The age of 
the ‘book nerd'

Nicole Winstanley has long refused to turn the page on her love of books. But until she arrived at Western, she never had so much company in doing so.

“When I got to campus, I discovered there were a lot more ‘book nerds’ like me than I originally realized in the suburbs,” said Winstanley, BA’96 (English Language/Literature). “And I have to tell you, the libraries at Western and King’s far exceeded the resources I had on hand at the Markham Public Library. So, I was pretty delighted to read my way through those shelves.

“But to find people as excited about books and literature as I was, opened up a whole new world, a whole new conversation for me.”

Today, Winstanley helps lead that conversation for the entire country as president of Penguin Canada, one of Canada’s preeminent trade publishers.

The 39-year-old joined the company in 2005. What followed has been an amazing run of success, including her editing of Scotiabank Giller Prize winner Joseph Boyden as well as acquiring the rights to the Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. She was named president in July.

Winstanley credits an early Shakespeare class that “changed everything” for her.  There, she would be nabbed, not by the words of The Bard, but by those of King’s professor Paul Werstine and her classmates.

“It was a class full of people, all passionate,” she said. “Rather than a room full of people who had to take this class to get to the next place, it felt like people could have stayed there all day. I loved that. It didn’t have the confines of a high school class, where everything is very curriculum based and follows, in many cases, a very mundane path.

“That class fueled the fire for me.”

Admittedly, despite her passion, she never considered her preferred career a certainty.

The proud Arts & Humanities major, perhaps panicked by the naysayers of arts degrees, toyed with journalism. She took a course, even tried to get on the student Gazette (“but they wouldn’t really have me”). However, the profession never offered enough depth.

“I didn’t feel aggressive enough to be a journalist, to be honest,” said the former editor of Propaganda, the Western’s Arts & Humanities Student Council’s journal. “I didn’t think I could get up in people’s faces that the job seems to require. And the more I got involved in books, the more fleeting journalism seemed.”

Eventually, she started her career in the financial industry, before moving into publishing.

Reflecting on the young woman she was at Western, Winstanley admits to creeping fears over what to do with her degree.

“I should have chilled out a bit. I don’t think I was intense, well, maybe I was a little,” she said with a laugh. “I was really determined and worried, more worried than I should have been, about how it was to all turn out, because of the jokes about having an English degree and what are you going to do with it. I really worried about it because it was the area I wanted to be.”

When she speaks of books, she speaks as if they are family. She recounts the stories she loved as a child, and how she revisits them now with her 2-year-old son –  sometimes, over and over again. Those moments remind her of what Western taught her about the ever-changing nature of how readers perceive the same piece of literature differently throughout their life.

“That program,” she said, “instilled the editor in me in the sense that the notes in the margin were important, and that there would be an occasion to go back to them and realize something all over again in a whole new way.”

Her run of success at Penguin has been reflected in more than commercial success; you can see it in the personal connections she has with her authors. Boyden called her an “editor any writer would dream to have. She supports you, fights for you and she gives you all the feedback you’d desire.”

Although modest in the face of such compliments, Winstanley knows the secret.

“Editing has changed over the years. One of the qualities people forget – one that is really important in an editor – is being a great champion for that book, for that writer,” she said. “So, yes, it’s all of the things that happen on the page, all of those things we suppose an editor is. But it’s also you’re the first person who really gets to shout about it from the rooftops and you get to win over people in house.

“And hopefully, if you’re doing your job well, you cast them under the same spell the author has swept you up with.”

For today’s students, Winstanley sees those same naysayers of arts majors still abound. Her advice to ‘book nerds’ today: If you have a passion for books, live it. Make as many contacts as early on as possible, either by volunteering or attending events.During her time at Western, Winstanley volunteered with Word on the Street, a national celebration of literacy and the written word.

“Those human connections, those things that get your foot in the door, are essential and the earlier you do them the better,” she said.

Even more, she suggested students find their voice in the marketplace – what do they like, what don’t they like and how can they articulate both points?

“Publishing is built on people with a lot of opinions,” she said. “You can’t love all books, you can’t use the same adjective for all books. There have to be things you feel whole-heartedly passionate about and able to sway other people on, or defend. And things you don’t like, you have to be willing to say this doesn’t work for me and here’s why. And if they go on to be great successes, then you’re going to wear that. So, you have to find a certain amount of comfort and confidence in your own opinions and own voice.”

And one last thing: always surround yourself with fellow lovers of the word.

“At Western, I discovered that real passion for learning, and the community of that. … There was that real excitement about learning, about sharing opinions and about finding your way into books,” she said. “Rather than being alone in an A-Z stack at your local library, you are surrounded by all these other people whose ideas and insights and experiences expand your understanding of the world.

“I loved that about Western, and I never wanted that to stop. And, in a way, I feel that’s what publishing is to me, too.”