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Home and away: the state of Prairie publishing

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(illustration: Emily Taylor)

(illustration: Emily Taylor)

 

For publishers and writers on the Prairies, opportunities have never been more plentiful. But a persistent inability to catch the attention of media east of Manitoba continues to pose a problem

In the history of Prairie publishing, September 1985 is a signal date. That month saw the publication of The Canadian Encyclopedia, a hugely ambitious project spearheaded by author, bookseller, and activist Mel Hurtig under his eponymous publishing imprint.

One of Alberta’s native sons, Hurtig had made a name for himself as a bookseller in Edmonton, opening the first Hurtig Books location in 1956. When he sold the chain of stores in 1972 to concentrate on building Hurtig Publishers, many people thought he was crazy. Publishing, conventional wisdom had it, occurred in Toronto, with only a very few small presses – Oberon in Ottawa, Talon  Books in Vancouver – daring to try their luck elsewhere. But almost no one to that point had been foolhardy enough to attempt to make a splash by publishing in the Prairies.

In his book The Perilous Trade, Roy MacSkimming quotes John Gray, at the time president of Macmillan Canada, who advised Hurtig not to forgo bookselling for publishing, especially while based in Alberta. “All the best editors, printers, designers, the chain and department store buyers are in Toronto,” Gray said. “It would be impossible to develop a national house successfully in Edmonton.”

As it happened, Hurtig was on the cusp of a mini-boom in 1970s Prairie publishing. Thistledown Press was established as a poetry publisher in Saskatoon in 1975, the same year Coteau Books appeared in Moose Jaw. The following year, Turnstone Press was founded as a chapbook poetry publisher in Winnipeg. Edmonton’s NeWest Press followed in 1977. These houses provided a home base for writers from central and western Canada to place their work without having to kowtow to the edicts of the big guns in Toronto. Poets and writers from the Prairies suddenly had an avenue to publish that would allow them to remain in the region and not capitulate to outsiders’ demands for compromise or change.

But it was the 1985 publication of The Canadian Encyclopedia that really blew the doors off. Hurtig, a lifelong economic nationalist, became a cultural nationalist by providing domestic readers with an authoritative, multi-volume reference work by and about Canadians. The ambitious print run of 154,000 sets of encyclopedias, which MacSkimming calls “unquestionably the largest book printing contract ever undertaken in Canada” to that point, was welcomed by critics and the public, reaped enormous financial rewards for Hurtig, and served as a powerful rejoinder to Gray’s dismissive assessment of the potential to run a profitable publishing house out of the Albertan capital.

Hurtig’s success proved that savvy, chutzpah, and a sharp publishing sense were not geographically confined to those parts of the country east of the Manitoba-Ontario border, an idea that has taken root in the years since. Today, the Prairies play host to any number of different houses – both trade and academic – producing a vast array of work. The literary presses of the 1970s continue to publish, and have been augmented by other, younger houses like Regina’s Hagios Press, Winnipeg’s Enfield & Wizenty (an imprint of Great Plains Publications), and Calgary’s Freehand Books. Writing and publishing on the Prairies has never been more fertile, or more diverse.

So why does the bulk of it still continue to fly under the radar of most readers outside the region?