BORN: Toronto, Ontario • 30 July 1922
In the spring of 1960 the trade paper Quill & Quire surveyed the prospects for book publishing in Canada and reported the results with barely contained pessimism. Foreign titles dominated the Canadian market, and few experts who were polled saw much hope for home-grown authors. “What about the future?” the magazine queried.
“With the exception of Jack McClelland, the general thought seemed to be that nothing could be done to improve the situation, indeed the market would remain static for years to come.”In the ever-cautious world of Canadian publishing, Jack McClelland was exceptional then and it seems certain he always will be.
In the 1960s only he thought a buck could be made selling Canadian books to Canadians. And even when it became painfully clear that it was much easier to lose money on Canadian authors than to make it, only McClelland believed he ought to keep trying.
Canadians who today brag about the reputation their leading writers enjoy around the world often forget that, a generation ago, nobody anywhere was reading much from the Great White North. When McClelland was named president of McClelland & Stewart in 1961, taking over the company his father founded half a century before, he deliberately set out to find Canadian writers. Once he found them, he set out to sell them.
How he did it was a big part of his success. McClelland was an unlikely man of letters: by his own admission, he was a chain-smoking, hard-drinking veteran of the Second World War. One reporter was astonished when McClelland “cursed liked a sailor.” But underneath it all was a salesman— doubtless the most important attribute in a publisher—and a passionate commitment to bring attention to what he viewed as quality Canadian literature.
The stories are the stuff of legend: McClelland parading through the streets in a toga, or McClelland dressing his drivers in tuxedos for a book delivery. The flash always gained his books attention, though the publisher firmly believed they should sell on their own merit.
Of course, he was right probably more than he knew: a few decades later, the authors he found are the who’s who of CanLit. Margaret Atwood, Peter Newman, Mordecai Richler, and Irving Layton are just the best-known writers who published with M&S early in their careers.
By 1971 McClelland had been midwife to the birth of a new Canadian cultural industry; the problem was that the baby faced an uncertain future. Fed up with continued bottom-line losses, M&S announced it was up for sale. Word on the street was that American interests were ready to snap up the firm.
The public outcry against the proposed sale was deafening, and the Ontario government had little choice but to bail the publisher out with a cheque for $1 million. Canadian books had become important in Canada.
McClelland & Stewart remained in Canadian hands, and though Jack McClelland sold his stake in the firm in 1985— to a Canadian—it continues to be the pre-eminent publishing house for domestic writers in both fiction and non-fiction.
Fifty years after McClelland entered the business, book publishing in Canada remains uniquely perched on the slip¬ pery abyss, forever balanced precariously between financial calamity and the belief that Canadian books are one cultural product we cannot do without. If the industry has not yet tumbled over the cliffs, Jack McClelland, more than anyone else, can take the credit.