An Interview with Alana Wilcox, Editor-in-Chief of Coach House Books

CV2: What got you interested in book publishing, and why have you chosen book publishing as a career?

Alana Wilcox: Like many people, I fell into publishing by some combination of accident and inevitability. At university, I worked on a number of campus literary journals, a few of which were printed at Coach House; I was fascinated by the process. After graduating with a Master’s degree in English, and, well, no prospects, I started working at a bookstore and as a freelance editor.

CV2: Do you write? If so, in what genre and how does your work in publishing affect that aspect of your life?

AW: I used to be a writer. Coach House was going to publish a chapbook I had written. So I spent a lot of time there—I knew the editor, Darren Wershler-Henry, and I knew the printers from my lit-journal days. Stan, knowing that I worked at Book City and knew that side of the industry, suggested to Darren that I help out one day a week. As often happens in this industry, one day a week turned into seven. Darren soon left; I had already been doing all the admin work and editing the fiction list, so I took over as editor.

About my own writing? I did publish a novel back in 2000 (with The Mercury Press), and I’ve been working on a second ever since. But it’s really tough to spend 10 (or more) hours a day on other writers’ work and then to have breathing space to work on my own book.

But I do love publishing. And, in retrospect, everything I’ve ever done has been leading up to it—hence that sense of inevitability. Soon after I settled in at CH, I had a forehead-smacking moment: of course this is the work I’m made for.

CV2: What kind of background does a person need to work in literary publishing? What is your background? Are there courses a person can take? What kind of hands-on experience would you recommend for a person interested in the publishing business?

AW: A lot of aspiring publishers now take publishing courses; they’re offered at Simon Fraser, Ryerson, Centennial College, and a few others. Certainly they’re useful, though I don’t think any of them give you a real sense of what happens in publishing houses.

My way in was to get a Master’s degree in English, take a copy-editing course, then get work copy-editing celebrity bios, etc., while at the same time learning about the business of books by working at a bookstore. Volunteering is great experience, and I recommend getting involved in the community: going to readings, making publishing and writing friends, etc.

CV2: What is the primary difference between literary presses and those with a more commercial emphasis? What makes Coach House Books unique in Canadian literary publishing?

AW: A few years ago, a job came open in a large multinational publisher (by which I mean the big guys, like Random House, HarperCollins, etc., which are owned by large conglomerates rather than by individual Canadians). A friend, assuming I would rather work in a large press, sent me the posting. The primary skill required was not to be a good editor but to be able to write profit-and-loss statements. That just affirmed my decision to stay out of that game.

Commercial presses have profit as their ultimate goal, though that’s not to say that they’re not interested in making good books. But I think literary presses have always as their primary goal to make good, important books.