LAST WEEK the continuing turmoil in Canadian book publishing bubbled to the surface again. Industry icon McClelland & Stewart, whose current authors and backlist form a virtual canon of CanLit, announced that Doug Gibson, its long-time publisher and, since 2000, president, would leave those positions on May 31. Gibson, 60, one of the country’s most prominent and successful editor-publishers, will remain at the helm of the M&S imprint he founded in 1986, Douglas Gibson Books. His replacement will be Canadian Doug Pepper, 42, currently a New York City-based vice-president at Crown Publishing, a Random House subsidiary. Gibson spoke with Maclean’s Senior Writer Brian Bethune about his career and future plans.
M&S and its peculiar ownership structurea quarter owned by Random House, which also controls sales, marketing and distribution-has been described as “an ongoing experiment.” How is it working?
The new M&S has been the subject of much speculation, centred around how can we truly be independent with 25 per cent of the company vested in what it’s fair to call a rival company. But we have stayed separate by carefully maintaining our editorial independence; the decision over which books to publish is the crucial independence. And the University of Toronto, which owns the other 75 per cent, and Random House have extended the original 2000 arrangement from 2005 to 2008. That extension was part of this shuffle, giving the new regime a fair crack. But this isn’t a hostile takeover—I’m still around.
The board of directors decided it was the time. I absolutely accept that decision without a hint of bitterness. I suppose they were hoping for more spectacular financial results last year. I always had it in my mind to go back to Douglas Gibson Books—it’s publishing whittled down to just the fun part.
The imprint was the first “personal” one in Canada. How did it come about?
When Avie Bennett bought M&S in 1986, he used this new idea—the chance to put my personal stamp on exceptional books— to lure me over from Macmillan. I edited five to 10 books a year until 1988, when Avie, after a full week of persuasion, turned me into a publisher. That cut me back to two or three a year—weekend and evening work—and adding president to publisher four years ago just made it worse. A major consolation for me now is not having to worry about improper returns from Indigo.
The regular returns have been a huge problem for publishers. What do you mean by “improper”?
Indigo promised the federal Competition Bureau that it would not return more than 30 per cent of the books it ordered, but in 2003 they just threw that out the window. In many cases returns were over 50 per cent, a major, ongoing headache for every publisher in Canada.
Will any of M&S’s current writers move over to DGB?
Well, one or two fiction writers I’ve edited for M&S—like Alistair MacLeod—will, but that’s not the way I want it to work. I’m hoping to retain the ones I have now and gain new, non-M&S ones. Since fiction here is brilliantly handled by Ellen Seligman, and I’m ridiculously wide-ranging in my interests, the new authors will probably turn out more non-fiction. But it’s certainly going to be fun—this fall I have new stories from Alice Munro and Jack Hodgins, a Christmas story from Alistair, and memoirs from Peter C. Newman and Sheila Copps.
Alistair MacLeod is certainly an important writer for you, personally and professionally. His No Great Mischief is one of the most acclaimed Canadian novels of all time. It’s often said you “extracted” it from him?
Alistair had been famously at work on it for years, reading excerpts across the country, wowing people. Whole platoons of MacLeod watchers tried to keep track of how it was going—did he keep reading the same excerpt or was there evidence he had written some more? Early in 1999 he made the mistake of saying to me he was nearly done, so I said, “How about this fall?” And he said, “OK.” Of course, Alistair meant finish it this fall; I meant publish it. That spring I phoned him on a Wednesday and said I was coming by for the manuscript that Friday, and then I just didn’t answer the phone for two days. On Friday, I arrived at his Windsor home. Alistair greeted me rather coolly, but the bottle of Talisker I wisely brought more warmly.
Eventually, I showed him the contract, and the handsome cheque that accompanied it, and asked if he had anything for me. Alistair got up and came back with an armful of manuscript, about 70 per cent of the book. Later he showed me his office, which had these alarming piles of yellow foolscap covered in his handwriting. Through the summer packages of 10 to 12 yellow pages came every week.
Fun seems like an important criterion.
I still delight in every part of the bookmaking business, from dealing with writers to designing cover art. All the highlights of my publishing career have been working with talented people. That doesn’t always mean writers, but when you go through the list of M&S authors you can see how amazingly lucky I’ve been. It’s the books that matter in the end; the rest is housekeeping. 171
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