Continuing a series of interviews with women in the PublisHer network, Emma House and Abbi-Jean Reid talk to Véronique Fontaine, head of the award-winning Quebec publisher Fonfon
Véronique Fontaine has been leading the award-wining publishing house Fonfon since it was established in 2010. A digital creation specialist, Fontaine is experienced in developing innovative literary projects, such as Fonfon apps and the Curious critters club. Her dedication to the Quebec book industry is well-known, and she holds a number of industry positions: vice-president of the Association nationale des éditeurs de livres (ANEL) and president of its digital, technologic and innovation committee; and member of the Salon du Livre de Montréal corporation. She is also a collaborator on projects carried out by two university research chairs.
Why did you decide on a career in publishing and what was your pathway into the industry?
This is a long story! It is also a sad story that turned out to be a beautiful one. At first, I wanted to be a classical musician and had no plans to work in publishing. My dream was to play clarinet in a professional orchestra. I studied classical music at university, and achieved a Masters degree in clarinet interpretation. However, in August 2007, three months after I finished, a tragedy happened. My father died from a heart attack - a great shock for my family, because he was in very good shape and was only 52 years old.
My father was working as a teacher in a college for future policemen and future investigators. He was himself a retired crime scene specialist, and in 2003 created his own publishing house, Les Éditions André Fontaine, to publish reference books. When he suddenly died, his publishing house already had a good reputation in this field. He was the only one working in the business, and my two sisters and I decided to take it over. I think it was a way to work through our grief, feeling that we could do something for him, keeping him and his name alive in a certain way. This was my introduction to the publishing industry, and I still work with crime scene specialists for Les Éditions André Fontaine today.
The children's books publishing house came about because one of my sisters had the first baby of the family the night before our father died, meaning that they didn't have the chance to meet. So my sister decided to write a story for her son, sharing memories of our father with his grandson. We then decided that we would publish this book for our friends and family. Ninon Pelletier, a talented artist, fell in love with the text and agreed to do the artwork. We met significant people working in the industry who helped us, and a few months later we had a beautiful book in our hands, and 2,000 printed copies - way too many for just our friends and family! By March 2010, we had launched ‘Fonfon' - the new imprint of our publishing house, specialising in picture books for children. A kind of tribute to our father, because Fonfon was his nickname when he was young. From this I discovered my love for working with illustrators and authors, and we continued to publish children's books.
Do you have a career highlight?
I have many accomplishments that I'm quite proud of, because I worked so hard to develop the publishing house! But I think that "Fonfon Interactive", a huge digital production that we launched in 2016, was an important moment in my career. We had special funding to develop this experimental project of book apps, which we wanted to develop into something special in digital publishing. We worked with authors, illustrators, musicians, actors and a big team of digital developers and designers to optimise the user experience. I learnt a lot doing this production, which was the first project of this magnitude in the book industry in Québec. After that, publishers on the board of the association (ANEL) asked me to get involved in the association and proposed I become the president of its digital, technologic and innovation committee. I accepted the offer and I'm still in this role today; in 2019, I became the vice-president of the association.
Who or what have you been inspired by in the publishing industry?
It may sound strange, but my greatest inspiration comes from my musical background. I like to say that working on a text for a picture book is like creating music. Because most of the time the texts will be read out loud, by the parents or the teachers, the musicality of the text is very important. I'm always looking for good rhythm in a sentence, the good intention, the nuance, and those parameters are also important elements in music. I do the same with illustrations. Are they fluid? Do the illustrations have enough space to breathe? Those are competences from my musical background, and they influence my work each day!
Because I was a musician, I know how it is to live as an artist, I know that it's not easy and there are a lot of challenges that form your art. The most important part of my work is to be respectful to the vision of the creators and to offer them the best conditions I can to support and recognise them.
What have you found to be your biggest challenges in publishing?
The first five years were the most difficult. There were challenges everywhere ! Building the reputation of the publishing house, learning how to do the work, understanding the law and managing the copyrights, and finding my place in the publishing industry. At first, my sisters were working in the publishing house with me, but they left in 2012 to work in other fields, so being alone from 2012 to 2016 was definitely the hardest part. Doing the multiple book fairs in Québec, managing the production of the books, managing the finance, working with the distributor. Sometimes, I look back on this period and I don't know where I found the energy to do it all! During this time, I was working with freelancers for the production part, and it was only in 2016 that I hired my first employee. Now, we are still a tiny publishing house, but we are a team of five (all women)!
Tell us more about Fonfon and its interactive publishing
The Fonfon series is designed to stimulate a love of reading in children aged 3 to 8, with colourful, engaging books that educate, enrich and entertain, all made entirely in Québec with eco-friendly materials. Fonfon holds its talented authors and illustrators in high regard and embraces a vision of sustainability, releasing only a limited number of new publications each year to ensure a focus on carefully curated and beautifully crafted stories that will keep appealing to children's imaginations for years to come. We have three collections:
• Stories for laughing: This collection is all about enabling children to experience the sheer pleasure of diving headfirst into a great story.
• Stories for living: A collection of picture books for children that tackle sensitive topics or address thought-provoking themes - these are the kinds of books every good bookstore needs!
• Stories for reading: Stories for Reading is a collection for early readers designed to spark the joy of reading through short stories that leave ample room for the imagination!
We also have La boîte à pitons, which is the digital part of our production. In this collection, we published Fonfon interactive - tablet applications that immerse children in a story and empower them to try their hand at being an author themselves. The apps have been developed for both home and school use. They are available in English and French.
Finally, we publish audiobooks, with well-known actors and composers. This part of my work is an interesting one, for the publisher and musician that I am!
Has the pandemic had an impact on Fonfon - have you started doing anything differently?
The main difference is that my team have worked from home since the beginning of the crisis, so I'm the only one at the office. We had to work differently, like every business, and to develop new ways to communicate daily. We have created more digital and audio products. We also decided to publish more digital content to promote our new releases, and we took part at the book fair on a web platform… well, as everyone has done, I think!
What is the situation for women in publishing in Canada? Are there many in senior leadership positions?
I cannot answer for Canada at large, but for the French part of Canada, the good news is that there are a lot of women in senior leadership positions in our industry. A lot of bright and strong women, and I admire them all! Last summer we encountered a crisis of multiple sexual harassment allegations which led to a movement determined to end harassment in all its forms. It was another big challenge to handle and there were a lot of denunciations on social media.
Being vice president of the ANEL, I was involved in the creation of a new committee of women. I have the privilege to take part in this committee, and I have to say that the group is amazing. We are 11 women from different positions in different publishing houses, and we also work with book industry associations. We discuss solutions to help every French publishing house in Canada to adopt better practices. We have worked on updating the code of ethics, and continuing education programmes, because we want to help every member of the association to be aware and to recognise wrong behaviour more quickly. This group of women is certainly the most inspiring committee I'm involved with. The strength of this group is impressive because it is built on empathy and on respect and because we share the same goal - which is to be part of a systemic change.
We are proud of our profession and we want to make sure that people who work in our industry do it well, in an ethical fashion that reflects our profession.
Do you think there are still barriers for women in the industry?
In Canada, things are getting better for women. It's not perfect, there is still work to be done, but I think that we almost have equal opportunities for men and women in our industry. However, there are still barriers for women, and I often experience situations where being a woman is a disadvantage to me. Simple things like being in a meeting, raising a point and feeling like no one heard what I said. A few minutes later, we hear from a man making the exact the same point as I did, and then all the group reacts and agrees with him.
It seems like a minor detail, but it affects you. And when that kind of situation occurs each day, it can make you feel very sad and angry. So, for me, situations like these are barriers. It's not that you cannot reach your goal as a woman, but it is more difficult to be heard as a woman, so you have to work harder if you want people to recognise your skills and competencies.
What advice would you give to women aspiring to become leaders in the publishing world?
I would say that I strongly believe that there is a place for women to take in the publishing world. For me, leading doesn't mean to take control, it doesn't mean to impose ourselves. It means seeing things from another perspective, it means listening to others' ideas and being curious, it means being respectful of every human being, it means trying new things and making mistakes. Follow your own instincts! Then people will look at you as a leader because you're unique and true, and that is what will inspire writers and publishers to follow you.
Having not expected to go into publishing, do you now see it as a lifetime career?
Definitely yes! I hope that I continue to work in my publishing house for the rest of my life. Each day I learn something new and each day I meet new people I didn't know before and I feel so fulfilled. As with every job some days are more difficult than others, but I am so proud of what I'm doing, and I enjoy it every day.
Photo of Véronique Fontaine by Yan Bleney