Local roots: URPress is an industry leader
author: kristian ferguson | news editor
stacks on stacks… of pages / Courtesy of UR PRess
University publisher making international waves
Bruce Walsh, Director and Publisher at the University of Regina Press, spoke recently about the work that the university’s own publisher has been up to.
“I came from Toronto. I worked in publishing for over 30 years,” said Walsh. “We launched five years ago. We came out of the ashes of the Canadian Plains Research Center Press. I was brought in to launch the press. I was told I had three years to make it happen, which is fair. It either worked or it didn’t.”
Walsh came to the prairie publisher with big plans to see it succeed.
“We launched with the world’s first reality publishing show, which got us a lot of attention internationally. It was still the old CPRC team who worked here and I wanted to show them that we could be leaders and cutting edge in the industry.”
For a publishing press to succeed, it needs to have books that draw interest, and Walsh saw potential in a particular manuscript.
“When I accepted the job, I looked through the list and I said, ‘Clearing the Plains: The Politics of Starvation? Oh I want to read that,’” said Walsh. “The book shocked me. It immediately became my mission to make sure this book does not disappear like 99 per cent of scholarly writing.”
Walsh talked about how his shock at the content inspired him to dig deeper and find out more about the subject.
“I am a student of Canadian history and I was so shocked that I didn’t know about the content of Clearing the Plains. I talked with professionals and experts and they all knew about it. It happened and it was published in journals, but that was where most of that information stayed,” stated Walsh.
The homegrown book, Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Indigenous Life, by James Daschuk was not only the University of Regina Press’ first major publication, its also one of its most lauded.
“Clearing the Plains is the best selling academic book ever published in Canada. This book has helped redefine the way we look at Canadian history,” stated Walsh.
“All this discussion we have today of the legacy of John A. McDonald all started with this book.”
Additionally, the book helped provide a focus for the press to aim toward and use as their vision.
“My idea is that academic publishing has been failing the academy. What I mean by that is that most academic publishers are factories. Everything follows along, and they get peer review reports and then nothing is read, and nothing is understood. Therefore, the value of these books and the quality of the writing is wasted,” said Walsh. “We see the humanities shrinking; someone decided that they aren’t important, and the budgets for them start shrinking.”
The University of Regina Press wasn’t just gifted success, however. Walsh was eager to talk about where the work they have done has flourished.
“We have published seven national bestsellers in the last five years, which is completely unheard of for a regional academic publisher. New York University Press came to us and basically went ‘what the hell are you guys doing to get so seen?’” said Walsh.
Walsh went on to say, “The point of doing all this stuff and treating academic books like real books is to encourage other academic publishers to do the same. We hope to inspire people to study the social sciences and the humanities.”
“We created a culture of competition and excellence that would, hopefully, force other academic publishers to take notice and change. To my knowledge, our plan is working,” said Walsh.
Walsh was very clear that just because something is based in Saskatchewan didn’t mean that it had to be small.
“New York University Press came to us and admired our work. We partnered up with them, added a bunch of our books to their catalog, and our books are now being distributed in the U.S. as well,” said Walsh. “We are a leader in Canadian academic publishing so we are always looking for leading scholars to publish. We aren’t some quiet, regional publisher.”
Walsh stressed that Saskatchewan has always been on the cutting edge of Canadian culture and that history should still be reflected today.
“Saskatchewan is the home to socialized medicine, public funding of the arts, and these were all absolute firsts for the country that we now recognize as part of our national identity,” said Walsh. “These are some of the most important things Canada has ever produced and they are all Saskatchewan grown.”
One of URPress’ most current projects is to publish more books in Indigenous languages from across the country.
“CPRC Press used to publish a little bit in Cree. When I was taking this job, my background was in fighting censorship. So when I think about freedom of expression and censorship, I realized the cornerstone of colonialism is censorship. The cruelest of this is the beating of language from the children,” said Walsh.
“When we launched the press at Congress in B.C., we garnered a lot of attention for our work with Clearing the Plains and I had a scholar approach me and they said, ‘I’m working with the last living speaker of my language, I don’t suppose you would be interested in a book like that, would you?’ and I said oh my God, there is no more important book we could publish.”
Walsh elaborated on how important the preservation of language is and what it means for a society.
“Language isn’t just words, it contains an entire worldview and understanding of who we are as human beings. From then on, we actively looked for writing in Indigenous languages. These books are so expensive, so time consuming, with all the work that needs to be done with these communities, but it is all worth it to make public that which has been censored.”