Prince of publishers

Jack McClelland never stopped trolling for material he could publish and he had a marvelously seductive line. “That would make a great book,” he’d say to just about any rational thought. “Tony’s book.”
Who would know better than The Canadian PublisherTM himself?
That’s how he lured Pammy’s great3grandson. Every time Jack talked about “Tony’s book” it moved closer to a work-in-progress and after a while it was, though very much part-time as to work and haphazard as to progress. Nobody who writes for money in Canada is unaware of the perils of the book trade for the author.
But then, at 11 a.m. on May 18, 1985, after Tony pulled his robe tight and opened the door just wide enough to get the Globe and reach in the mailbox, there was an envelope. Bond paper, executive stock. At the kitchen table he propped it against the toaster, poured coffee, lit a JPS and stared at it awhile. It was from Toronto. Tony had been living almost ten years in Ottawa.
Inside, neatly-typed, was a three page letter from Jack, The Canadian Publisher.
Dear Tony:
“I finished reading your manuscript on the weekend and have been brooding about it ever since. It is a very thoughtful document. My initial reaction was that if we could get this out quickly, it would give Canadians a lot of food for thought before the next election. That might still be feasible…”
[There followed some random observations about possible libel, some argument about interpretation and a good deal of f-based vocabulary, leaving it largely unreproducible in a family journal.]
“I am passing the manuscript today to Linda, our new President. I am giving her a copy of this letter and a note saying, Linda, I think this has to be treated at the top level very urgently…
“This, then, is an interim response indicating that I at least think it is a manuscript worth very, very serious attention.
“Best personal regards.”
It had taken a year to write, compiled on CBM 8096 microcomputer — a souped up Commodore 64 — and stored on floppy disk. What had hit Jack’s desk ten days earlier was an original printout, double spaced, margins justified, spellchecked, not a single typo in all 75,000 words, a publisher’s dream.
More than once Jack had proclaimed his belief in “Tony’s book.” Now Tony had delivered and, with his enthusiastic response, Tony saw the fall round of public affairs interviews and bookstore signings, the world unfolding as it should. Not for him the trauma of Canadian authors like Ian Adams, whose last book was withdrawn from the market by one publisher, who saw 22,000 paperback copies trashed when another went into receivership after being warned off by the RCMP, and who had to admit to a Globe and Mail reporter, “I have written six books and still can’t find a publisher in this country.” Not only did Tony have a publisher, Tony had the publisher who mattered most. The Canadian Publisher.

The Canadian Publisher

The Canadian Publisher

Three days after Jack’s reply another letter arrived, from Linda McKnight, the new president of McClelland and Stewart (M&S). She was in the throes of corporate reorganization and the fall sales conference was just two weeks away. She wrote that she was asking for “a fast and thorough appraisal of the manuscript by a senior editor, with comments made by Jack and yourself in your correspondence in mind” but cautioned that “possibly the best interests of the book and you as a writer would be served by not rushing it through but taking the time required to get it in the best possible shape.”
Tony could live with that and called Linda to say, “I’m happy to leave it in your hands and I look forward to hearing from your editor.” Less than three weeks later Toivo, a senior editor, phoned. Things were moving along just as you might expect at Canada’s premier publishing house. Tony congratulated himself for his foresight in seeking Jack out seven years earlier.
On a Friday afternoon he had gone to the hotel room where The Canadian Publisher was conducting business while in The Nation’s Capital. Jack was very bullish on the prospects for “Tony’s book ” at that first meeting, and very creative. “That’s a great idea,” Jack said of the idea Tony had brought, then rapidly demolished it as unpublishable. Would never work in the Canadian market – “infinitesimal for this kind of stuff no matter how important it is” – and certainly not at this time. He had a better idea. “Write a spy thriller,” he said. “That’s where the money is.”
“A thriller?” Tony had written millions of words of journalism over twenty years for magazines, newspapers and broadcasting networks in Canada and around the world. His few early attempts at fiction were never sold and long forgotten.
“You can do it,” said Canada’s most important publisher. “Think one up and send me an outline.” On his own Tony would never have thought of attempting any such thing but Jack’s confidence that it could be so easily done bolstered him. Before the meeting was over Tony was thinking, “Why not try?”
He wrote a five page outline that involved filthy-rich Arabs, sex-drugged entertainers, power-hungry politicians and a conspiracy to control the global flow of information. It was extreme. Jack thought it was great. He asked for some sample chapters. Tony was prepared to invest a little time in a learning experience. He took a month to do some research and write 10,000 words.
“Very promising,” said Jack and passed the work along to his chief editor at the time, Anna Porter. She asked to see some more. Tony did another 10,000 words.
“It’s coming along nicely,” said Anna, who thought the sex scenes were particularly well done. “But the sample chapters are not consecutive and I’m not sure how they will be linked together. Could you fill in the front section so that I can picture it a little more clearly?”

Anna Porter

Anna Porter

Another 10,000 words would finish almost half the novel, called The Tonga Contract, after three months of work at the National Library of Canada. Bridget dropped Tony off each morning to work at the steaming potboiler all day, surrounded by scholars, students and speechwriters immersed in weighty research. She picked him up in the evening and typed his handwritten pages at night on the Xerox 800 word processor they had in the office at home. (They had acquired it to process the thousands of letters they mailed each year to invite participation in Ottawa and provincial capitals at meetings of The Response Group.)
Working with a word processor and later with a computer vastly improved the speed of revising text and reorganizing the manuscript. It was a matter of wonder to him that anyone had ever finished a book without one. Still, it had been a long time spinning out this dream that Jack had, “Tony’s book” of lurid and dangerous intrigue. There had been no talk yet of contract, let alone an advance. Two weeks after mailing the third instalment Tony trekked to Toronto to get down to business.
“I’ve read it all through again. I think we might have a bestseller,” said Anna as she and Jack and Tony met in her office. “The best market will probably be in paperback in the U.S. I’ll query some New York houses about a simultaneous deal here and there.”
“Great,” Tony said. “Can we talk about money?”
Jack said nothing. Anna said she’d think about it but first she had some reservations about the depth of descriptive detail in certain episodes and would like to see a little more evidence of ability at scene setting.
“How much evidence?”
“Ten thousand words should be ample.”
But Tony didn’t have another month to donate to the project. The mortgage needed paying and the kids needed feeding and the bank showed little confidence in his prospect of forming a troika with Robert Ludlum and Frederick Forsythe. Tony decided it was the better part of prudence to cut-and-retreat to a real working world where effort was rewarded with income. The next time he tackled a book, Tony promised himself, if ever there’s a next time, which he very much doubted, he would do it differently. He put the half-done manuscript away.
It was five years later, 1985, that Tony finished The Response Group File. It wasn’t fiction but a lot closer to the idea he had originally brought to Jack. The book built on hundreds of hours of discussion with elected, appointed and self-designated leaders in Victoria, Edmonton, Calgary Regina, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec City, Fredericton and Halifax. It dealt with how the rules of the Canadian game are manipulated to the advantage of very few and why everything is bigger in Canada than elsewhere. Bigger government, with 20% of the labour force in public service. Bigger big business — proportionally about four times more concentrated than in the U.S.
“This can be a very powerful book,” Jack wrote. “There is much that you say in it that is important but it needs more organization…”
That’s the beauty of having it on computer, Tony thought. Reorganization is a breeze.
“The material should be of interest to a broad constituency of Canadians.”
By this time Anna had left The Canadian Publisher to start her own publishing house.
“It also needs the attention of a meticulous editor although you write very well.”
Enter Toivo, a meticulous senior editor. Toivo talked to Jack. Toivo talked to Tony. It didn’t take long to agree that the principal focus of the book should be the extraordinary control over the lives of Canadians exercised by a few giant institutions that dominate the decision-making process. Toivo was about to leave for a brief vacation in his native New York. He would take the manuscript with him and work on it there, ready to meet with me on his return to organize the final push on a manuscript to be ready for publication in the spring.
Back from his holiday in mid-August, Toivo met Tony in his M&S office, where Jack waved in passing, then over lunch at the Four Seasons. For five hours they talked about what should stay in the book, what should be reserved for a sequel and what didn’t belong. They talked about tone, whether it was a story best told in the first person or more objectively. They talked about the title. Toivo didn’t much like The Response Group File. It didn’t mean anything if you hadn’t been there. Tony suggested First Canadian. Better, said Toivo, much better. Tony flew back from Toronto to prepare an outline showing how the manuscript would be re-organized. As soon as it was in hand, The Canadian Publisher would proceed to a contract.
“We need to talk contract,” said Toivo. “What did you have in mind?”
“It costs about five thousand a month to keep everything going.”
“How long do you think it will take?”
“Three months.”
“Fifteen thousand dollar advance against royalties?”
“That’s about right.”
“Doesn’t sound at all unreasonable,” said Toivo. “I’ll talk to Linda and Jack.”
The advance wouldn’t be a problem.
Within a week the outline was done and Tony sent along a rewritten chapter as well, a bonus made easy by computer power. Editorial meetings were held on Wednesdays. Toivo called late Wednesday afternoon. “I’m afraid I have some discouraging news.”
“I haven’t been able to get the point across to the people here. They want to see a little more reorganization.”
“How much more?”
“Two chapters.”
Tony bit his tongue. “OK I guess. With the micro I can redo two in a week or two.”
“I know you can but there’s something else.”
“I’m leaving to take a job in New York. From now on you’ll be dealing with Jan Walter, the director of publishing.”
“Has she read it?”
It was early September and Jan was the fourth handler since Jack’s warm welcome in May. Over the next ten days Tony rewrote the chapters and mailed them on a Friday. That would give Jan something to chew on. Something to think about. Something to send a cheque for.
A week later Tony called Toronto. “Your package arrived this morning,” said Jan. “I haven’t had a chance to look at it.”
Another week. The director of publishing didn’t call, didn’t respond to messages. Tony couldn’t think why — refused to think the unthinkable — until late in the last week of September as Tony sipped his first coffee of the day and unfolded the Globe. There in black and white his putative publisher was staring up at him from Page One. The Canadian Publisher, it was reported, was eyeball to eyeball with bankruptcy. He didn’t have the cash to print his fall list, let alone support development of future titles. The Ontario Development Corporation was being asked to convert $3 million in loans into shares in the company. The provincial cabinet was considering a million dollar bailout. The biggest of the Big Five banks and a group of private investors, including Jack’s more prosperous authors, were being canvassed for another million or so, to be held in preferred stock that could be converted later to common. Jack owned eighty percent of his company, which was $5 million in the hole. It was enough to drive a man to drink.
The press was complaining that he couldn’t be reached but the M&S switchboard operator put Tony’s call right through and Jack answered. His voice trembled and the tension was palpable as he spoke quickly. The bailout hadn’t been approved by cabinet yet. He expected word any minute, that afternoon. He had been too caught up with financial negotiations to follow the progress of Tony’s manuscript. He would ask Jan to call back. If Tony was coming to Toronto, Jack would like to take him to lunch.
They both understood the irony. Tony’s book featured the emergence of government as the bank of last resort for business. Jack’s story could now reasonably be added, a natural chapter eleven. The fate of Tony’s book, which by now had consumed “more than five percent of my adult life” as he said that night to Bridget, was in the balance. No bailout, no book.
Within days there was excellent news. The house that Jack built had been saved, at least for the moment, by a healthy infusion of public funds. Tony resolved to press for a conclusion. On the last Sunday of the month he bought a VIA Rail economy ticket and boarded the train for T.O., determined to wrest a favourable decision. Tony had a place to stay with a friend in the Republic of Rathnelly and would continue revising for as long as he had to wait.
Jack wasn’t in the office Monday morning. Tony left a message and another for Jan. Jack called back. He was at home, exhausted, wrung-out by the hard bargaining with banks and bureaucrats and the nerve-wracking, last-millisecond rescue. He was taking time off to recover. He asked me to call again in a week.
Then Jan called. “You’ve been reading about our troubles in the press. We’re not in a position to offer a fifteen thousand dollar advance.”
“I thought the government had solved your money problems.”
“That may clear up the debt. It hasn’t given us any more to operate with. Things are very tight. We can’t think of that kind of advance.”
“What kind of advance can you think of?”
“I’m not sure. Let me think about it. I’ll drop you a note.”
“Send it by courier,” Tony said, giving the address on Rathnelly.
Jack wasn’t in the office next Monday morning. Tony reached him at home in Kleinburg, the wealthy enclave of artists and others north of Toronto, home of the justly famed McMichael Canadian Art Collection. They agreed to meet for lunch on Friday in the Prince Arthur Room of the Park Plaza. That afternoon Jan’s letter was hand delivered. In it she noted that much of the content of First Canadian drew on the events of the past few years. She would like to see another outline that looked forward. She didn’t mention an advance.

Jan Walter

Jan Walter

On the phone she was not warm. “First we’ll need the outline,” she said, “then we might put up two thousand.”
“That’s not acceptable,” Tony said. He knew he was watching a year-and-a-half, the original work, two revisions, a hundred thousand hard words, tilt slowly into a crater.
“It’s the best we can do.”
“That’s ridiculous. Six weeks ago fifteen thousand wasn’t unreasonable.”
“The situation has changed.”
“Have you talked to Jack and Linda about this?”
“Not yet.”
“I’m having lunch with Jack on Friday,” Tony said. “I’d appreciate it if you’d talk to Linda before then and get back to me.”
“I’ll try.”
The Canadian Publisher wasn’t at the Park Plaza yet but Tony was shown to Jack’s usual table by the wall-length windows where he would be framed and highly visible to everyone in the restaurant as well as passersby on Prince Arthur Street. He loped in just a few minutes later, loudly greeting Jack Godfrey and Irving Grundman, who were seated together quietly conspiring. Loud gossip at the next table quickly refocused to the M&S bailout.
The waiter brought Jack a martini. “I’ve been taking too many of these in the last while,” he said. “I’m going to stop drinking on Sunday, for good.” He was 53 years of age and it didn’t sound as if he meant it, more as if he often quit for good on Sundays.
Tony said he had stopped two years before. We are all alcoholic in our family, or nearly all, he confided. Alcoholism is genetic, at least in part, Tony said. It certainly runs in families.
“My father never took a drink in his life,” said Jack.
“That doesn’t mean much,” Tony said. “If you never drink you never know whether you’re alcoholic or not. The only way you find out is by taking to drink.”
“I used to give it up for a month twice a year,” said Jack. “But now I find it takes most of the month just to get feeling well again.”
Jack had Jan’s letter with him. “I’m not really sure what this means,” he said. “Tell me what’s going on.” Tony told him about the meetings, the correspondence, the calls back and forth, the revisions, the outlines, the fresh thoughts, the most recent offer.
“I’ve been out of touch with all of this,” said Jack, “totally preoccupied with the financial thing. And I have to be very careful about intervening because I’ve given Linda full authority. I still own eighty percent but if I swing my weight I’ll undermine her.
“On the other hand,” he went on, “Linda and Jan don’t know the details of the new deal yet. I’ve been at Kleinburg since it closed. This meeting is the first I’ve had in two weeks. Also, we have a new director of sales who has just joined the company. I know that he hasn’t had a chance to look at this yet. I’ll tell you what, we’ll call them after lunch. One or the other will be there. You know I’ve always believed in Tony’s book. I’m sure we can work something out.”
Tony felt better than he had in a long while. The waiter brought Jack another martini. They ordered lunch.
As they ate Jack spoke about the bailout. The crisis had erupted suddenly when book sales unexpectedly took a nosedive. But negotiations had actually started two years earlier when Jack went to Bill Davis, the Ontario premier, with a proposition. The government already had a large stake in the company through loans advanced or guaranteed at the bank.
“If anything happens to me,” Jack said to the premier, “your government will have to deal with my wife and kids. If you should leave office, I don’t know who I’ll have to contend with. We should get the financing straightened away. How about swapping debt for equity?”
The premier agreed to talk but negotiations dragged on, with government, with investors, with banks, over months and months and a year, then two. The biggest barrier was the Big Five bank which held The Canadian Publisher’s account. Its participation in any refinancing was essential. But these were hardnosed banking days, so flinty that the prime minister himself had been moved to entreat banks to “take a chance on Canadians.” Jack’s business was not made of the bricks and mortar that gave most comfort to bankers. It seemed to rely more on creative hunch than product planning and development. He couldn’t persuade the bank’s account managers and he couldn’t circumvent them.
Then he got lucky. At a formal dinner in Montreal he ran into the bank’s chief executive. “You’re impossible to reach,” Jack said. “I’ve called a dozen times.”
“You need a code word to be sure to get through,” the chairman said. “If it’s really important, use this.” He gave Jack the code.
When Jack called the next month it was really important. The bank’s investment committee had just turned down The Canadian Publisher’s restructuring proposal, queering the rescue package carefully crafted with the province over two years. The CEO was away on vacation. Jack said the code word.
The CEO called the next day, not happy. “What the hell do you mean coming after me on my holidays? I can’t do anything about this. The decision’s been made.”
Jack paddled desperately. He said the decision had been made on numbers only. He said it was more than a numbers decision. It was public relations. The Canadian Publisher’s company was an important name in Canada. It wouldn’t look good for the bank to send it over the falls just as the government was tossing a lifeline. It wasn’t the strongest argument to give a banker but Jack asked the CEO at least to review the file.
“I haven’t got the file.”
Jack called the bank, used the code word again, and asked that the file be sent.
A day later the CEO reversed the committee but pointedly told Jack never again to interrupt his vacation. Jack didn’t know if the code word had ever been changed. He hadn’t called since.
When he went to pay for lunch Jack discovered his Diner’s Club card was missing. He signed the cheque then led me to the row of pay phones in the mini-lobby outside the dining room in the northeast corner of the hotel. Tony suddenly felt that this was a well practiced routine, the lunch, the call, the talk of a deal, all very agreeable. Pre-arranged. The way to do business as publishing should be done, creatively, would naturally be to do it when the office was supposed to be closed, from a pay phone at the Park Plaza. Jack dropped a quarter and waited an interminable minute before anyone answered. It was his daughter. She went to get Jan while Jack explained that the office was actually closed on Friday afternoons, but the director of publishing would be there. After a long wait Jan took the line. Jack said he was with me, we had talked at lunch. He passed the phone and immediately reached for another to try to locate his missing Diner’s card.
Jan said she had talked to Linda. They still wanted a new outline. If they liked what they saw two thousand dollars was the best offer they could make. No guarantees. For the first three chapters following the outline, they might advance another three thousand. She stressed “might”. Tony said he would give his answer to Jack.
“What do you think Jack?”
“I think we’ve made an offer you can’t accept. You can’t afford to.”
“That’s what I think too.”
The eighty percent shareholder explained once more why he couldn’t intervene in publishing decisions, even though he’d like to in this case. “If I do it once it will never stop. But I’ll be talking to Linda on the weekend. There are developments on the financing side that she’s not aware of. Leave it with me.” Tony had been two weeks in Toronto. He hated to leave without resolving the question. But he agreed to wait for a call on Monday.
Jack couldn’t budge them, he said when he called. There were now so many revisions and versions of who said what to whom and when, that the early spontaneous commitment had dissipated. It wasn’t that they didn’t want Tony’s book. Jack still believed in it. But he didn’t run the company any longer. He just owned it.
Tony asked Jan whether she had read the original manuscript.
“No. By the time I got involved we were looking for a new book.”
“I hope you find one,” Tony said. “Please send mine back.”
When it arrived by courier the next day he put it, unopened, on the shelf next to the dual disk drive that was the heart of the microcomputer’s memory. Tony recalled an incident from the week before at the Park Plaza. He had with him a copy of a best-selling biography published by M&S. Noticing it Jack said, “That one made a lot of money.”
Tony turned the cover to show the author’s dedication. “With affection and gratitude for my friend and mentor, Jack McClelland, the Canadian Publisher.”
“Really,” said Jack. “I never noticed that.”


One thought on “Prince of publishers

  1. A most engaging account of a rollercoaster ride that should have had a different outcome! B.

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