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Anna Porter on Scott McIntyre, king of the independents

On the occasion of last year’s 40th anniversary of D&M Publishers, Anna Porter reflected on the career of her former colleague and competitor Scott McIntyre, the man who built the most successful Canadian publishing house west of the Rockies. From the November 2011 issue of Q&Q:

Scott McIntyre (Photo: Doug Nicholson)

I’ve known Scott McIntyre for so long, sometimes it feels like we are siblings. Separated but never very far apart. We first met when I arrived at McClelland & Stewart in 1968. Scott was, I think, manager of advertising and promotions, but titles were loosely applied in those days. He had been there a couple of years and seemed very much a part of the high-voltage excitement of the place.

It’s hard to image now, 43 years later, just how wild-eyed, inspired, and young we were at the tail end of the 1960s, when the success of Canadian literature seemed to be a certainty and we were all part of that magnificent experiment. Hollinger Road, in the messy, industrial hinterland of East Toronto, was hardly the Camelot of dream-­fulfillment, but there were moments. We were visited by, among others, Irving Layton, Earle Birney, Al Purdy, Margaret Laurence, and Mordecai Richler, and Pierre Berton was still young enough to berate us with his wisdom. We were star-struck. Scott still talks of the energy, the opulence of those days, when he could share a half bottle of whiskey with Margaret Laurence and talk about her stories, and the time he took a fast look at a Leonard Cohen manuscript. I think we were searching for a suitable cover.

McIntyre with Greg Gatenby and Margaret Atwood in 1991 (Photo: Scott McIntyre)

Scott was a cheerful, blond, bushy-haired,­ slender guy with a ready smile and an eagerness to show that he would excel at whatever was thrown his way. And there was a lot thrown in those days. I remember when he decided to rewrite some of Berton’s copy and slammed into the ire of the redoubtable Elsa Franklin, Pierre’s lifelong manager, and when he presented Peter C. Newman’s The Distemper of Our Times at a sales conference, and Newman argued about something that sent Jack McClelland into a modest rage (he had some immodest rages, but that wasn’t one of them). I never knew where I stood with Jack, Scott says. As if anyone ever did.

Scott left midway through 1969 to work with Jimmy Douglas on the West Coast. He was, after all, a B.C. boy, never fully at home in Toronto. Jimmy was a legend in the book world “ a hard-working, charming, tough Scot with ambition and a fine sense of the ridiculous. A sales rep, he represented the best of the Eastern publishers in the West. He was beloved by booksellers and librarians (some of whom were in love with him), and he was a master of the fast, critical judgment “ as in, Won’t go past the Rockies, or, We’ll do about 3,000, send the author out.

Oh, in 1969, Scott was Scotty and no one called Jim Douglas anything but Jimmy.

Scott was a fast learner. I used to see him at sales conferences, taking notes, paying close attention, leaning forward, arms crossed, head tilted to one side, that boyish enthusiasm for the bookish world we both inhabited. But what he was most eager to learn was publishing.

J.J. Douglas’s first small list was launched in 1971 with two regional titles “ books no one expected would sell on the other side of the Rockies, but they did well enough for Scott to feel encouraged that one could create a viable publishing enterprise on the West Coast. The little company’s first major success was Johann’s Gift to Christmas by Jack Richards, with illustrations by Len Norris. Scott says it sold hundreds of thousands of copies worldwide, and it was made into a cute movie.

McIntyre at the 2007 Giller Gala with Elizabeth and Anne McClelland (Photo: Scott McIntyre)

I was editorial director at M&S, and I remember holding the book in my hands, thinking it would have made a great M&S title. Jealous, I called Scott and congratulated him anyway. I felt the same way when he published former M&S stalwart Max Braithwaite’s A Privilege and a Pleasure, a wonderful, funny novel by a guy who could still lighten some of our heavier days. But no one else at that time could have published Chuck Davis’s Guide to Vancouver, or the  beautiful photography book The Unknown Island “ a vast, risky investment for any publisher, but it paid off. As did Scott’s cautious determination to continue making a living from the sales agency “ renamed McIntyre & Stanton, after Jimmy decided to devote all his time to publishing. The two lines of work offered Scott the chance to learn how to serve more than one master, an ability he would need throughout his career. Even today, 40 years later, Douglas & McIntyre (renamed as such in 1978, and now known as D&M Publishers) sells for a fine U.S. literary house (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) and keeps the home fires burning with its own high-profile lists. Along the way, Scott has developed a successful social studies program for Grades 1“6, started the Greystone Books imprint with Rob Sanders, and formed a lasting alliance with Patsy Aldana, founder of Groundwood Books, the children’s publishing company.

Through the 1970s, while I was busy enjoying my own multitasking years with babies and Bantam and Doubleday, Scott published some beautifully crafted art books, culminating in a stunning bestseller, Doris Shadbolt’s The Art of Emily Carr, and D&M’s long-term partnerships with the Vancouver Art Gallery and Art Gallery of Ontario.

My sibling rivalry with Scott continued after the birth of Key Porter Books in 1981. We vied for the same authors during the 1980s, trying to best each other in growing to what we each concluded was the right size for a Canadian publishing company “ around $10 million in sales “ and bidding at agents’ tables for what we saw as the best and brightest of the soon-to-be bestsellers. Neither of us wanted to be left in the dust by those self-congratulatory multinationals that had more money to spend.

Each of us lost some and won some. My first victory was Allan Fotheringham, the wicked wit of the West, the political guru Scott saw as the prototypical D&M author. But Scott won Jack Webster (damn it, Scott, he was my friend; or so I thought), Marjorie Nichols (whom I loved and still do), and Major-­General Lewis Mackenzie.

I tried to hire Rob Sanders before Scott offered him the best deal on the West Coast. Under the Greystone imprint, Rob has since built a distinguished list of nature and conservation books by Candace Savage, David Suzuki, and Wade Davis, as well as publishing brilliant authors like Paul Quarrington.

Patsy’s list has won more awards than any other publisher’s in Canada. We tried to build up a children’s line at Key Porter and, for a while, it looked promising, with Margaret Atwood’s Rude Ramsey and the Roaring Radishes and Princess Prunella and the Purple Peanut, but we never reached the Olympian heights of the redoubtable Aldana.

McIntyre with colleagues at the 1989 Association of Canadian Publishers’ AGM (Photo: Scott McIntyre)

Now Groundwood has been sold to House of Anansi Press, and Key Porter went into receivership some five years after I sold my shares, but Scott, with a new investor in Mark Scott and multi-year support from the B.C. government, is still going strong. Last year he passed another landmark with the paperback publication of Johanna Skibsrud’s Scotiabank Giller Prize“winning The Sentimentalists, and before the end of this year, he expects Bookriff, Mark Scott’s digital and print-on-demand publishing venture, to make its debut on the market.

Scott is also the publisher of my last two books, Kasztner’s Train and The Ghosts of Europe. Our conversations, which used to revolve around the fragile industry whose furrows we both ploughed, are now mixed with publisher-author subjects. Fortunately, the addition of new topics along the lines of, Do we really need an index? and, Too long, really? have not dampened our enthusiasm for each other’s conversation.

When I ask him about close, personal friends in the business, he looks dumbfounded. I have lived my life so that the greatest gift we have is not to be with people, he says, looking at his wife, Cork, for confirmation. Never had time to make friends. After 40 stellar years as the king of independents, this was, nevertheless, a sad note, I thought.

And yet, when I visited D&M’s modest Quebec Street headquarters in Vancouver last August, passing by the familiar sight of brightly painted walls, low dividers, cardboard boxes, and framed awards, I wandered into Scott’s airy office and found it surprisingly tidy. A smattering of photos lines the top of a low bookcase. Among them there is a shot of the cutest little grandson (except, of course, for mine), a photo of Scott with Atwood and Greg Gatenby, a Giller group picture, and others of his Canadian and international colleagues (Bill French, Peter Mayer, David Godine). Also, a photo of Bob Sessions pushing me in a wheelchair at the Frankfurt Book Fair some 12 years ago.

So, I raise my glass to D&M’s anniversary, and to Scott “ oh yes, for sure, a friend!