Some Context in Text: The MPub Origin Story

MPub founder Rowly Lorimer



Rowly Lorimer at the launch of his book, Ultra Libris
Rowly Lorimer, Ultra Libris launch — courtesy of John Maxwell

The initial idea for a national professional publishing program came from a past executive director of the Association of Book Publishers of BC, Tony Gregson. Ann Cowan, then director of the Writing and Publishing program in what used to be Continuing Studies at Simon Fraser, picked up on the idea and sought funds to undertake a national consultation on the need for and preferred nature of such a program. Early in this process, knowing that I had done some publishing research and was teaching at least one undergraduate course on Canada’s book publishing industry and attendant policies, Ann reached out to me. Together, largely on the basis of funding acquired by Ann, we canvassed publishers, editors, authors, librarians, and other members mainly, but not solely, of the book community for their opinions. In part, we explored the need to build on existing efforts at Ryerson, a short intensive course organized by publishing professionals and delivered at the Banff Centre for the Arts, and the programs of the national association of magazine publishers, now Magazines Canada. Support was strong and consensus was quickly reached on a need for a graduate, research-based program paralleling similar efforts in the UK and Germany. There were, of course, those who felt that any national program should be based in Toronto but others (including industry-leading Torontonians such as Doug Gibson and Cynthia Good) who were willing to step up with unqualified support. Equally, there was a more general recognition that Simon Fraser was the only university willing to countenance the creation of such a program. “Willing to countenance” is a euphemism for a spirited discussion within the institution that can be summed up by the time and resources it took to move from consideration to implementation. From the beginning proposal to final approval took ten years. It required determination to take “no” as a request for revision and the need for some extra stick handling. It also was underpinned by collaboration on the design of the program with, and the teaching skills of, industry stalwarts such as James J. Douglas. And, in the end, the approval of the program was facilitated by a substantial donation of cash and in-kind support from the CEO of Reader’s Digest Canada, Ralph Hancox and the Reader’s Digest Foundation of Canada. Inside the university the unwavering support of Dean Jack Blaney and the turn of phrase used by the Dean of Business Stan Shapiro were critical in what looked like the final chance to gain approval by the University Senate. The MPub began, in quite an amusing fashion. Much to my surprise, I was told by the Vice President, Academic, before the program had any budget, that we could admit students. Thereby, Nancy Duxbury, Michael Hayward and Bette Laughy became the first three students admitted to the program. The following year, the program began in earnest with a target of 12 students. It also began with an emphasis on policy, history and technology to be understood and applied in practice. However, with the obvious intense engagement of students in understanding and mastering practice, and encouraged by the engagement of students in the Banff-derived projects Ron Woodward built into his design and production courses, the emphasis began to change. Gradually, group-based projects assumed a more central role complemented at a first level by the editing and business courses and at a further level by the technology, policy and history courses. It was certainly inspiring to see the arrival each year of a fresh set of faces and sense the gradual formation of a cohort of colleagues who have often kept in touch long after they left the program and discovered MPubbers from previous and subsequent years. The highlight of that dynamic came in an email when one MPubber told us of a meeting in Ottawa reviewing government programs in which nine of the 20 or so participants were graduates of the program. For me, personally, my two decades with the MPub was the highlight of my academic career. I loved directing something both immediate and obviously bigger to which I could contribute. Many academics never have that chance. The gathering together of a small group of instructors, all with differing expertise and all essential to the success of the program, laid a foundation for collaboration, respect, and effectiveness. Still today, it reminds me of the collaboration that is necessary for scientific breakthroughs and operations like Mars missions. What disappeared in that organizational form and its management was rivalry and lack of appreciation of colleagues. It soon became an explicit goal that we should set a standard for professional conduct to help each cohort to coalesce respectfully and to prepare students for the job market. The program also provided a public for my research activities focused on management and policy. As provinces, professional associations, federal agencies, and international organizations looked for external review of their policies and programs, they found it useful to engage someone who brought a professional rather than a disciplinary perspective, such as economics or law, to the task. I found this enormously stimulating and saw it as providing a solid foundation for Simon Fraser’s most recent motto of “Engaging the World.” As of 2020, I haven’t exactly let go. In the years following my retirement from SFU I’ve been involved through the associated Canadian Institute for Studies in Publishing in providing publishing services to slightly fewer than a dozen scholarly journals. My latest effort, since policy is in my bones, is an attempt to encourage federal recognition of scholarly journal publishing as an entry point for students and faculty to understand and participate in the knowledge economy. But I sense a full retirement coming soon knowing the program is in good hands and serves both students and a technologically based expansion into the generation and dissemination of knowledge acquisition in all its manifestations.

Amanda Lastoria Earns the First Publishing PhD in North America

Various AIWL covers


“And what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?”

Mahima Bhagwat
MPub 2019/20

On November 13, 2019 Amanda Lastoria successfully defended her PhD thesis—The Material Evolution of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: How Book Design and Production Values Impact the Markets for and the Meanings of the Text—and became the first person to be awarded a PhD in Publishing by a North American university.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland – Little Simon edition
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 2003. Published by Little Simon, New York.
This copy Lastoria’s collection. Photos by Lastoria.

After completing a master’s program in publishing at Oxford Brookes University (U.K.), Dr. Lastoria worked in publishing houses in the U.K. and Toronto for some years before approaching SFU with the intention to pursue a PhD.

Her doctoral research explored the industrial mediation of the text via the materiality, and material evolution, of the book. Using 46 editions of a single title—Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865 – 2015)—as a case study, Dr. Lastoria documented, historicized and interrogated the ways in which the design and production values of the book multiply and diversify the markets for and the meanings of the text. Her project combined methods and tools of bibliography, book history, publishing history, literary theory, and design practice.

Among many other groundbreaking findings that resulted from Dr. Lastoria’s research, she was also the first to recover author Lewis Carroll as the art director of the Victorian editions of Alice.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland – Miniature edition, Macmilan
Miniature Edition Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1907. Published by Macmillan, London. This copy (1908 reprint) Lastoria’s personal collection. Photos by Lastoria.

Explore more of Dr. Lastoria’s research about Carroll’s art directorial role or read her doctoral thesis for further fascinating facts about Alice.

You can also find Dr. Lastoria on Twitter @amandalastoria

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Vibrant – Student Magazine (2005)

Cover of Vibrant – A student magazine developed by the 2004/05 cohort


Spearheaded by Jen Croll and Laraine Coates of the 2004/05 cohort Vibrant materialised as a yearbook-esque publication. Named after a certain running joke in lighthearted honour of Rowly Lorrimer’s textbook, Vibrant but Threatened: Book Publishing in Canada, the single issue magazine included everything from memorable quotes to ‘Most-Likely-To’ awards and semi-scathing class reviews.

Other contributors included Wesley Fok, Jr Ferrer, Susan Pi, Megan Brand, Christine Davidson, and Holland Gidney, along with current MPub faculty and –of course– 2005 MPub valedictorian, David Hasselhoff.


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My MPub Days Were Never Like This

Close up of artist signature and woman in sun hat. Robert Michener painting 'The Good Old Days Were Never Like This'


Heidi Waechtler
MPub 2011/12
PUB800 2020

Robert Michener painting 'The Good Old Days Were Never Like This'

Robert Michener, The Good Old Days Were Never Like This, 1976, oil on linen. SFU Art Collection. Gift of the artist, 2000. Photo: SFU Galleries

Most memories I have of MPub are fond: late nights in the project rooms, debating typefaces while drinking smuggled wine out of plastic goblets, sharing snacks over the transom of the unfinished divider walls. But one in particular has both haunted and perplexed me: The Painting. If you did the program in the last twenty years, you know which one I mean.

A silver-haired character (Triton? Poseidon? Zeus himself?) in a colourful Speedo runs after a bikinied woman across a beach, his arms outstretched as if to capture her. The woman looks back at him, her hair windswept around a playful expression masking, I imagine, sheer terror. Another man in the foreground in repose underneath an umbrella, his reading material— a copy of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer—cast aside so he can leer at the woman walking past in a hat and sunglasses (perhaps her attempt to enjoy the beach unmolested). Signs of decadence—animal-print swimwear, wine, a baguette—dot the shore. Two figures hoist a canoe above their heads, off to sea to escape all of this. A range of skin tones are on display, but it’s unclear if this is diversity or just a bunch of white people who like to tan.

What does it all mean? I’m no art historian—I’m still working in book publishing, ten years after the program—but this kitschy tableau, juxtaposed with the work’s title, The Good Old Days Were Never Like This, suggests a false nostalgia for a time that never really existed. If it’s intended as a riff on the saying, “The good old days were never really that good,” are the painting’s forced perspectives a reminder that the male gaze is an equally forced cultural perspective? I wonder.

What intrigues me most, though, is how the painting found its way to the third floor of Harbour Centre in the first place. Who decided it should hang in the north student lounge populated mostly by MPub students, serving as the backdrop for many a group photo or as a conversation starter at the many receptions held in that space? (The plaque states that it was donated to the SFU Art Collection in 2000 by the artist, Robert Michener. SFU Galleries tells me no one on staff was around when the painting was donated, so I guess we’ll have to let the mystery be.)

Close up of artist signature and woman in sun hat. Robert Michener painting 'The Good Old Days Were Never Like This'

Still, it leaves me wondering: is its location a coded message intended for the program’s aspiring publishers? “Treasure your salad days, with your made-up P&Ls and your PubFight, before you’re publishing for keeps”? Patronizing. “Uphold the freedom to read at all costs, as Grove Press did through the Miller obscenity trials”? That’s a bit of a stretch. “Keep your eye on the prize”? Gross.

And when the painting was relocated from the lounge where it loomed large in the MPub imagination to a more neutral space next to the elevators in 2018, what did that say about the state of publishing and campus culture? Did someone decide enough was enough – that the largely women-dominated cohorts didn’t need to be bear witness to a #MeToo moment in the making while they were just trying to learn about Canadian cultural policy or code some CSS?

One of my MPub colleagues remarked recently that she thought of the male pursuer as her project report, prodding her to get it done. Another commented that the image would make for a good “tag yourself” meme. (I’m the starfish.) But maybe a friend/alum/former third floor employee, put it best: “I’ve always disregarded this painting, but I’ve never not noticed it.”

She’s right: it’s the most forgettable yet indelible piece of corporate art I’ve ever encountered. I hope The Painting lives within range of the Publishing offices for at least another twenty-five years, when books are files beamed into our brains. And I hope it becomes a pentimento, its casual summer misogyny gradually overwritten by accomplishments of future cohorts—students who I have faith will build a more equitable publishing industry.


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Robert Michener painting 'The Good Old Days Were Never Like This' hung in SFU Harbour Centre hallway

On the Scale of Paper Cranes

Two paper cranes


Leena Desai
MPub 2017/18

The 2017/18 MPub cohort poses in front of the welcome figure (carved by Musqueam artist Brent Sparrow) in the Harbour Centre foyer.
MPub 2017/18 cohort –– courtesy of Leena Desai

Intense. And short. That’s what MPub is. It’s like going down a roller coaster; one moment you’re screaming and crying and the next moment it’s over. Or like taking a flu shot; it will pain and sting you for a minute and then it’s done. Anyone who has been through it probably knows what I mean… You end up spending eight months with the program and then we birds fly the coop, you know, for the co-op? I feel like my thoughts on MPub run the risk of turning into a series of dad jokes that I can’t stop myself from writing even though I’m clearly not a dad. But in all seriousness, I was lucky to spend my time with some really awesome people. Sure, we had our disagreements, fights even, and several glum moments, but MPub wouldn’t be MPub without those now, would it?

I was in the 2017-2018 cohort and I like to think of us as special, maybe every cohort does. The ’17-’18 MPubbers were 14 women and 2 men and between us we represented Asian, Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous cultures and perspectives and that made for a really diverse and lively group. We were also the lucky ones to witness Harbour Centre in the throes of renovation when we joined. It wasn’t Scott’s editing class, or a book project group meeting, if it wasn’t accompanied by the soundtrack of drilling and hammering. In the second semester we were moved to the 7th floor, but it didn’t matter, because by that time, our sense of hearing had been rendered numb; our ears mere accessories for our heads. Also, the 7th floor was full of snoots; but we soon learned to walk in their rarefied air, with the same sense of ownership and snobbery as the PhD candidates there.

It was a fun year, even if it got a little too real towards the end. If I were to choose a unit of measurement for the level of MPub intensity and fatigue we experienced, that unit would be paper cranes. My friend and fellow MPubber, Ashley, is skilled in origami, a craft she practices to calm herself. On any given day, our level of stress could be gleaned from taking one look at Ashley’s desk. One crane and it was a swim in a placid lake, when John was like, thumbs up, you’re doing great! 50 cranes meant that we had hit the rapids, when John was like, your business model is shit and you’re not gonna make any money! Clarification: John, obviously, didn’t use those words; he used some other words that sent my group hyperventilating back up to Snootsland, where we huddled together and solemnly declared that the end was nigh. You get the gist… the year, in total, could be summed up on a scale of 1 to 138475619125 cranes. Let’s just say that towards the end, we had been smacked bang in the face with a tsunami.

Thankfully, it wasn’t always all work and no play. I had rented the basement of an empty house in Burnaby—reportedly worth a few mil—with two of my classmates. When Anumeha, Taylor and I weren’t setting off the motion-sensitive burglar alarm by, basically, er… moving, we were throwing some memorable cohort parties and get-togethers: toasting marshmallows over fire, throwing a Thanksgiving potluck and an elaborate Indian food night, turning the common area into an impromptu dance club, touring the fancy digs upstairs and wishing we could afford them… We had some good times at that place and as a cohort.

MPub is a unique program; I met amazing people, learned a lot and made some good memories. Looking back, I wish it had lasted just a little bit longer. Like I said, it’s short and it’s intense. Blink and it’s over.

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