CBU Press: Covering Cape Breton Since 1974
CBU Press—founded with the College of Cape Breton in 1974, and later the University College of Cape Breton Press (1984)—was not envisioned as a scholarly press, nor has it operated as such. Rather, it has published books in a wide range of genres, including award-winning children’s books (including young adult) and adult fiction. Known as a trade publisher (as opposed to scholarly), even books rooted in academic research (some of which have earned writing awards) have mostly been edited for a general audience.
The Press also published recordings, marshalling its resources to fulfill a perceived need for recordings unique to Cape Breton—among them: Rita MacNeil, the Cape Breton Symphony, the Rise and Follies and the Cape Breton Summertime Revue.
Recordings aside, CBU Press published more than 170 books between 1974 and 2017, earning accolades and royalties for countless authors, while contracting other creators such as artists, photographers and editors.
In 2003, the Press’s first dedicated editor-in-chief was appointed. Cape Breton authors were promoted to a wider audience by publishing adult fiction, beginning, notably, with Frank Macdonald’s best-selling A Forest for Calum (2005) and David Doucette’s North of Smokey (2006), and the remarkable novel, Cibou, by Susan Young de Biagi, all of who were runners-up for Atlantic Book Awards. A Forest for Calum, one of Cape Breton’s most endearing novels, was long-listed for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the world’s richest literary prize for a single work. Macdonald’s second novel, A Possible Madness, was also long-listed for the IMPAC.
In 2012 and 2013, the Press began publishing Cape Breton historical fiction for young adult readers: Trapper Boy, by Hugh R. MacDonald; Blood Brothers in Louisbourg, by Nova Scotia writer Philip Roy; Me & Mr. Bell, also by Philip Roy; and The Manager, by Ontario author Caroline Stellings. These latter two were both shortlisted for TD Canada Trust Children’s Book Awards. Hugh R. MacDonald recently (2016) published a stand-alone sequel to Trapper Boy, titled Us & Them, also from CBU Press.
Historical fiction was carving out a literary niche for CBU Press. When award-winning historian A.J.B. Johnston retired from Parks Canada ca. 2011, he turned his hand to three Thomas Pichon novels—fictionalizing the larger-than-life persona of one of the 18th-century’s most enigmatic figures.
There is plenty of Celtic and Gaelic material in Cape Breton, resulting in an impressive catalogue of books on music, dance, poetry and language. The Press was mindful of the need to include all of Cape Breton and sought to publish works by and for the Mi’kmaq and Acadian communities, with some success.
For most of its history, CBU Press was one of only two conventional publishers focused on the island’s literary output. Recognizing this fact, the University has been continually supportive of the Press’s activities—including one-offs like writing workshops for teens, conferences and helping to found a popular monthly book pub in Sydney.
CBU Press has focused on getting local voices heard, on using the University’s resources for worthwhile projects that many mainstream publishers would typically reject. In recent years, the Press has published as many as a dozen new books in the run of a year, from 17th & 18th-century French gastronomy, to solving the mystery of Oak Island, to the Naughty Little Book of Gaelic.
For a number of years, it was the Press’s plan to gradually increase the volume of scholarly publications and thus better support the University’s core mission of teaching and research. Scholarly books required more subsidization due to their limited appeal, and a thriving trade list was to support the necessary critical mass to branch out. Additional resources would be needed, however, and it was decided to focus on trade, what it knows best.
There are many more avenues for Island writers today than there were in 1974. Those avenues make it easier to be in print; at the same time there are more and more new books, meaning that greater effort is needed to promote and market. In order to sustain its publishing program, the University would have to devote still more resources to its Press.
In 2014, in the face of a host of larger issues facing the University, the decision was made to terminate CBU Press as we know it today. There will be future publications on an ad hoc basis, under co-publication arrangements. Projects already in the works have been fulfilled, and responsibility for all books in print are being taken over by the Press’s long-time distribution partner, Nimbus Publishing of Halifax, ensuring that books remain available and authors receive royalties.
After forty-plus years covering Cape Breton, it’s time for others to work with creators to bring the Island’s considerable literary talents to the world.