The History of Newfoundland Publishing


A Brief History of Newfoundland

Literature Review

Early Publications

First Newfoundland Publishers

Reading in Newfoundland

Cultural Revival


Reading in Newfoundland

During the early years of European settlement in Newfoundland and Labrador’s history, the population was primarily transient European fishermen, arriving on the island’s rugged shores in the spring and returning to Europe in the fall. As noted above, colonies were being established in the early seventeenth century with English men and women hoping to establish permanent settlements. Without a doubt some of these first settlers would have brought books with them (Barker and Hannaford, paragraph 10), however, as William Barker and Sandra Hannaford note, most of those who arrived on the shores of Newfoundland and Labrador were “poor, working-class, and probably illiterate or barely literate” and those who could read would likely concentrate their efforts reading religious texts (Barker and Hannaford, paragraph 10). The nineteenth century would change this, for with more permanent settlement came an increasingly populous middleclass that was educated and interested in reading. In this century, literary societies emerged that would attempt to serve the growing literate population (Barker and Hannaford, paragraph 16). It is with this shift that a publishing industry was able to develop and succeed in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Trade Books

The trade book industry was the slowest form of publishing to take root in Newfoundland and Labrador. As mentioned above, books and pamphlets had been produced and published on the island since the nineteenth century primarily by local newspaper publishers and booksellers (Encyclopaedia of Newfoundland and Labrador 1993, 457) however, it was not until five prominent Memorial University professors created Breakwater Books in 1973 that a true trade book industry developed in Newfoundland. The five: Al Pittman, Pat Byrne, Dick Buehler, Tom Dawe and Clyde Rose reportedly cooked up the idea of a Newfoundland trade house focused on publishing Newfoundland authors, over drinks at the Corner Pub in St. John’s (Breakwater books-About us) with the three goals “to conserve Newfoundland history, tradition, and folklore; to publish contemporary Newfoundland writing; and to inject Newfoundland content in to the provincial school curriculum” (MacSkimming 2007, 266).

Soon after Breakwater’s debut, Rose left his position at Memorial to concentrate on building the young publishing firm, (Encyclopaedia of Newfoundland and Labrador 1993, 458) and by 1978, Breakwater was distributing their works to mainland Canada. In the early 1980s, the publisher started a folklore/folklife series and printed its first works in the Newfoundland History Series (Encyclopaedia of Newfoundland and Labrador 1993, 458). Since the 1980s Breakwater has also had a hand in the publishing Children’s books and educational texts. Rose was able to create usable anthologies from the works of authors published through the press which were promoted, against government misgivings, to the school boards (MacSkimming 2007, 266).

Since its inception, Breakwater books has published over 500 titles and they are currently the largest publishing house in Atlantic Canada and one of the largest in the country. Their folklore-folklife series, which began in 1980, is the largest of its type published anywhere in the western world (Breakwater books). Rose and his four colleges worked very hard to promote the publishing house (MacSkimming 2007, 266) and gained world acclaim with the publishing of Bernice Morgan’s Random Passage in 1992. When faced with financial struggles Rose claimed that closing the house was not an option, for Breakwater had brought “a generation of Newfoundlanders to recognition that we have tremendous writing talent here in our own community. You can never turn back the clock on that now” (MacSkimming 2007, 267). Breakwater’s model has been successfully utilized by a number of other Canadian publishing houses, most notably Great Plains Publications in Winnipeg (MacSkimming 2007, 420).

Following the creation of Breakwater books in 1973, other trade publishers set up shop in the provinces’ capital. Jespersen press was officially started in 1975 after Ivan Jespersen purchased a Fogo Island newsletter in 1968 (Encyclopaedia of Newfoundland and Labrador 1993, 459). Jespersen relocated the operation to St. John’s in 1972 and by the early 1980s, Jespersen press began publishing educational and children’s texts (Encyclopaedia of Newfoundland and Labrador 1993, 459). The early 1980s also saw the creation of two new trade-publishing houses in St. John’s: Harry Cuff Publishing and Creative Publishers, opened in 1980 and 1983 respectively. Today both publishers have printed more than 200 titles each with Cuff’s most famous work being Volumes 3 to 5 of the Encyclopaedia of Newfoundland and Labrador, published in 1993 (Harry Cuff). Creative Publishing continues to release ten to fourteen titles yearly, and the press has received a number of awards (Creative Publishing).

Today these publishing houses enjoy immense popularity as regional publishers, providing local residents and tourists with stories of Newfoundland culture and history (MacSkimming 2007, 420-421). Four of the provinces trade houses have joined together to form the Newfoundland and Labrador Publishers Association. The association, located in downtown St. John’s, claims to “represent the spirit and innovation of Newfoundland and Labrador's creative talents in the publishing industry” (NLPA).

These trade houses have gathered strength and success from the local community, Newfoundlanders living away, and tourist visiting the province. As Barker and Hannaford note, there are “few places in North America in which even the major drugstore chains stock books from local publishers on history and literature” (Barker and Hannaford, paragraph 3). Newfoundland literature also makes it way into the hands of Newfoundlander’s living away from the island through the Downhomer magazine and also through availability in places where many Newfoundlanders reside, such as Fort McMurray Alberta.

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This website was created by Sara House and is based on a paper written for Publishing LIS 519 at the School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Alberta.
Last updated July 31, 2010

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