In April, a superficial dispatch told of Anna Porter's retirement as publisher of Key Porter Books. What it didn't say was that as long as books cry out for publishers, Anna Porter will be passionately embracing writers and books.
"C'mon, we need to talk, call me," a cheerful Porter is telling a writer, and you know the publishing fires have not been extinguished in this dynamo of the Canadian publishing industry.
Following in the footsteps of her grandfather Vili Rázc, a Budapest publisher jailed as a dissident during the Hungarian Revolution, Porter launched her distinguished career in the publishing industry in the 1960s, landing a job as a junior editor at Cassell and Company in London, England.
And she was smitten. She arrived in Canada in 1969 to work for Jack McClelland at McClelland & Stewart and in 1981 she founded Key Porter Books. She was CEO and publisher of Key Porter for 24 years (she remains a director and minority shareholder).
|Brennan O'Connor, Business Edge|
|Anna Porter may have retired as publisher of Key Porter Books, but the literary veteran is keeping busy as she writes her fifth book.|
These days, Porter spends her time at her Toronto home writing her fifth book - but there are pleasant distractions.
Porter's phone rings and rings and rings. The writers - Farley Mowat and the gang - still call, oblivious to that news dispatch. To one with her heart and soul bound in a book jacket, that may be the ultimate compliment.
That is what it is about for Anna Porter. The writers. And the books that cry out for publishers.
1. Can you talk about the book you're writing?
"With the utmost difficulty. It's at a stage where it's difficult to talk about. It's a true story set during and just after the Second World War, mostly in Hungary and partly Israel and partly Switzerland. Writing non-fiction is a great deal more difficult for me than writing fiction and I have written both. The problem with non-fiction is that you do have to do a lot of research and you have to get the people right, whereas with fiction you really are inventing the people and you can endow them with whatever you wish. I wish you could do that in real life."
2. Considering your upbringing in Hungary during the Hungarian Revolution, is this a particularly personal project?
"Yes, I think it is. My grandfather (Vili Rázc, a subject of Porter's previous book, The Storyteller: Memory, Secrets, Magic and Lies) was one of the so-called righteous gentiles. He helped people during the last year of the war and, as I was writing that book, I thought about what happened and how these things could happen again, and in fact have in some places - like Rwanda, for example. All you have to do is open the paper and you see these horrendous stories of people being indiscriminately persecuted. And I thought, 'Well, there's a story here that I'd like to tell.' So I guess that's what led me to it. I've just been racking my brains over the title for the book. I got a title and then unfortunately my agent told me I can't use it. It was, Rolling Dice with the Devil - too close to Shake Hands (with the Devil, by Roméo Dallaire)."
3. Did you read a lot as a child?
"Oh yeah. I mean, I couldn't believe when I first got a job in publishing that somebody would actually pay me to read. I love to read. If I didn't have anything else to read, I think I'd probably read the phonebook. Yes, I read everything I could get my hands on as a child - absolutely everything. And I listened to people's stories. I used to love and I still do love hearing people's stories. As you come across people on a plane and they start telling you a tale, I just love hearing (them). My most vivid memory from Hungary would be when they arrested my grandfather and took him off to jail. I was probably seven or eight then. That was actually much more traumatic than the revolution and I do remember the revolution quite clearly. You know, the fact is that I thought it was quite fun. I was a young kid and I was running around the street having fun. It didn't strike me as being traumatic until much later."
4. How do you think your background has shaped your character and your life?
|Brennan O'Connor, Business Edge|
|Anna Porter has enjoyed a long and illustrious publishing career.|
"I have no idea. It's a terrific question. I wish I had an answer. I suppose coming from a country where freedom of speech was a serious problem and writers tended to be imprisoned, I think that in terms of my career in publishing I have always valued the freedom to ask the writers, 'what is on your mind,' even if it's critical of our government, as most of our writers are. And I value writing and writers. They're incredibly brave. One of the organizations I have joined the board of since leaving (Key Porter) is PEN Canada (a writers' support group that advocates freedom of speech). Writers are extraordinary people."
5. Who was your most important mentor as a youngster?
"It was my grandfather. He was inordinately brave. He was fearless. He was outspoken. He was larger than life. He was a publisher. He was a swordsman. He was an Olympic champion runner. He was very attractive to ladies. He spent quite a long time in jail for expressing his opinions openly. And he was kind - I should probably mention that."
6. How did you get started in the publishing business?
"I got started in London, England (at Cassell and Company). I was penniless in London, I needed a job desperately and I lied my way into a job as a proofreader. I had never actually been a proofreader. I was a New Zealand citizen and, because I didn't know what proofreading marks looked like, I was able to tell them that in New Zealand we had different ones. Anyway, I learned fairly quickly and went on to work for Collier Macmillan (of London) as a salesman. I had a territory of northern Europe. From there, I was hired by (publishing legend) Jack McClelland at McClelland & Stewart in Toronto. I arrived in Toronto in the middle of winter and I really liked it. I liked the people. And I decided, 'This is it. This is the country I'd like to live in.' I left McClelland & Stewart to have my second baby and I thought I would stay at home. But I couldn't. I was bored. So I started Key Porter with a company called Key Publishers. It was a lot of fun. It's a wonderful life, publishing. It's an extraordinary life because you get to hang out with some of the most wonderful people."
7. What was the key to Key Porter's success in a difficult industry?
"We were very lucky in our choice of authors or our authors' choice of us, which is probably the way it really is because authors have such a lot of choice. So we were just very, very fortunate. The thing about publishing, of course, is that you're only as good as the writers you're able to publish. If you didn't have writers to publish, of course you wouldn't have a publishing company. So, in fact, we were lucky in that we were chosen by so many very fine writers. Farley Mowat came and published with us and so did Allan Fotheringham. Margaret Atwood decided to publish her children's books with Key Porter."
8. Did you get to know the writers better than most publishers?
"My mentor, Jack McClelland, was a personal publisher and that's what I liked to do. I liked to work with the writers personally and get to know them. I have over the years established long-lasting relationships with a great many writers. They're people I still have a relationship with. Even now (when) that door is closed, I'm still in touch with a lot of the writers.
"Almost every day, I get four or five calls from writers who want to have lunch or dinner or talk about what's happening or what to do with this or that or whatever. It's just that they've become personal friends. And I think that that kind of publisher is on the way out. There are a few exceptions, but the new breed of publisher is more of a businessman and less involved with the writing process and what's in the books."
9. Why did you step down as publisher?
"I had sold controlling interest in the company (to H.B. Fenn and Company, of Bolton, Ont.) I still have a very small interest in it. The new people have to have a chance to do what they wish to do with the company. If you hang around, there's a really good chance you will become miserable and there's a 100-per-cent chance that they will become miserable as well because they have their own ideas. Harold Fenn is CEO of H.B. Fenn and his son (Jordan Fenn) is now publisher."
10. Was it difficult walking away from Key Porter?
"Of course it was. I still wake up in the morning thinking, 'Oh my God, I've got to talk to somebody about something.' I still look at an article in the paper and think, 'Oh my God, this is a wonderful writer and I wonder if he or she has thought about writing a book.' Over the years, I'd see something in a magazine and paper and I'd actually send out little notes. I would pursue writers because they could write. It doesn't come easily, being a good writer, and most people who think they would like to write, can't.
So I get a huge kick out of reading something that's well written and well crafted where you can see the talent. It's exciting."
11. What percentage of submissions to Key Porter didn't make it into publication?
"Well, over the past 15 years, we'd get an average of about 10 manuscripts a day. Some of them would just be outlines or some of them would be short children's stories. And we published just over 100 books a year, so that would give you some idea. In December it would slow down, but by January the number of submissions would double as people's New Year's resolutions kicked in."
12. Do you view the dominance of one bookstore chain (Indigo Books & Music, owner of Indigo and Chapters stores) as a positive or negative for the publishing industry?
"(Laughing) Aw, I'm not going to think about that. You know, I always think it's better to have more choice. When I first started in publishing, there were three (bookstore) chains that held maybe 30 per cent of the market and the rest were independents. Now there's just one chain (Indigo) that has about 50 per cent of the regular book market. But some of the independents are doing quite well. I love to see strong independent booksellers do well. Independent bookstores are not dead. And I do wish Chapters-Indigo well. It's important for them to be healthy. I keep my fingers crossed that they have a great Christmas because whatever is good for them is good for the industry. It's tough enough being in this business without any further problems. I was in the Indigo store on Bloor Street yesterday, looking as I do and turning other publishers' books spine up and turning Key Porter books face out. That's just one of those things that I do. And there were a lot of people in there buying books, so that's terrific and I hope it goes really, really well for Heather (Reisman, CEO of Indigo)."
13. Many authors complain about the deals they get with publishers. Is the industry giving a fair shake to the writers?
"Oh yeah. In fact, the situation for writers in Canada since I came into the business has improved phenomenally. That's largely because the publishers have done such a good job. And it's the Canadian publishers that have done most of that work because they've sold Canadian books worldwide. When I came into the business, there were very, very few Canadian writers whose books were selling around the world. Now, Canadian writers are possibly the most recognizably successful exports. Everything by Margaret Atwood is in Chinese and Farley Mowat's books are in Chinese."
14. So how would you characterize the state of the industry?
"It's always tough. It's a tiny-margin business. As the years have gone on, the margins have been squeezed more and more. Looking at the history of publishing in Canada, it's always been very, very tough. It was tough for Jack (McClelland) and it was tough for all of us who came after him. We did OK (at Key Porter). I mean, in this business if you survive, you're doing well. The distribution side of the business is so much more profitable than publishing. It doesn't have the upfront costs and it doesn't have the risks. Publishing is not tough, but Canadian publishing is tough. In the future, there will be a lot more online publishing and publishers will make a lot more use of the Internet for selling and marketing books. There will be a lot more Internet service for people who want to buy books. In my time in the business, the Internet has been the greatest revolution, really. Publishers, by necessity, are resourceful and as the months and years go by, they will make more and more imaginative and inventive uses of the Internet, as we all have already."
15. What's your view of Google's move into book publishing and the copyright issues over that?
"Years ago, I was on something called the Canadian Information Highway Council and we spent months discussing copyright. The biggest issue around Google getting into this is copyright and how people who create what goes online get paid. Ultimately, what you write is your own. So, as a person who writes something, if anyone is going to make money out of it you should be the first in line to get paid. As far as I'm concerned, the more the merrier. And welcome to my nightmare. It's a big legal issue. By the way, I'm married to a lawyer (Julian Porter). And he's kept me out of trouble for many years and many, many libel suits."
16. Who's your favourite author of those whom you've known and worked with?
"I can't say. That would be a betrayal of trust. Sorry ... I have recently written a story about Farley Mowat. As I was writing it, I got to thinking about Farley, who has written 40 books and is to my mind one of the ultimate writers about life. He writes. If he stops writing, he would probably stop living, or so he says. And I've worked with him on a lot of his books over the past many, many years and he's been an enormous amount of fun and he's entertaining and he's irreverent - never irrelevant but always irreverent. He's 84, he's working on a new book and he's as feisty as ever, and I admire him enormously and I love him dearly. So I thought of him just as you asked that question. The story I have written is called The Master Storyteller. Which is what he is. So ... I give you Farley Mowat."
17. Conrad Black is listed on Key Porter's website as one of its writers. Are you concerned about how that might reflect on the company considering Black is facing fraud charges?
"No. Unfortunately, both of the books that Key Porter published of his are out of stock and out of print. Oh no. I'm not worried about that. I'm worried about him. I always worry about all the writers whose books I have published and I worked on Conrad's Duplessis book. It was one of the first books I worked on when I went with McClelland & Stewart, so I've known him for a long time. And I think whatever else, he's a very perceptive and very good writer. I tend not to be overly judgmental about this. I'm going to wait and see what happens. He claims that he shall be vindicated. Now, I don't have any inside stories about what the chances are, but I saw him at the Macleans 100-year banquet and that's what he said."
18. What's your most prized personal possession?
"My husband. You were looking for something more concrete. I don't know if I have any. I'm trying to think if there is anything. I'm not extravagant, that's for sure. "Could anybody be an extravagant person who is in the publishing industry in Canada? No. It doesn't lend itself to extravagance. And I don't covet anything. I don't have any sort of yen to have something. I don't want a bigger house and I don't even know what kind of a car I drive. I just can't think of anything! I can't think of anything that I would really care if it vanished. I'm going to have to leave you with my husband."
19. What's your most important life goal?
"Grandchildren. Catherine (her daughter) is pregnant. I'd also like to be really good at tennis. I don't even know if I'm a 'C' player or a 'D' player or an 'F.' Probably, I'm a 'G' player. Is there such a thing? I'd like to be good at tennis and I'd like to be physically fit. I've been in a sedentary existence for a long time. I sit, reading or writing. Or I'm eating a lunch. Or I'm making a speech. I'm sitting mostly, certainly not moving. I'd also like to be a better friend than I've had time to be. And I'd like to make sure I can actually contribute in a significant way to any boards that I'm on. And I'd like to have written the book that I'm working on. It's important to me. I think it would have been very important to Grandpa for me to have written this particular book. When the book is done, I'll go crazy, I think. I don't know what I'll do, get some champagne maybe. But I'm just so mired in research. I can't even see the end of the road at the moment."
20. How do you spend your leisure time?
"Besides playing tennis, I like to hang out with my mother, who is a very interesting lady. I play bridge with her along with her Hungarian friends. I can't play bridge in English. I can only play bridge in Hungarian. And I hang out with my kids, one of whom writes for the Toronto Star (Catherine Porter). She's quite extraordinary, she's very, very bright and she grew up with lots of journalists around her. Her name was above the fold on the front page for the first time last week. My other daughter, Julia, takes care of sick kids. She's in Africa right now working with little kids with AIDS. And I like to hang out with her. She'll get me to heaven, if there is one."
* Born/Raised: Budapest, Hungary.
* Family: Husband Julian Porter, two daughters, Catherine and Julia.
* Education: Canterbury University (Christchurch, N.Z.), BA English and modern languages, MA (honours) English literature.
* Career: Porter was CEO and publisher of Key Porter Books from 1981 until retiring in April. She founded the publishing house in 1979. She has also been executive chairman of Doubleday Canada Ltd. (1986-91), president of McClelland-Bantam Inc. (1978-92), vice-president and editor-in-chief of McClelland & Stewart Limited (1969-78), and editor of Collier Macmillan in London, U.K. (1969). She began her career in London as a junior editor with Cassell and Company.
* Titles: Porter has written three novels - Hidden Agenda, Mortal Sins and The Bookfair Murders. The latter book was made into a feature film. Her most recent book is The Storyteller: Memory, Secrets, Magic and Lies, an autobiography.
* Accolades: Porter is an officer of the Order of Canada and a recipient of the Order of Ontario.
* Moonlighting: Porter is a board member of Key Porter Books, Empire Company Ltd., York University, Schulich School of Business (advisory board), Interval House Capital Campaign Committee, Soulpepper Theatre Co. (advisory council), World Wildlife Fund Canada, PEN Canada and Shaw Festival.
* Pastimes: Reading, tennis, bridge.
Key Porter Books
* Publisher: Jordan Fenn.
* Founder/director: Anna Porter.
* Profile: Key Porter, founded in 1979, is one of Canada's most prominent book publishing houses, publishing about 100 titles a year and with more than 500 titles in print.
* Headliners: The publisher's roster of authors includes Farley Mowat, Allan Fotheringham, Norman Jewison, Margaret Atwood and Jean Chretien.
* Web Watch: www.keyporter.com
* Address: 6 Adelaide St. East, 10th Floor, Toronto, M5C 1H6.
* Phone/Fax: 416-862-7777/ 862-2304.
(Gyle Konotopetz can be reached at email@example.com)