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“Here—this was our very first book.”
Matt Bowes, general manager of NeWest Press, holds out a paperback with a moody, black-and-white cover image and the title, Getting Here: Stories Selected by Rudy Wiebe. Its pages contain seven stories by emerging women writers, a number of whom have become familiar names in Canada’s literary community today.
A strong cord runs from that first title, brought out nearly fifty years ago, through the hundreds of volumes NeWest has published since. The story of how it was founded (“by a group of rebellious academics wanting to tell western stories,” says Matt) continues to shape the press’s philosophy today. Showcasing voices connected to Western Canada is still the priority, as is collaborating closely with authors; NeWest has launched many new writers who go on to acclaim.
The evidence is an array of books arranged on tall bookcases that ring the walls of NeWest’s conference room. The covers are varied and colourful, and quite a few sport shiny stickers to mark recognition from organizations like the Independent Publisher Book (IPPY) Awards and the Writers’ Trust.
The commitment to “western stories” goes well beyond any prairie stereotype. The shelves are filled with eclectic, often unexpected perspectives that reflect the diversity of writers and readers across this wide region. For example, Bruce Cinnamon’s The Melting Queen spins an SF tale of genderfluidity, magic and satire in an imaginary (but sometimes too real) Edmonton. Bertrand Bickersteth’s multi-award-winning debut poetry collection, The Response of Weeds, explores prairie territory as part of Black history and geography. Matthew Tetrault’s first novel, Hold Your Tongue, voices a Métis family’s complex history.
NeWest publishes in a range of genres—from novels and travelogues to biographies and essay collections about writing. The Nunatak First Fiction series includes more than sixty debut novels, a number of which have gone on to become classics. Some of these have been re-released in the Landmarks Editions series, including Thomas Wharton’s Icefields and Hiromi Goto’s Chorus of Mushrooms. Next to come out as a Landmark Edition will be Suzette Mayr’s debut novel, Moon Honey.
NeWest brings out boundary-pushing poetry under its Crow Said label. The press is also one of the few Canadian publishers that publishes drama, represented this year by Conni Massing’s Matara.
Getting Words Out
Every genre brings its own twist on production challenges. For instance, unlike a novel or poetry collection, the printed book of a play is not so much an end product as a vehicle to help put the play on again. So the physical book has to has to be easier to hold in one hand, with wide margins where performers can scribble notes. For poetry, the page has to accommodate white space and the line breaks a writer is using as part of their work’s aesthetic. E-pub editions don’t always work for this kind of thing!
Many new authors get their start at NeWest. “We see writers as partners,” says Matt. He finds that authors, especially beginning ones, appreciate being with a press that’s more collaborative and willing to help them learn the publishing ropes—attention that they don’t always get at one of the big Canadian or U.S. publishing houses. In fact, writers often go on to become members of the press’s board, helping to choose and edit new titles.
Some aspects of publishing—like choosing and editing manuscripts—are pretty much the same as they were when the press was founded. But in other ways, the world has changed radically.
“Being a publisher in some senses is like being in the nineteenth century. In others, it changes every year,” says Matt.
For instance, production co-ordinator Meredith Thompson wrestles with the maddening maze of BISAC codes that help connect books with readers. These alphanumeric strings tell booksellers, distributors, and librarians what categories and subcategories a book belongs in. However, the U.S.-based system isn’t always relevant here in Canada, and the code list gets updated every year—requiring constant adjustments by the press.
Marketing co-ordinator Carolina Ortiz has the challenge of getting information about authors and titles out into the world, working to find opportunities like reviews and festival gigs. The shifting sands of social media create more and more ways to connect with readers, but they make for an evolving, time-consuming landscape.
An increasingly interactive world has opened up other avenues to reach readers beyond Canada. Matt has attended the Frankfurt Book Fair, where the recent featuring of Canadian publishers (even if complicated by the pandemic years) opens up possibilities for translating NeWest titles—opportunities he is pursuing.
However, the original connective cord is always there. As just one example, one of the stories in that very first paperback was written by Myrna Kostash, who went on to publish many books with NeWest and other presses. Her latest book, Ghosts in a Photograph, came out from NeWest in 2022.
That’s nearly five decades of writer and publisher working together.
About the Author
Alice Major has published twelve collections of poetry, including her latest book, Knife on Snow. She has also published an award-winning collection of essays about poetry and science. Alice has volunteered in numerous positions to help the writing community in Alberta and Canada, including her role as Edmonton’s first poet laureate and president of the League of Canadian poets. She received the Lieutenant Governor of Alberta’s Distinguished Artist award and an honorary doctorate from the University of Alberta.