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80 years of Q&Q: CanLit gets down to business

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Early days at The Writers’ Union of Canada. From left to right: Pierre Berton, Charles Taylor, Margaret Atwood, Margaret Laurence, W.O. Mitchell, Elizabeth Woods, Alastair Sweeny, June Callwood, and Mordecai Richler.

Authors get organized

Decades before online petitions and social media became favoured activist tactics, Canadian authors gathered over drinks to discuss the issues of the day. Grassroots organizations emerged out of late nights at the pub, advocating collectively for higher royalties, copyright protection, and contract standardization, while building a sense of professional community and camaraderie.

Four writer-focused organizations and their influential founders:

League of Canadian Poets (1966): Earle Birney, John Robert Colombo, Louis Dudek, Ralph Gustafson, Al Purdy, F.R. Scott, Raymond Souster

The Writers’ Union of Canada (1973): Ian Adams, Margaret Atwood, Fred Bodsworth, June Callwood, Graeme Gibson, Farley Mowat

The Writers’ Trust of Canada (1976): Margaret Atwood, Pierre Berton, Graeme Gibson, Margaret Laurence, David Young

Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers (1977): Nancy Cleaver, Alan Daniel, Madeline Freeman, Audrey McKim, Claude X. LaBrecque, Jean Little, Madeline Kronby, Claire Mackay, J. Merle Smith, Mike Wilkins, Bert Williams


80-18In 1971, in its first step toward world domination, Toronto’s Harlequin Books Limited purchased British romance publisher Mills & Boon. The Harlequin name soon became synonymous with the genre, thanks in part to the steamy book covers that today grace more than 110 titles a month in 34 languages.


Stoddart’s elephant-sized promotion

During BookExpo Canada’s annual tenure at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, the elephant in the room – for one year – was a literal elephant. In 2000, Stoddart Publishing brought an actual pachyderm into the convention hall as a publicity stunt to showcase the (ahem) enormous size of its list. With the bright June sun beating in through the floor-to-ceiling windows, fair-goers could smell the animal before they saw it. Though PETA doubtlessly would have disapproved, the beast was the talk of that year’s fair, and remains a jocular publishing anecdote (read: whispered cautionary tale) a decade and a half later.


80-43According to Scotiabank Giller Prize organizers, “the Giller effect” on book sales began with the inaugural award in 1994, when M.G. Vassanji’s winning novel The Book of Secrets (McClelland & Stewart) became a bestseller.


“I remember a dinner party with David Young and Scott Griffin, when I was really outspoken in saying the way to help Canadian publishing is to make an award. Don’t give money to writers: make an award. That goes across the board of helping the small presses. And it has.” – Stan Bevington, founder of Coach House Books