If anyone had told Robert Nielsen five years ago that his Canadian Children’s Annual was destined to become a runaway best-seller, he’d have asked for a letter of recommendation to his bank manager. It’s not that he wasn’t perfectly confident about his new venture, it’s just that no one else—and especially the people with the money—seemed to share his wide-eyed enthusiasm. The kids’ annual market was, after all, traditionally served each Christmastime
by the well established volumes from Britain—Boy ’s Own (which dates from 1879), Girl’s Own, Collins’.
Nevertheless Nielsen took the plunge, quit his job as head of the English department at a Hamilton, Ontario, private school, scrounged together $20,000 and devoted himself to the one-man publishing company he started in his basement, Potlatch Publications. The gamble has paid off: this year’s fifth edition of the Canadian Children's Annual is expected to sell at least 60,000 copies, bringing total sales of the five books to just short of a quarter of a million.
“I knew I would succeed, I never doubted it for a moment,” says the 41year-old Nielsen, himself a father of three. While not yet laughing all the way to the bank, he’s at least laughing
up his sleeve. “What’s good about Canadian publishing is that the big guys have let me get away with this. No one’s even competing and, you know, I think that’s kind of dumb.”
His annual has blossomed from a black-and-white, soft-cover edition for 1975 to 1979’s kaleidoscopic collection of short stories, articles, comics and games. Cover illustrations have been provided by well-known Canadian painters including William Kurelek, Ken Danby, skating star Toller Cranston and, this year, Jeremy Smith. But the contents have come for the most part from a small army of all but unknown Canadian writers and artists.
Nielsen’s annual has an outrageous, folksy quality about it which seems to appeal to the nineto 14-year-old set, especially when compared to the stuffier British versions. Its success shows there’s a market for light, grassroots Canadian culture for kids. The books contain imaginative, informative articles on everything from the history of British Columbia jade to how your tongue works. Though some reviewers have faulted them for what they see as a dearth of literary value, it is the pop nature of the annuals that accounts for their success.
“The annual is basically an entertainment package,” says Nielsen. “With its comics and puzzles it’s meant to attract kids who normally don’t pick up a book, as well as the avid readers.” Judy Sarick, owner of the Children’s Book Store in Toronto, agrees. “Annuals are pieces of ephemera, never great literature.” Sarick long ago cleared her shelves of the British annuals. “Some of them were of disgusting literary value. Nielsen’s is actually quite presentable. And they’re selling like a bomb.”
Now that he’s on better terms with his bank manager, Nielsen has moved out of his basement to a modest office and acquired business partner George Whyte, a former teaching colleague. Together they plan to expand Potlatch’s list of titles (among upcoming books is The Canadian Comic Annual) and perhaps attract some “name” authors as contributors. “It’d be nice, I guess, to get Farley Mowat or Pierre Berton to write something for the book,” Nielsen muses. “But I’m happy with the way it is now; it gives a lot of little guys a chance.”
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