Bruce Walsh steps down as publisher at Anansi as staff prepare for a return to their Toronto office

(Photo: Lauren Kolyn)

Bruce Walsh, who stepped into the role of publisher at House of Anansi Press in June 2020, is leaving the post to focus on health concerns, the press announced today.

Walsh, who took over as publisher from Sarah MacLachlan when the latter retired after sixteen years at the helm, is based in Nova Scotia, where he has been since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. He has been outspoken on social media about health problems, including mobility and vision issues, resulting from an undiagnosed neurological condition.

“Being a publisher requires 100% focus and long hours, which I found I couldn’t give,” says Walsh about his decision to step away. “Anansi deserves a publisher who is razor sharp.”

Walsh was already in Nova Scotia when he was hired and, due to COVID restrictions, has never actually set foot in Anansi’s Toronto office headquarters. “I never met my team,” says Walsh. “The only people I knew at Anansi were Matt [Williams, vice president, publishing operations] and Karen Li [publisher of Groundwood Books, Anansi’s children’s imprint]. They were the only two people I’d ever met in person.”

Despite relating to his new colleagues only over Zoom meetings during the course of his year as publisher, Walsh found he quickly developed a deep well of respect for the group at Anansi. “They’ve been amazing,” Walsh says. “Semareh [Al-Hillal, Anansi’s president], Scott [Griffin, Anansi’s owner], the team – really great people are there.”

Walsh’s departure adds another element of uncertainty to a year and a half that has already been full of bumps in the road due to upheaval from COVID-19. Al-Hillal is working closely with the house’s design and editorial teams to put the finishing touches on the fall books and will continue in this capacity until a new publisher is in place. Though a timeline for this is yet to be determined, Al-Hillal is confident in the staff’s ability to bridge the gap.

“[Bruce] took the month of July to step away fully and have a rest and think about things,” Al-Hillal says. “So we’ve been working without him for a little while now.”

In the short term, one of the main priorities for Anansi will be exploring the possibility of returning staff to their Sterling Road office as public health protocols and safety allow. The precise logistics of this comprise an ongoing conversation among staff and no firm date has been set for reopening. “We inch toward what feels like more concrete plans,” says Al-Hillal. “We are being really consultative with each and every staff member around their individual situations.”

Since the province permitted non-essential businesses to reopen, some staff members have started going into the office on a part-time basis – once a week in some cases – and Al-Hillal is hopeful that as autumn progresses, people will begin to return organically. There will be an assumption that staff are vaccinated, unless individual employees who have issues that prevent them from getting vaccinated have spoken privately with their supervisors, and masking policy will be based on current public health recommendations.

“Like many people, we’re tired of this,” Al-Hillal says. “Working from home has its upsides, but I can speak for myself in that part of why you work in publishing is the people, the authors, and getting the chance to have in-person conversations. Some of the little joys of what we do have been missing for me.”

Al-Hillal is also cognizant of the emotional weight returning to a public work environment after so long in isolation may carry for some staff. “We might have some feelings. And we might not be able to anticipate what those feelings are,” she says. “Let’s make sure we keep talking to each other about it.”

One thing that is not opening in the foreseeable future is Anansi’s in-house bookstore. “For the time being, as sad as it is to do, we’re keeping it closed, because when the staff do come back in bigger numbers, we feel like we need to maintain it just for staff and not have outside people coming in,” Al-Hillal says. “That’s a whole other level of risk management.”

In the absence of an in-person bookstore experience, Al-Hillal points to Anansi’s revamped website, which she hopes will entice readers to make purchases online while the physical store remains shuttered. “Our new website has so much more functionality in terms of being able to search for things and so many more supporting materials,” she says.

The website notwithstanding, Al-Hillal is champing at the bit for the day when Anansi can return to its full, pre-pandemic operations. “I’m so keen to have a community presence again – being back in the office again and being able to open the bookstore. It’s an important place for people to be able to come and feel who we are in person.”

In the meantime, the focus will be getting the fall and winter books to market, including a number of titles that Walsh signed up. Among these are Cobalt: Cradle of the Demon Metals, Birth of a Mining Superpower by Charlie Angus, Die Walking: A Child’s Journey Through Genocide by Obadiah M, and The Swells by Will Aitken. “Those are the sort of books I love to publish,” Walsh says. And though he has been in the driver’s seat for the acquisition, editing, and cover design of these titles, he is fully confident in handing the steering wheel over to the staff who remain now that he has decided to leave. “I have enormous faith in Anansi’s ability to get the word out and to do that wonderful marketing job that they do. I don’t need to be there.”

As he takes a step back from the rigours of publishing, Walsh wants to make it clear that he is not retiring or riding off into the sunset. “I can still work,” he says, in a tone of voice that leaves no room for dissent. That includes his own writing, something he finally has time to turn his attention to. And while his decision to resign from his role as publisher of Anansi was difficult because of his love for the job and the relationships he has with the staff and their authors, he is nonetheless sanguine about the present and what is to come. “Making decisions makes you feel better,” he says. “Periods of indecision are difficult. Making decisions is a lot easier.”

Bruce Walsh steps down as publisher at Anansi as staff prepare for a return to their Toronto office