NeWest Press

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NeWest Press

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  • NeWest Review

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NeWest Press grew out of the NeWest Review , a monthly journal of opinion and reviews focusing on Western Canadian culture. The Review was founded in 1975 by George Melnyk, a freelance writer and former university philosophy instructor who wanted to establish a Western alternative in a field dominated by publications from Ontario.

The idea of a literary press was first conceived at a 1977 party attended by Melnyk and several members of the faculty of the English Department at the University of Alberta. Its initial funding consisted of a $500 loan from the poet Douglas Barbour. The first book published by NeWest Press was Getting Here, an anthology of short stories by seven Albertan women that was edited by Rudy Wiebe. It made its debut on 8 March 1977, International Women's Day. Getting Here was followed by Of the Spirit, a collection of essays by the noted architect Douglas Cardinal.

NeWest Press, at the outset, was "a small gathering of people who used to meet in various living rooms." Melnyk and an editorial board consisting of his friends from the University decided which books to publish and how to raise the necessary funds. All of the day-to-day chores required to keep the Press operating were performed by Melnyk and his wife, Julia Berry.

NeWest Press made a strong debut, publishing a total of five books in its first year of operation. A lack of funds, however, resulted in a reduced output of three titles in 1978 and only two titles in 1979. An early demise was averted by a three-year grant from Nova Corporation that allowed NeWest to expand to four titles in 1980 and eight titles in 1981, including Blood Relations by Sharon Pollock, the recipient of a Governor General's Award for Drama. By 1982 the Canada Council and Alberta Culture were providing the Press with regular funding and at least a semblance of financial security.

The expansion of NeWest's productive output stemmed from Melnyk's desire to establish a general publishing house that would reflect the full range of Western history and culture in a variety of disciplines. In addition to promoting regional fiction and poetry, Melnyk wanted to publish books on history, current affairs, and the fine arts. NeWest's influence was to extend beyond Alberta's insular literary and academic communities and provide a populist forum where vital social and cultural issues could be addressed from a left-of-centre perspective. Melnyk's ultimate goal was to make NeWest the third-ranked press in the region, after Hurtig and WesternProducer Prairie Books.

The NeWest Institute of Western Canadian Studies, incorporated by Melnyk in 1979, was at least partially designed to offset the failure of the Press itself to make any significant inroads among the West's political and social establishment. The Institute organized a series of retreats and seminars on a variety of cultural and social issues and collaborated with the Press in the publication of a number of books, including one of its first big sellers, Rain of Death , an expose of the effects of acid rain in western Canada. The Institute's ambitious agenda, however, went largely unrealized; a lack of funding and an inability to extend its influence past a narrow segment of academia prevented it from having any real impact on Western Canadian society as a whole.

In 1982 George Melnyk announced his decision to withdraw from the Press; he, Julia Berry and Sam Gersonowicz, the three original partners in NeWest Press, transferred their shares to a new group of eighteen shareholders, most of whom were academics from the University of Alberta. In recognition of the Press's expanded mandate, the new owners of NeWest Publishers Limited included not only prominent literary figures such as Rudy Wiebe, Aritha van Herk and Robert Kroetsch but also people like journalist Myrna Kostash, sculptor Joe Fafard and political scientist Larry Pratt.

The new owners held their first meeting in September 1982; they adopted a new constitution and elected a new president, Diane Bessai of the University of Alberta English Department. All shareholders were expected to take an active part in soliciting manuscripts and choosing the titles to be published.

By the end of the decade NeWest Press was putting out eight or more books a year on a wide variety of topics. In November 1989 it published its seventy-fifth book, a lavishly illustrated volume on the architecture of Douglas Cardinal, who had recently been thrust into the national spotlight with the construction of the Museum of Civilization in Hull, Quebec. One of NeWest's most ambitious and, ultimately, frustrating, undertakings, the book aroused some controversy when Cardinal, upset over co-author Trevor Boddy's critique of his work, disassociated himself from the finished product.

NeWest's bestsellers have included Susan Haley's A Nest of Singing Birds, which was filmed for television by CBC; Eva Brewster's holocaust memoir Vanished in Darkness; and the short story anthology Alberta Bound. Since its inception NeWest's literary division has directed its efforts toward the publication of first novels and short story collections by Prairie writers. It has also made significant contributions to the Canadian literary scene through the Western Canadian Literary Documents Series, the Prairie Play Series and various other anthologies of poetry, fiction and literary criticism. In 1989 NeWest Press introduced the Nunatuk Series, which was designed to promote fiction by new Western Canadian authors.

Although George Melnyk's original vision has not been fully realized, NeWest has nonetheless established itself as one of the country's most enduring and respected small presses with an impressive catalogue of literary and non-fiction titles.


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Revised by N. Courrier (February 2019).




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