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Elaine Dewar on M&S, the culture of fear, and writing her new investigative book, The Handover

TheHandoverWhen Toronto author and journalist Elaine Dewar first began researching the history of venerable Canadian publishing house McClelland & Stewart – home to Margaret Atwood, Mavis Gallant, Rohinton Mistry, Alice Munro, and Mordecai Richler — and its eventual sale to Random House of Canada, a division of German-owned Bertelsmann AG, she found herself down an investigative rabbit hole.

In 2000, Avie Bennett – unable to find a Canadian buyer for M&S, as required under the country’s Investment Canada Act — donated 75 per cent ownership for his business to the University of Toronto. Random House of Canada acquired the remaining 25 per cent, and, in 2012 became M&S’s sole owner for the cost of one dollar. Dewar interviewed many people (and was turned down many times), but her big “aha” find was deep in a stack of documents from the University of Toronto, requested under Ontario’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. Dewar discovered memos and letters she believed proved that U of T was in control of M&S in name only, and that Random House was actually running the company while receiving government grants for which it was not eligible.

Dewar spoke to Q&Q about the process behind her investigation and her controversial new book, The Handover: How Bigwigs and Bureaucrats Transferred Canada’s Best Publisher and the Best Part of Our Literary Heritage to a Foreign Multinational (Biblioasis).

QQ: When you first started investigating, what did you originally think this project was going to be?
When I started, I was just asking general questions like, “Why has the book industry gone to hell? What has happened here and why?” Gradually, the more questions I asked, the more I found myself looking at the year 2000, when a number of things happened all at once. Most particularly, the McClelland & Stewart gift and sale, the gift to U of T, the sale to Random House of Canada, was announced. I remembered vaguely reading about it at the time, and I remember being curious about the timing and the whole business of how you gave part of it away, but you sold part of it, and how did that work and why did that work. Specifically, why would Mr. Bennett have had to have permission from Ottawa, which was implied in the press conferences, for such an agreement? Because 75 per cent ownership by a Canadian institution ought to have meant that this new M&S arrangement was Canadian under the law. There were just all these little questions buzzing and buzzing and buzzing. The more I started vaguely interviewing people about what’s gone on in this industry and why it is in such a bad state, I kept coming back to that point, and started to ask questions about specifically what happened there.

QQ: At what point did you decide to start publishing your findings on your personal website?
I think it would have been in the summer of 2015 when I started asking questions of the University of Toronto and was having trouble getting what I consider to be obvious answers to simple questions. I think I maybe did four postings over the course of that summer and into the early fall.

QQ: What kind of reaction did you receive to those initial postings?
Well, initially, people in the book business were saying, “Yeah, really interesting, Elaine.” There wasn’t a huge reaction, but there was a reaction on the part of U of T, in the sense that in the beginning they’d given me almost nothing, and as I posted, they just gave me more and more.

QQ: Was it a rare opportunity for you to spend this much time on an investigation?
Dewar: The fact is that most investigative stories happen in the context of a publication. The publication will have deadlines and there will be other projects. The incredible luxury for me is that I am old, I can work at my own pace, I am a freelancer. If I want to spend six months on something and nobody pays me, that is my business. So, I had the luxury of asking questions and waiting for answers, and not saying, “Okay, it is going to take too long to get it. Let’s just pass on.”

QQ: At what point did you decide that you wanted to publish it as a book?
Dewar: As soon as I got the Freedom of Information material from U of T back, because it was such an astonishing collection of documents, which required very careful parsing, very careful thinking through. I couldn’t imagine doing it as a blog post. It was too complicated to manage properly. I almost felt like the information was being handed over to me in a kind-of trust, like, “You are going to do this now. You are going to do this carefully.” And you can’t do that in a blog.

QQ: Did that shift how you approached the writing?
Absolutely. Suddenly I am looking at documents that first were privileged and confidential. It is very unusual to have a major institution, certainly in this country – not unusual in the United States – but in this country, drop materials in your lap. It was as if someone was saying, “Okay, you are supposed to be a responsible journalist. You have asked for this, you have got this. Now make something of it.”

QQ: When you decided this is what you needed to do to move forward, did you then go to your agent, Sam Hiyate?
As soon as I had the FIPPA, I called Sam and said, “I think there is a book and we really have to move on this and we have to move quickly,” because the minister of Canadian Heritage, Mélanie Joly, had announced there were going to be major consultations taking place on the future of content in a digital world. It seemed to me that policy was going to be made, and this project probably needed to be done in that context. A major change was coming and this was a reasonable time to put this story together and get it out there.

QQ: Was the manuscript shopped around? How did it end up with Biblioasis?
Dewar: We had to have people sign non-disclosure agreements in order to look at the proposal. This was me as a journalist. This had nothing to do with Sam or anyone else. This was me knowing what I was sitting on, and knowing that I was going to have to explain that to a publisher. And knowing of the possibility of a leak. And knowing that in order to manage this material responsibly, I had to stay in control of it and not allow leaks to precede a publication. Because I wasn’t, at that point, at all clear what any of it meant. It takes time to sift material, to cross-check, to go back and forth to people, non-disclosure agreements. That meant as well, because of the subject matter, that there were certain publishers obviously we would not offer this to.

We would not be offering this to Random House! We would be asking them questions, but we would not be offering it to them. And similarly, it didn’t seem appropriate to me – I mean, Sam and I actually never talked about this – but it didn’t seem appropriate to take it to another foreign-owned publisher. In a way, they are automatically in a conflicted situation. So, that meant, “Okay, which Canadian publisher, an independent, would find this of interest and be able to manage it?” That was the real issue. A complicated piece of non-fiction requires editors who are careful and determined, both. In a way, the process of doing the proposals answered those questions for us. Biblioasis presented itself as careful and determined.

QQ: Was the fact-checking a crazy process?
Dewar: Well, yes and no. I mean, the documents were in front of me. It’s hard for fact-checking when you are putting stuff in front of a bunch of people scattered all over the world, and expecting them to get back to you with corrections. That can be really difficult in a book. In this case, it was a matter of me going over the documents, being sure that I had what I thought I had, being sure that they said what I thought they said, and of course, the third reading is always different from the first. It was more straightforward than you would imagine, because they are there.

QQ: Who were you thinking the audience would be for this book?
Dewar: I have a friend who said, “Elaine, who do you think is going to read this?” I don’t know! Avie Bennett [said] nobody is going to read it! Avie Bennett should know! At the beginning, I had zero idea of who would read it other than somebody like me, and there’s not that many. Biblioasis thought maybe a couple of thousand if things went well. Maybe the book trade? But then, as the story opened out, it seemed to me that there were other people who might find this interesting. Not just people who were in the book business, but people who are concerned with the question of globalization versus protectionism, national policy versus no national policy. So, as I began to really think it through and write it through, it really became an open question as to who would read it.

QQ: Now that the book is about to come out, and some of these people are going to read it, do you have concerns about their reactions?
Dewar: Listen, people will do what they’re going to do. I have no idea what to expect! This goes with publishing. You know that lots of people are going to hate it and some people will like it, and you hope that there will be more people that like it than hate it. That’s all you can do.

I want to talk about fear if I can. I think the thing that really depressed me the most, when working on this, was how many people were afraid to be quoted. How fear has permeated the marketplace of ideas. We have to deal with that. We have to get by that. It is easy for me to say, because I am no longer dependent on someone else to pay my paycheque, and if I don’t get another book with Random House – which I guarantee you will never happen now – it is not the end of the world for me. I am at the end of my career, and not at the beginning. So, I understand fear but we have to fight it.

QQ: How do you suggest we fight?
People have to distinguish between an actual threat to their economic well-being, and an imagined one. For example, if someone is afraid to be identified as a source, which happened here, long after the persons who might be upset with them might had any influence over their economic well-being, you have to wonder why that is. To me, that speaks to the habit of fear. We also have to consider that this marketplace is controlled by two very large groups, and everyone else is small and weak. Even the large groups are weak. Penguin Random House, if it doesn’t make a lot of money, won’t be here very long. The same is true with Indigo. If Heather Reisman and Gerry Schwartz get tired of reaching into their pockets to keep it going, it will go down. And then where will we be? So, it does no good if you have a marketplace that is controlled by giants, to give in to fear. The end result will be that they will collapse, and you will be left with nothing. So, we have to get over our fear and we have to talk about fear. We have to talk about what it means to have a marketplace that is dominated by two players and how it is that the government allowed that to happen.

QQ: What is the ultimate takeaway that you want people, after they read the book, to think about?
Dewar: I think we have a one-time chance to figure out how the heck we’re going to have communal space, in which ideas and stories about Canadians are shared. If we don’t do that, we will find ourselves not described, not discussed, and having to blindly pick our way through democratic procedure without any sense of what is going on, who is doing it, and why. We will be overwhelmed. We will be back to where we were in 1971.

This interview has been edited and condensed.