University of Manitoba Press has expanded, especially with Indigenous authors and subjects

Publisher balances a distinctly regional focus with titles that grab national and international interest

Something old, something new, and a good mix of both – that could describe the rich and varied output of Winnipeg’s University of Manitoba Press.

Founded in 1967, UMP was the first university press to be established in Western Canada. They publish a diverse array of Canadiana, with titles exploring ethnic history and identity of Indigenous cultures such as Inuit, Anishinaabe, Cree, and Métis, as well as immigrant cultures such as Italian, Japanese, Ukrainian, and Icelandic.

The press has also published academic works such as the political history of Manitoba, and translations into English of the laws of early Iceland. (The latter, first published in 1980 by UMP, is still selling and was recently released in a new edition.)

Current publisher David Carr joined UMP in 1995. “I’m still shocked to realize it’s been that long,” he says, adding that he got his start in publishing at Turnstone Press, and also worked in the provincial Department of Culture.

“But I was anxious to get back into book publishing and I was fortunate that this job became available,” he says. “I had always admired the work that U of M Press did, so it was a real honour to join the press.”

Over the years Carr has been there, UMP has grown. The staff has doubled, and the publishing output has tripled, to between 12 and 14 books a year. He has tried to keep the publishing house true to its history, maintaining a roster of regionally focused books, but also to expand to publish work that has a national and even an international audience.

And that growth includes greater inclusivity. “In the last decade, the most significant change has been the expansion of our list of books on Indigenous subjects, and especially books by Indigenous authors,” Carr says.

Part of his aim is a commitment to engage with community, including becoming involved in public debate on important issues. Examples include Structures of Indifference, which deals with the death of Brian Sinclair in a hospital waiting room, he says, “or finding a book that connects or even entertains a specific community, like our book on Manitoba fish or John Paskievich’s book of photographs, North End Revisited.

“Nationally, I think we are probably best known for our Indigenous list, of which we are very proud.”

Some of those books have included A Two-Spirit Journey: The Autobiography of a Lesbian Ojibwa-Cree Elder by Ma-Nee Chacaby, with Mary Louisa Plummer, and Indigenous Men and Masculinities: Legacies, Identities, Regeneration, edited by Robert Alexander Innes and Kim Anderson.

As an academic press, the selection process for what to publish includes a peer review, “which means all of our books go through a rigorous review by outside experts and then a review by our editorial board, which is made up of U of M faculty,” Carr says. “All publishers use some kind of review process, but scholarly peer review has quite specific rules and it adds many months (or even years) to the development process.

“But it’s a key part of our service to readers and also to our authors. We work hard to make peer review a collegial process, which will only make a book better.”

UMP does, however, face some of the same challenges as other publishers in a changing industry, such as the evolving nature of selling books, always a tough business.

“The decline of what was once a national network of independent bookstores is a real loss for readers, writers, and publishers,” Carr says.

“It was through those bookstores that publishers could get a real sense from the frontlines of how readers were responding to our books. Some of my colleagues think I’m too nostalgic for those days, and perhaps they’re right, but I do think it makes connecting with our audience harder. Social media can help to fill that gap, but it still feels indirect to me.”

Of course, new technology also brings new opportunities for engaging readers.

“We’re also interested in exploring new ways in which our books can have an additional digital life,” Carr says. “For instance, we’ve worked with the U of M archives to set up a digital archive for Rooster Town, which uses some of the source materials from our book [Rooster Town: The History of an Urban Métis Community, 1901–1961, published in 2018].

“We’ve even experimented with ‘born digital’ books. In 2016, we worked with a team of writers to produce an almost ‘instant’ review of that year’s provincial election, which was published as a free download.” Carr says an overview of this year’s provincial election is also being released online.