Celebrating 30 Years of Atlantic Books Today:
From a secret Saint Mary’s office and sporadic issues to the award-winning conversation starter, ABT has given many Atlantic authors their first “big-time” moment
Today, Lesley Crewe is a bestselling author of a dozen novels, one of which, Relative Happiness, was turned into a motion picture, and another, The Spoon Stealer, longlisted for CBC’s 2022 Canada Reads competition.
But Crewe still remembers that day back in 2006, when “my name and the cover of my first novel, Relative Happiness, showed up in the pages of Atlantic Books Today … I knew I had hit the big time.”
Lesley Choyce, Nova Scotia’s own Renaissance Man publisher—not to forget the author of more than 100 of his own fiction and nonfiction books—can also recall his big-time moment a decade before Crewe’s. “I was very much a younger, struggling-to-be-noticed writer.”
Atlantic Books Today had reviewed a few of his young-adult novels, then a more ambitious book, The Republic of Nothing. “At some point, they even slapped a stylized picture of me on the cover of the then-tabloid publication. It meant the world to me.”
This year, Atlantic Books Today celebrates its 30th anniversary as the go-to gathering place for writers and readers in Atlantic Canada—and beyond. Plus a “big-time,” “meant-the-world-to-me” moment-maker for scores of regional authors.
This issue—the first of two print editions for 2022—is being distributed to a targeted audience of 30,000 book-loving readers. A slightly expanded premium version—64 pages instead of 48—will be available via issuu, a digital publishing platform. All that content, including book news, reviews, profiles, trends, features, Proust Questionnaires and more—not to forget web-only stories about holiday books, awards seasons and a twice-a-year VOICES campaign “amplifying the work of writers from underrepresented communities”—will eventually find its way to atlanticbooks.ca/stories.
You might assume, given its front-of-the-stage place in today’s Atlantic Canada literary firmament, that Atlantic Books Today has always been there, or that there is some inspiring origin story to mark its birth.
You would assume wrong on both counts.
According to the official records at the Saint Mary’s University Archives, what is now Atlantic Books Today was conceived in the early 1980s as The Atlantic Provinces Book Review (APBR), a passion project of a SMU English professor named Terry Whalen, whose research focus happened to be Maritime literature.
The Review was initially a joint venture of the university—ABPR officially “reported to” the university’s vice president academic and research—the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia and the Atlantic Publishers Association. It published sporadically for nearly a decade, featuring mostly academic books reviewed by other academics, with the newsprint edition made available to local newspapers as a supplement and reviews offered for reprint “as a community service.”
It would not be stretching the point to say that, by the early 1990s, The Review’s academic focus grated on some in the region’s evolving commercial publishing sector, as well as independent booksellers, most of whom were eager for a vehicle that would increase public awareness of regional trade books targeted at general readers.
To complicate matters, The Review—partly because it existed—had landed a substantial Canada Council grant, part of the then-federal government’s targeted push to generate interest in Canadian books, including books being written and published in Canada’s regions.
That grant, of course, not only created jealousies among those who believed they knew better how it should be spent but it also complicated life for The Review itself once Saint Mary’s officials realized “there was a huge Canada Council grant coming to a non-profit organization operating out of an office they knew nothing about.”
The Review needed a new home, a new look and a new identity.
Enter Elizabeth Eve, a former bookseller and publishing-industry veteran who’d helped launch Nimbus Publishing in 1978. By the early 1990s, she was “freelancing on everything to do with Atlantic authors and books.” Whalen, who was about to go on sabbatical at Saint Mary’s, approached her with yet another freelance gig opportunity—some “very part-time admin work” for The Review “for a tiny flat fee.”
“Well, this is embarrassing,” she found herself confessing to Whalen. Eve told him she was already a member of another group within the industry “actively working to undermine APBR, so we can get the Council money you have and create a publication here more like BC Bookworld, something that will promote authors and books.”
Whalen barely batted an eye. “Good on you,” Eve recalls him replying. “Come over here and sort out my problems. I’m going on sabbatical.”
He did, and she did. Eve became the editor “and everything” except advertising sales rep at APBR. Along with a few members of the board, she also did “the heavy lifting” to reorganize the organization as the Atlantic Provinces Book Review Society, independent from Saint Mary’s.
The society applied for—and received—an ACOA grant to help craft a business plan, then re-imagined, re-designed, re-positioned and ultimately re-named the publication Atlantic Books Today.
In 1992, there were two issues, in 1993 three and, in 1994, four. “I remember that so clearly,” Eve jokes today, “because it was so easy to remember … Two, three, four.” She also recalls one of the first—“and best”—things the society did: negotiate a deal to include Atlantic Books Today in the Atlantic regional edition of The Globe and Mail, instantly giving it circulation and credibility.
That was the beginning.
But far from the end of ABT’s beginning story.
In 2000, Eve and her husband decided to move to China for a year, so she began casting about for another person or organization to take over running ABT. There were no enthusiastic volunteers.
Enter Peggy Walt. Nova Scotia’s recently elected Progressive Conservative government had just restructured Walt out of her job as the province’s director of cultural affairs. So, when Formac publisher Jim Lorimer offered her a one-off freelance gig producing a summer books flyer for the Atlantic Publishers Marketing Association—the renamed Atlantic Publishers Association to emphasize its role in collective book marketing—she’d said yes.
But then “things started coming in the mail, like bank statements, letters from the Canada Council,” she recalls. “Where is your final report?” She tried to pass on the requests to Lorimer, but he brushed her off. “No, no, no. That’s your job.”
“I said, ‘Well, no, I’m here to do the summer flyer thing.’ And he said, ‘You can deal with that.’ And I said, ‘Well, that would be the executive director’s job.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, well, that’s you.’”
Which is how Peggy Walt ended up spending the next decade, initially as business manager then executive director of the Atlantic Publishers Marketing Association.
Luckily for Atlantic Books Today, her arrival coincided with another plea from the Book Review Society for the APMA to take over its publication.
The way Walt remembers the proposition was, “Are you guys interested in taking over as publisher because, otherwise, there won’t be a publication?”
The association was already over-stretched and under-resourced, producing twice-yearly book promotion flyers as well as organizing meetings and professional development sessions for its publisher members.
But it was also a big opportunity, a chance to support its own self-interest in promoting regional books, authors and reading, while at the same time satisfy the growing hunger among readers in Atlantic Canada for news and views about our own writing and publishing.
“It was a big decision,” Walt recalls.
When the APMA agreed to become the publisher, it also decided on a major makeover. Atlantic Books Today was eventually reborn as a full-colour glossy magazine and published three times a year.
Et voilà! Another decade later, here we are: Atlantic Books Today, #95, Spring ’22.
Today, Chris Benjamin, an award-winning freelance journalist and author of two novels and two nonfiction books, is the magazine’s half-time managing editor/content manager, responsible for its online and offline incarnations. (Alex Liot, a veteran digital and business development executive with various media companies, has led a number of recent marketing initiatives, and Karen Cole, an integrated marketing and communications expert with 25 years of national and international experience, is the new executive director).
While the magazine is now better established than it was in those earlier years, its role remains the same: bringing Atlantic Canadian writers and readers together. “The magazine is a constant balancing act among the diverse needs of publishers and authors, all of whom want and deserve representation and amplification,” Benjamin admits. “It’s half-science half-art, and my primary loyalty is to our loyal readers who love that our magazine highlights books but is also itself a treasured read.”
When I ask Benjamin, who has been editing the magazine since 2016, for his own favourite moment as editor, he cheats slightly, citing his first issue—“I just remember the excitement everyone had when it came out because it was a rebranding, a whole new look and style, longer more in-depth articles, and a very cute illustrated cover of a bathing reader in bliss by the great Emma FitzGerald”—and then also noting the Fall 2020 “New Voices, Better World” issue that “explicitly highlighted young writers and writers of colour, and the cover featured spoken word artist Britta B. and won a gold Atlantic Journalism Award.” And then he adds: “I’m proud of every issue.”
As for the magazine’s future, he says, “We go where the books go, and it’s always figuring out what the books are saying about the world, about Atlantic Canada, and how we can start that conversation.”
But let’s circle back and leave our last word on this 30th anniversary to bestselling Atlantic Canadian novelist Lesley Crewe. “I’m forever grateful that I get to be included in this marvellous magazine that brings writers and readers together and celebrates the written word,” she says, then adds: “The end.”