Since 1971, the Best Canadian Stories anthology has highlighted the country’s finest short fiction. In 2017, Oberon Press, which had published the annual series since 2001, handed over the reigns to Biblioasis. The first edition from Biblioasis was released in November, marking the final title under the direction of John Metcalf, the series’ longtime editor.
Q&Q spoke to Biblioasis publisher Dan Wells about plans for the anthology’s future.
How did the anthology end up at Biblioasis?
I work with John Metcalf, who has been associated with the anthology almost since the beginning. It’s something that I’ve been reading for a decade or so, and built up a full collection of the backlist. I was always disappointed with the fact that the anthology, in terms of the quality, has always been top-notch, but, in the later years with Oberon, there wasn’t as much energy going into the selling and the distribution of it in the marketplace. A lot of people seemed to think it was defunct; it had fallen off the radar.
I started a conversation with Oberon a few years ago about taking it over eventually. In February they said last year’s was their last, so if we wanted it, sure. We jumped on it.
What are the opportunities associated with taking on a well-established brand?
Even if only by default we’ve become the press for the short story in Canada. It fits our list much more naturally than others, and because of that I hope people will respond to it. I think people have come to trust us when it comes to short fiction, so hopefully the series itself can ride our coattails a little in that regard. But there are tremendous opportunities. I believe, along with John, that short stories represent some of our best work, in terms of Canadian literature. It’s a way to profile the best, to bring new voices to the press.
What about challenges?
The biggest challenge is that most people haven’t known it exists, so in many ways it is like starting over again.
How will you be promoting the anthology?
The fact that we have distribution is a real change. Oberon was self-distributed and I think that became, especially in the later years, a bigger issue. Our sales force got behind it, and initial orders have been very solid. The hardcover sales were around 1,000 to start, and paperback around 400, and have been selling steadily since it launched. Libraries also seem to be responding.
This is a long-term commitment. There were launches in Toronto and Ottawa, one planned for Halifax, and we’re looking at Vancouver. We’ve been in touch with festivals about making it part of the fall festival circuit going forward, and it looks like several key festivals are game to do that, which will help.
Are there plans to make any changes?
We’re reinvigorating and changing how it operates. The 2017 issue we put together with John will be the last with him at the helm. We’re going toward a series of guest editors, more like the American model, every year bringing in new perspectives. Next year’s editor will be Russell Smith, and there are others we’re already in conversation with for 2019 and beyond. For the 50th anniversary we’re planning an anthology of 50 stories celebrating the best of Best Canadian Stories.
I’m really hopeful that we can do some interesting things with it and make it into what it should have been all along: the place where people who care about short fiction in Canada go to every year. I’ve seen what Molly Peacock, Anita Lahey, and everyone has done with The Best Canadian Poetry, as an example of wonderful work, and that’s something we’ll try to emulate.
This interview has been edited and condensed.