House of Anansi Press adds Leigh Nash as publisher in a move to take the house to the “next stage”

“Publishing is its own art form,” says Nash. (Photo: Johnny CY Lam)

In a sign that it is prepared to move to a new level in its development, Toronto independent House of Anansi Press announced yesterday that it has hired Leigh Nash as publisher. Nash, currently the publisher of Ontario’s Invisible Publishing, replaces former Anansi publisher Bruce Walsh, who stepped down in August 2021 due to health issues.

The addition of Nash, who has been with Invisible since 2015, came as a surprise to many industry watchers. “I don’t think anyone [saw it coming],” says Nash from her home in Ontario’s Prince Edward County. Including, in at least one respect, Nash herself. It was Anansi’s president, Semareh Al-Hillal, who approached Nash about taking over the publisher’s chair at Anansi. “I was not looking to leave Invisible,” Nash says.

Al-Hillal, who worked with Nash on the board of the Association of Canadian Publishers, developed an admiration for Nash’s knowledge and collegiality in a board setting. She was also impressed with the work Nash did to develop Invisible as a force within the Canadian publishing ecosystem. “It’s no small feat to run a company, regardless of how small or how large,” Al-Hillal says. “My estimation of all she must manage is just so huge.”

For owner Scott Griffin, bringing Nash on board is simultaneously forward-thinking and a way to consolidate the successes of Anansi’s past. “She has a lot of the qualities that [long-time Anansi publisher] Sarah MacLachlan had,” Griffin says. “She’s very high energy, she knows the industry, she’s an A-type personality. And she is really ambitious to see that she can play a part in taking Anansi up to the next stage.”

That next stage, for Griffin, involves an aggressive expansion that will attempt to position the house as the premier domestic publisher of Canadian literature. “I’d like to see Anansi be what [McClelland & Stewart] was before it was taken over,” Griffin says. “The Canadian publishing house. That’s perhaps ambitious, but that’s why we’re here.”

Ambitious or not, it’s a vision Nash is more than happy to endorse. “I think it’s absolutely attainable,” she says. “For me, that’s what’s really exciting – there’s that sense of aspiration.”

In the immediate term, Nash will remain in Prince Edward County, with plans to come into Toronto one or two days each week to interact with the Anansi team on a face-to-face basis. (The office has been open since August 2021, with a brief hiatus when Omicron hit in December. Al-Hillal says that staff have been returning to the office in recent weeks, though no directive to do so on a regular basis has been implemented as yet.)

As for the current publishing program in-house, Nash says that she has no plans to introduce any significant changes right out of the gate. Instead, she intends to spend the early months becoming acclimatized and getting to know the rest of the team. “They’re not bringing me in with any specific mandate,” she says. “I’m viewing it as coming in to continue the great work that Anansi’s been doing.”

Anansi’s publishing program has undergone significant growth since Griffin bought the house in 2002 in the wake of the General Distribution Services bankruptcy. Then under the aegis of publisher Martha Sharpe, the house was known for its high literary output. MacLachlan, who came on board as president in 2004, broadened Anansi’s range of titles, adding the Arachnide translation and Astoria short fiction lines, as well as pushing the house in a more commercial direction by publishing genre mystery, cookbooks, and math textbooks.

Though a more straightforwardly literary publisher, Invisible under Nash’s leadership has not been shy about taking risks and branching out. Al-Hillal points to Invisible’s baseball books as an example of the press looking outside its perceived wheelhouse for material, while Nash acknowledges Invisible’s success with essay collections as something she might want to see replicated at Anansi.

But Al-Hillal also underscores the collaborative nature of Anansi’s publishing to suggest that integrating into the team will not be as arduous for Nash as it might be in some other places. “Sometimes people have this idea that a house shifts and shakes based on the leanings and experience and affinities of the publisher,” Al-Hillal says. “In our case, it’s a little more of a broad consideration. We look at where we want to go together.”

While much of that core group remains intact, the business side of Anansi’s publishing machine is in flux as a result of the departure in February of vice president of operations Matt Williams, who had been with the house since before Griffin purchased it. There are no plans to replace Williams at the VP level; three jobs have been posted to cover some of his responsibilities: operations director, contracts associate, and accountant. “It’s not a direct replacement of [Williams],” says Al-Hillal. “It’s a reorganization and a way to address some of his responsibilities.”

While that is underway, Griffin envisions a four- to six-month learning curve to get Nash up to speed with the existing team before any changes will be considered. “I think we’re in a pretty good position,” he says. “Covid is difficult in that there are logistics with staff coming in or not coming in. But there seems to be a fair amount of blue sky up there now.”

As she begins to explore in greater depth the potential for her new role at one of Canada’s most storied publishing houses, Nash is pushing forward by leaning back on something she gleaned from the publisher of another storied Canadian press. “One of the greatest lessons I learned was from [Coach House Books editorial director] Alana Wilcox – that publishing is its own art form,” Nash says. “In everything I aspire to do as a publisher, excellence is the thing I’m chasing. I want to be the best publisher. We’re not always going to be able to compete with the multinationals in terms of money but we can compete by being the best at what we do.”

House of Anansi Press adds Leigh Nash as publisher in a move to take the house to the “next stage”