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Prairie publisher finds niche in mysteries and thrillers

l to r: Anthony Bidulka, D.K. Stone, Netta Johnson, Sandra Kelly, and Anna Marie Sewell, 2023 Calgary launch

A love of historical fiction was the inspiration behind a Prairie publisher now winning awards for its mysteries and thrillers.

In 2014, Netta Johnson and Julie King-Yerex founded Stonehouse Publishing in Edmonton based on their mutual love of Regency and Victorian literature, and they were originally looking to publish literary historical fiction (think Pride and Prejudice and no zombies). But their scope soon expanded, says Johnson, the publisher/managing editor, as her own reading habits evolved: “I was immersed in classics of historical fiction. But then I started gravitating to mysteries, thrillers, and socially conscious novels. It was a progression.” And while the press publishes authors from everywhere in Canada, there’s also a focus on voices from Alberta and Western Canada. 

“We pick books because they’re great books,” says Johnson, describing her focus on readable, literary works, including light, comic novels and historical fiction (along with reprints of classics by authors such as Fanny Burney and Elizabeth Gaskell). “I usually read the first 30 pages and ignore the cover letter. Later it’s like, okay, who wrote this great story? Then I’ll read the cover letter.”

The diversification in publishing led to two of Stonehouse’s books winning Crime Writers of Canada awards this year: Saskatoon author Joanne Jackson’s second novel, A Snake in the Raspberry Patch, won the 2023 Howard Engel Award for Best Crime Novel Set in Canada and veteran author Anthony Bidulka’s novel Going to Beautiful, set in a small, snow-swept Saskatchewan town, won the 2023 Best Crime Novel. “There were two books from the Prairies, from the same small publisher, winning awards. We were stoked. We were really, really excited,” Johnson says. Bidulka sent her a photo of himself celebrating with sparkling wine: “I thought, I need to go buy more cava.” Bidulka’s novel also won an award at the Independent Publisher Book Awards (IPPY), and has garnered attention for being one of the first thrillers (and probably a Canadian first) with a transgender main character who is a detective.

The publishing house is a labour of love for Johnson and it relies largely on freelance and contract help for editing and design, including Lisa Murphy Lamb, the press’s first author and the director of Calgary’s former literary community space Loft 112, who joined the ownership team in 2019. “It’s hard for a new press that didn’t start 20 years ago. It feels like you have to be perfect and do four jobs perfectly,” Johnson says. Stonehouse faces the same struggles as other small independent publishers, working to secure federal grants and become financially stable in order to expand the list and eventually afford a dedicated salesperson and publicist. Stonehouse is a member of the LPG, with sales representation by Canadian Manda and distribution by LitDistCo. Occasionally Johnson uses a New York–based publicist for the U.S. market. 

After a few years with Stonehouse, King-Yerex left the active running of the publishing house (she remains a minority owner and occasionally edits) to complete an English degree and join Glass Bookshop, the indie bookstore that opened in Edmonton in 2019. Her ties to the publisher mean Glass Bookshop has become the bookseller for Stonehouse’s launch parties in Edmonton for its annual slate of four to five titles, all of which are published in the spring. 

Stonehouse’s sales locally have been built through various strategies, including bundling the season’s books together with a tote bag at the launch parties: “It’s so people buy more books than just the one their friend wrote,” King-Yerex explains. 

One unusual feature of Stonehouse is the community it creates among the cohort of authors published each year. That community is deliberately fostered via multiple Zoom calls over the year, which serve to communicate necessary information about schedules, the publishing process, and promotion, but has also led to friendships among the authors, peer mentoring, and mutual support. “In 2022, the authors gelled and the novels were great. It was lovely to see them touring together and enjoying each other’s company,” Johnson says. The 2022 alumni even took the initiative to arrange their own author events in Saskatoon and Vancouver, beyond the annual Edmonton and Calgary launch parties arranged by Stonehouse. 

Are there challenges in running a publishing house from the Prairies? “The rest of Canada forgets that we exist. The representation just isn’t there,” says King-Yerex, who nevertheless argues for the benefits of being part of Edmonton’s thriving arts scene. “We want artists to stay here and flourish here. We all cheer each other on. There’s more opportunity to be seen and noticed here,” King-Yerex says.

“In the West and Prairies, you have to be a little louder for your voice to carry across the country,” Johnson says. 

Johnson is thrilled by the success of the past year and delighted by the 2023 list. That includes Urbane, a second novel by Anna Marie Sewell (who also does foreign rights for the press) that features an unlicensed detective with paranormal connections on the scent of human trafficking in rural Alberta, as well as Bidulka’s latest, Livingsky, the first of a new series featuring Merry Bell, a transgender private investigator who returns to her roots in small-town Saskatchewan. (A second title in the series, From Sweetgrass Bridge, is scheduled for spring 2024.)

Stonehouse is focused on high literary quality regardless of genre. “Sales are not necessarily tied to the genre so much as the author. The author’s connections and where they are in their careers influences sales,” Johnson says. “The recent award-winning season feels like a turning point. Bring it on, world. I’m ready for the next step.”

By: Susan Peters

September 13th, 2023

12:11 pm

Category: Industry News

Issue Date: September 2023

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