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McGill-Queen’s sets its sights overseas with the opening of its U.K. office

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While speaking to a group of business leaders, policymakers, and analysts at The Economist’s Canada Summit last June, Rakuten Kobo CEO Michael Tamblyn suggested that, as Canadians, “we are comfortable with the idea that books are more than just things to be sold, more than just units or content.” He referred to books as “the container of a country’s dreaming, its stories and arguments and history, its most dangerous suggestions and serious thought. Books live at the intersection of culture and commerce, with businesses, policymakers, and consumers all crossing paths, a source of pride, heritage, and identity with which we as Canadians are entirely familiar.”

Canadian academic presses have existed at that intersection for years. More than ever, they are bridging the gap between scholarly and trade titles, attracting both global and local audiences thirsty for intelligent, educated perspectives on issues from indigenous rights to environmental protection. They’ve responded to changing copyright laws, shrinking library budgets, and lower bookstore sales by looking beyond Canadian borders for both potential authors and new readerships. And now, McGill-Queen’s University Press is extending its reach even further by opening an office in London.

While foreign-owned houses have been establishing local branches in Canada for decades, this marks a first for a Canadian-owned academic press. The MQUP U.K. office, set to open in May, will focus primarily on editorial expansion, managed by an acquisitions editor and a marketing support staffer. (MQUP’s overseas marketing activity is currently handled by Combined Academic Publishers, a London-based agency that represents 14 other North American scholarly presses.)

MQUP executive director Philip Cercone says the expansion, which will add 20 to 30 titles annually to the publisher’s list, will handle primarily U.K., European, and expat authors working on Canadian and global subjects. The soon-to-be hired acquisitions editor will also actively seek manuscripts from regional academic and book conferences. “The global reality is that if you are a certain size and you publish in those fields, you have to be there in person to market and to acquire,” says Cercone. Originally, MQUP investigated purchasing an existing U.K. press, but instead turned to the example of U.S. scholarly publishers at Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, which have all successfully opened branch offices in the U.K.

Lisa Quinn‚ president of the Association of Canadian University Presses and director of Wilfrid Laurier University Press‚ says she wasn’t surprised by MQUP’s expansion plans. “The world of scholarly publishing is increasingly global,” she says. “We’re more actively seeking ways in a global economy to ensure that the books are reaching all of their potential audiences.”

University of Toronto Press has been focused on growing its international presence for years, with distributors and sales representatives in key markets around the world. UTP marketing manager Brian MacDonald says that overseas sales are growing, to the point where it’s now more economically feasible to employ local printers in the U.K. and Europe, rather than shipping finished books across the ocean. While the U.S. is still UTP’s biggest export market, MacDonald, for one, is watching MQUP’s expansion closely. “I think it’s a really interesting idea,” he says. “We’d like to observe their experience and if it works out, give it a shot ourselves.”

While Quinn doesn’t expect to see many Canadian publishers immediately follow MQUP’s lead, she says all the presses, regardless of size, are now engaged in some international distribution and marketing strategies, with most participating in foreign-rights programs and international book fairs. “The scale of the Canadian market is relatively small, comparatively speaking,” Quinn says. “We rely on strong diversity in our revenue streams, and a focus on export in terms of acquisition and sales starts to become increasingly attractive as a way to build that diversity,” she says. “We’re really looking at the Anglo-American market for scholarly publishing for the types of books that we publish in English. The U.K. is a logical place, but many of us are also turning toward markets such as Australia or the English-language market in Europe.”