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Toronto indie press BookThug looks to change its racially charged name

According to linguists, the origin of the word “thug” traces back to 1350s India – a Hindi word used to describe a ruffian or thief. The word’s earliest adoption in English dates back to the early 1800s, but it took on new meaning in the 1990s, thanks to the then burgeoning hip-hop scene and Tupac’s iconic “Thug Life” tattoo. It wasn’t until 2014, when Seattle Seahawks player Richard Sherman spoke out in an interview about how “thug” has become a coded racial epithet to refer to a Black person, that discussion of the word’s usage entered the broad public forum. Later that year, the vegan cookbook series Thug Kitchen – now published in Canada by HarperCollins and named after the potty-mouthed blog of the same name – took heat when it was discovered that its anonymous authors were both white.

It was also in 2014, shortly after Sherman’s interview, when husband and wife Jay MillAr and Hazel Millar first got an inkling that the name of their Toronto-based indie press, BookThug – which MillAr named after a cheeky play on a few words that appear in a Daniel f Bradley* poem – was now troublesome. MillAr was attending the AWP Conference & Bookfair in Seattle when one his writers was approached by a group of people upset with the press’s use of the word. The co-publishers investigated, realizing it was an issue they needed to address, says Millar.

“This word ‘thug’ has undergone many different meanings over time. Now it had changed in a very, very terrible way, and we did not want to appear that we were ignorant about it or tone deaf to that in any way, shape, or form,” says Millar. “It did require a lot of conversations and a lot of soul searching to arrive at a pretty monumental decision … to change our name,” says Millar. “We found ourselves in a very complicated place, because … it was intended not that way at all. And for a press that was interested in the investigation of language, or the idea that language is fluid … could there have been a bigger example of that very thing coming back to bite us?”

But as life at the small press got busy, discussion around the name were put on hold, until the couple received an email from an anonymous graduate student in the U.S. demanding BookThug change its name immediately. “We tried at that time to have a conversation with her via email, but she wouldn’t identify who she was,” says Millar. “She made it very clear that she [was] not interested in talking.”

In January 2016, BookThug once again received demands to change its name when it became the target of a focused Twitter campaign (initiated by another, this time, Canadian, graduate student). Despite accusations that BookThug was not addressing the issue, actions were underway, albeit quietly. “We decided right from the beginning that we wanted to think about this, and we wanted to discuss it in-house, and we had meetings with key players within our organization, and even talked with other publishers in the industry,” says MillAr.

Through those discussions, the couple also realized that perhaps BookThug had outgrown its moniker. ‘“It’s a really great name for a scrappy upstart new kid on the block, punkish kind of press that really wants to push against the status quo,” says MillAr. “It’s interesting that all of this is happening during our 13th year of operation. Thirteen is coming of age, right? But 13 years in, having had books shortlisted for and with major awards, we have had this huge conversation about what literature is in this country. We’ve done the hard work that a young, punk, upstart thing should do, and now we’re kind of established.”

The reality, however, of being established as a recognized brand – especially in an industry that works many seasons ahead – is that a name change can’t happen overnight. And it’s costly, especially for a small operation on a shoestring budget.

“It’s a top-down, clear-across-the-board rebrand that’s going to involve our logo, our website, our social media,” says Millar. “What do we do with the 14 years of books that we have in the world that will exist and remain in print as BookThug books? There are so many different questions to solve still, and clearly we can’t reprint and reissue all of those books, so the only thing we can envision is that it will have to exist as an imprint of sorts. Every time we sit down we realize there’s one more thing that we hadn’t yet given thought to.”

To help facilitate the process and offset costs, BookThug received a grant from the Ontario Media Development Corporation to hire a rebranding specialist. They’ve become obsessed with finding a phrase in a book, or a song, that might inspire. “It will take time before it’s fully rolled out,” says Millar. “Even then, it’s going to be a little while before we’re fully enmeshed in this new identity. I keep joking that we’ll be like Prince in that we’ll be the press formerly known as BookThug for awhile.”


*Correction, Oct. 31, 2017: An early version of this story attributed the name from a poem by bill bissett.