CANADIAN PUBLISHING TITAN FOUGHT FOR HIS INDUSTRY
The books he published, often risky and controversial, expanded the national conversation, but his business couldn't survive the rise of the big-box bookstores
By JUDY STOFFMAN
Special to The Globe and Mail
Saturday, January 26, 2019 Print Edition, Page B24
Jack Stoddart was not the flashy type but he knew he had to go big or go home. By dollar volume, his was the largest Canadian book publisher and distributor in the last two decades of the 20th century, with a clutch of satellite publishers in which he owned shares, including Cormorant, House of Anansi, New Press, Boston Mills and Macfarlane Walter & Ross. The firm, which had been created by his father, had a distribution arm that, at its peak, handled the products of 200 publishers, of which 62 were Canadian presses, delivering books across the country.
Small presses, he believed, should find their readers as readily as large ones. "He wanted to build an industry that had room for a lot of Canadian publishers," his former business partner Nelson Doucet said. "He wanted to avoid exactly what has happened today, when the foreign-owned presses dominate the market. We did change the landscape for a time."
Mr. Stoddart believed that Canadian-authored books were an essential component of our culture and, as a three-time president of the Association of Canadian Publishers, he was a formidable advocate in Ottawa for policies and financial aid to support them.
"Jack was the real hero of Canadian publishing, not the other Jack who rode a chariot down Yonge Street in a snowstorm," commented Karl Siegler, alluding to the flamboyant Toronto publisher Jack McClelland. Mr. Siegler was a publisher at Talonbooks in Vancouver until his retirement, one of the small presses in the Literary Press Group that Mr.
Stoddart undertook to distribute.
In 1995, when then-finance minister Paul Martin cut industry funding for publishing by 50 per cent and Talonbooks could no longer afford its office rent, Mr. Stoddart invited the staff to relocate to a space in his warehouse in Burnaby, rent free. Later he loaned Talonbooks money to pay its printer. "Jack considered this natural. He was generous, modest, practical to a fault."
Through his self-named publishing house, Mr.
Stoddart issued some 150 books a year - almost all non-fiction - that expanded the national conversation, and were often risky and controversial, causing fiery arguments at meetings of the editorial board.
Recalled Angel Guerra, who was creative director of Stoddart Publishing: "Jack had a rebellious streak and would not be cowed." Not even by Margaret Thatcher or the Mossad.
In the 1980s, Mrs. Thatcher had suppressed publication of former MI5 officer Peter Wright's Spycatcher in Britain, Australia and the United States, but Mr.
Stoddart went ahead despite legal warnings and brought it out - a bestseller for the firm. British visitors to Canada purchased copies to take home. "We sold a lot of those books at the airport," Mr. Guerra recalls.
He also published By Way of Deception by Claire Hoy, written with a former Mossad operative who provided a glimpse into the workings of Israel's national intelligence agency. "We had all sorts of threats and problems," Mr. Guerra recalls. "The Israeli government was suing us and there was a break-in into our office. We could see someone had gone through our files. We were scared, but Jack stood firm."
He weathered the ire of Mrs. Thatcher and the Israeli government, but Mr. Stoddart's business could not survive the closing of scores of traditional bookshops and the rise of the big-box bookstores.
In 2002, he suffered the humiliation of his firm's bankruptcy and had to watch, red-faced and wearing the Order of Canada pin he was awarded in 1999, as the company he had built was dismembered in court while the owners of presses he had served for years struggled to rescue their unsold stock from his warehouse.
Crushed by this disaster, he retired to Rednersville in Ontario's Prince Edward County with his second wife, Nancy Kroeker. They had met when she was executive director of the Writers' Trust of Canada in Toronto and he was on the Trust's board of directors.
Mr. Stoddart died suddenly on Jan. 17 at his Rednersville home.
Jack Elliott Stoddart was born in Toronto on Aug.
25, 1944, the first of two children of Jack and Ruth Elizabeth (Robb) Stoddart. His father, the son of a barber, had come to Toronto in 1936 from Shelbourne, Ont., and found a job in the sales department of the British-owned publishing house Macmillan. In 1957, he bought a run-down firm called General Publishing with three employees that by 1972, according to a report by the Toronto Star's Kildare Dobbs, was the parent company of four publishers, turned more than $5-million a year, and had 120 employees.
He made enough to send Jack Junior to Upper Canada College, but young Jack was not academically inclined and was expelled from UCC for a prank that reportedly involved pretending to faint during a drill. He switched schools.
He started working for his father, learning the book trade, but it did not excite him as much as playing his guitar. "I never wanted to be in the publishing business. I was a musician," he told Roy MacSkimming for Mr. MacSkimming's book The Perilous Trade. "I just needed a job afterwards. I started working in the warehouse and stayed around and learned a bit about it as I went along." In the early sixties, he skipped college to play with Robbie Lane and the Disciples until he fell ill and was replaced. After that, he came to like the book business, finding that he was good at it and had no other training.
In 1968, he married his high school sweetheart Linda Ogryzlo, daughter of a famous mining engineer Steve Ogryzlo, but the marriage ended in divorce.
In 1977, at the age of 33, he became president of General Publishing (his father lived on till 1988) and started to gather a group of men of his own generation who shared his vision of how to grow the business. Realizing that he could not work with his sister, Susan, in 1984 he bought out the publishing side including most of its trade agencies while she took control of the Paperjacks and Pocket Books reprint portion, renaming her half Distican. They went their separate ways; later she also grabbed the lucrative Simon & Schuster contract from him.
In addition to acting as sales agent for foreign and domestic presses, General Publishing issued its own books under a variety of imprints such as Musson, New Press and George J. McLeod until Mr. Stoddart corralled these together to create his own Stoddart Publishing Co.
Mr. Guerra recalls: "He created a publishing company in parts. Stoddart Publishing would be mainstream - political books, business, history, sports, science and some literature. Stoddart had no publisher but a publishing board, made up of Jack, myself, Nelson Doucet, Mike Wallace (our head of production), Bill Hanna and John Dennison (Boston Mills Press). We were charged with acquiring books and setting the direction of the company."
A multitude of prize-winning titles appeared from Mr. Stoddart: Carol Shields's Swann (later turned into a movie); David Chilton's huge bestseller The Wealthy Barber; A Dream Like Mine, which won M.T.
Kelly a Governor-General's fiction award; Water by Marq de Villiers; Marci McDonald's Yankee Doodle Dandy; Mel Hurtig's The Betrayal of Canada; and the environmental books of David Suzuki. The press specialized in issue-oriented books that defined their era.
The affiliated smaller presses retained considerable autonomy.
In 1988, he entered into a co-ownership arrangement with the newly formed Macfarlane Walter & Ross, which for the next nine years produced a string of top bestsellers including On the Take, about greed and corruption in the Mulroney era, and Boom Bust & Echo, a prescient look at the coming social and economic changes due to a demographic shift. His literary standard bearer was House of Anansi Press, which had been created by writers Margaret Atwood and Dennis Lee. Mr. Stoddart gave the press financial stability by arranging for it to publish the annual Massey Lectures after buying the rights from the CBC.
Then, in 1995, venture capitalist Larry Stevenson opened Chapters, a new kind of giant bookstore, promising to grow the number of book buyers in the country. Mr. Stoddart was supportive of the venture at first, but soon felt pressure as the chains (Indigo was also expanding) demanded deeper price discounts, ordered large quantities of books to stock the new stores, did not pay for them for five or six months, instead of the customary 90 days, then sent back huge amount of returns for credit (including many damaged books) that General Distribution did not have sufficient warehouse staff to process.
Unpaid authors and publishers were meanwhile calling him daily in a panic, and two of his biggest distribution clients, Key Porter and Douglas & McIntyre, pulled out of his warehouse, breaking their contract with General Distribution Services. "The last time Jack paid me, Jesus was in short pants," Anna Porter told the media. Jan Walter, one of the principals of Macfarlane Walter & Ross recalled: "Our bills weren't being paid. We sensed there might be some difficulties." To protect their authors and keep their books in print, MW&R sold itself to Avie Bennett, then owner of McClelland and Stewart.
"Jack was well-meaning and without guile, dedicated to Canadian publishing," Ms. Walter said. But in 2002, he couldn't save his company from bankruptcy.
"What shocked us the most was that the banks suddenly withdrew their support," Mr. Doucet said.
A year earlier the company had negotiated financing of $20-million by Toronto-Dominion Bank and Bank of Nova Scotia, with a loan guarantee from the government for $4.5-million.
Marc Côté, publisher of Cormorant Books, who remained Mr. Stoddart's friend, summed up the end of his publishing conglomerate as "a perfect storm" of destructive factors. Mr. Stoddart believed to the bitter end that Sheila Copps, then-heritage minister, would step in to save his company, Mr. Côté said.
After losing the family firm, Mr. Stoddart lived a quiet life, indulged his love of antique boats and blues music, dabbled in Georgian Bay real estate, and even joined the Gentlemen's Book Club of Prince Edward County.
He leaves his wife, Nancy, three step-daughters and four grandchildren. He also leaves his estranged sister, Susan Stoddart.
Jack Stoddart, seen at the Arts and Letters Club in Toronto on March 15, 1999, issued about 150 books a year - mostly non-fiction - at his self-named company, Stoddart Publishing.
FRED LUM /THE GLOBE AND MAIL