Press finds small but mighty place on shelf

Sometimes it’s not so bad being a flea in a dog-eat-dog market. Just ask Greg Dickinson.

“Compare it to the other university presses; it would be like putting an elephant in the room with a flea where they’re the elephant and we’re the flea. Other presses do that much more, and publish everything with a huge budget and a huge staff,” said Dickinson, director of Western’s Western’s Althouse Press for the last decade.

But Althouse Press (AP) – celebrating its 35th anniversary this year – is still going strong, despite turbulent economic times, the rise of e-readers, a modest operating budget and a staff comprised only of Dickinson and Katherine Butson, the press’ editorial assistant and business manager.

“I started as director in 2002 and it’s been a period of substantial growth in our activity and our productivity,” Dickinson said.

Over the years, AP has stayed afloat precisely because of its size, unwavering commitment to often obscure, niche publications and dedication to budding and veteran authors.

As in any business, there’s always a bottom line, Dickinson said, but, as is the case with some big-name publishers, it hasn’t exactly been priority No. 1 for AP.

Created in 1977 by Geoff Milburn, professor emeritus with the Faculty of Education, AP’s original mandate was to act as the publishing centre for academic and scholarly works focused on educational theory and practice, ones that may have encountered difficulties attracting the attention of a large, commercial publisher, Dickinson explained.

“It was thought that there are many books floating around out there that don’t promise a large readership so the information and the knowledge that would be generated by the book just sits and doesn’t get disseminated. That initial mandate was certainly laudable. But it also seemed to me there were other works we could possibly (publish) that might have a readier, more lucrative market, that would provide funds to keep us afloat and subsidize the other books so they wouldn’t go into the darkness,” he said.

“We developed a Tier II mandate that suggested books that weren’t primarily, or sometimes at all, research-driven, but which served professional needs – the needs of teachers or students, at all levels of education – were good for us (to publish).”

More than 100 publications have come out of AP’s small office in the Faculty of Education and previous authors – among them big names like Max van Manen, Kieran Egan and Don Gutteridge – still turn to and refer colleagues to the press, Butson said, noting the praise they’ve shared with her and Dickinson.

“Unlike with most big publishers, you’re dealing with us throughout the whole process – from the acceptance of the manuscript to editorial to the production to the book covers, sales and marketing. You’re not being passed on to a different person through each stage of the publishing process and that is very atypical,” Butson said of the time and attention AP gives each author.

This is why authors continue to trust AP with their work, Dickinson added.

“When you phone AP and you have a question you’ll speak to Katherine or to me. It doesn’t matter how much time is required to get the answer because we’re on the line and hook. A corollary of that is that most of our authors really like to work with us,” he said.

“We’re just friendly people who like our jobs, who like to do a good job and like working with authors.”

Dickinson knows some things will have to change to foster the success of the press.

“We live in tough economic times and we have to consider how we can change, if need be, to mold ourselves to market demands. The way to compete and make an income is through e-publications,” he said, adding while things may change, the press won’t tolerate not having print publications.

Butson agreed.

“In a time of financial difficulty and restraints, we’re still here and I think people need to know: we’ve been here and don’t plan on going anywhere.”

AP has an agent who distributes publications in Europe and it co-publishes with the Teachers’ College Press, The University of Chicago Press and the State University of New York Press.

In a 1990 review of AP, LeRoi Daniels – a University of British Columbia philosopher – labeled the press an “intellectual and artistic success.”