humble than Camden House,” says Lawrence, who can see the Adirondacks when he looks west from the building over Lake Champlain. “We just painted over the $2.98 duct panelling…but it’s utilitarian.” The building (soon to be part of a new mythology?) houses the offices of 15 full-time and six part-time employees. The magazine’s managing editor, Tom Rawls, was lured from Country Journal and Craig Neal, the advertising director, was plucked from Rodale’s Organic Gardening.
Barry Estabrook, the editor of Equinox, says the new magazine “hit the ground with both feet running.” Lawrence agrees that the launch has been-for him-unusually smooth. In September, 400,000 test flyers were sent to potential readers whose names were culled from about 75 mailing lists with nearly 13 million names. Lawrence hoped to attract 16,000 subscribers and got 22,000. He decided to go ahead with production in October, and continued with a series of mailings. By the end of November the magazine had 38,000 subscribers. A huge mailing in December to just over 1 million people boosted subscriptions even more, so that for the first issue, January/February 1986, subscriptions totalled more than 160,000, with 100,000 copies going to newsstands. Estabrook guesses that paid circulation might eventually climb as high as 500,000.
Lawrence says the advertising response has also been enthusiastic, at least when compared with the response to the early Canadian Harrowsmith. The first 160-page issue has 54 pages of advertising, “including some big names,” though this is still low by industry standards. He maintains the magazine will share the advertising guidelines of its Canadian counterpart. It will also share the same logo, the same printer and some articles. Most importantly, says Lawrence, it will share the same philosophy.
That philosophy is still very evident almost 125 kilometres west of Charlotte, where the Camden House staffers continue to put together Harrowsmith and Equinox. No longer young enough to be considered upstarts, they still see themselves as refugees from the “magazine mafia.” For them, the paradise that once seemed in jeopardy has been regained. The newer recruits-like their predecessors almost 10 years ago-talk of the “family feeling” behind the magazines, of the “common spirit” and the “shared vision.”
But the vision still belongs primarily to Lawrence. Though he recently moved to Vermont, he continues to commute regularly back and forth. (He lives in Vermont with his new wife, Alice-a long-time employee and now production manager of the American Harrowsmith-whom he married in 1984, and their daughter, Bayley. James and Elinor, who worked as a teacher in the Northwest Territories after leaving Camden East, were divorced in 1983. As Wayne Grady acknowledges, “James is the leader.” He has led his followers to financially green pastures. Equinox and Harrowsmith are now Canada’s sixth- and seventh-largest paid-circulation consumer magazines, with circulations of about 162,000 and 153,00 respectively. They have won more than 100 awards between them; the framed certificates cover the walls of Camden House. Recent additions to the collection lie stacked on the floor.
Both magazines are turning profits and the book business is, according to Lawrence, “growing briskly.” Vice-president, advertising, Al Zikovitz, who works in the company’s Toronto office, says the combined ad revenue of the magazine fell by eight per cent during 1985. Most Canadian magazines saw a similar decline, he says, “But I think it’s only a short-term thing.” He estimates Equinox‘s ads totalled $1.2 million and Harrowsmith‘s about $850,000.
Lawrence does not like to discuss Camden House Publishing Ltd.’s financial status. But general manager Brian Patterson says that in 1984 the company had a net profit of about six per cent of gross revenue, or between $400,000 and $500,000. What’s the company worth? “I’m told by U.S. consultants that they could obtain seven times the earnings-so at this point about $3.5 million.”
Despite the value of the operation, Lawrence’s salary was still only $30,000 in 1984. He no longer works 16-hour days, but is still “very busy.” Besides acting as publisher and sometimes editor of his magazines, he is also the chairman of the Council of Canadian Magazines. The 17-magazine member council was formed in 1983 by Saturday Night publisher John Macfarlane, Key Publishers president Michael de Pencier and Lawrence as an alternative to Magazines Canada, which they felt did not adequately represent their interests on industry issues.
Within the industry, Lawrence’s willingness to take gambles has earned him respect. “I admire his attitude,” says Macfarlane, “his entrepreneurship. He has had the courage to start magazines which really rely on consumer acceptance.”
Joann Webb, now managing editor of Canadian Business, says it is difficult not to respect Lawrence, whatever his drawbacks may be. “He’s not a perfect human being. He’s not so good at dealing with people. But I think he’s very good at what he does. He’s a man capable of vision and he has a lot of drive and faith. Without these he would never have been able to do what he’s done.”
Now that the third leg of his stool is in place, the visionary says he has no other plans for new publications. “I’ve got enough going right now,” he insists. But those who know him well probably wouldn’t bet on it.