There’s Smoke

  • Elaine Dewar
    The Handover: How Bigwigs and Bureaucrats Transferred Canada's Best Publisher and the Best Part of Our Literary Heritage to a Foreign Multinational. Biblioasis (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Kit Dobson

Elaine Dewar’s The Handover is a book by an investigative journalist who has decided to turn the lens on the very industry that supports her work, the publishing industry. Smelling something suspicious in the sale of McClelland & Stewart to the Random House/Penguin/Bertelsmann empire, Dewar begins an investigation to search out the details. She is looking for the fire causing the smoke, or, less cryptically, she is looking to uncover how M&S was transferred, via a partnership with the University of Toronto, to Bertelsmann—because the transfer, she argues throughout the book, violates Canadian cultural ownership regulations. As Dewar begins interviewing those who were directly involved in the transfer, readers find the mise en scène of a whodunit and dive into her exploration.

The public version of the story became well known: facing financial straits (and not for the first time), McClelland & Stewart was divided in 2000 by then-owner Avie Bennett between the University of Toronto (75% ownership) and Random House (25%). The 75% was given as a gift to the University; the remainder was sold to Random House. Bennett was hailed as a hero who had saved Canadian literature; the University was lauded for its role as steward; and Random House was to provide day-to-day operational backing. The setup enabled M&S to remain a Canadian publisher and thereby to qualify for grants from bodies like the Canada Council for the Arts. Over time, however, M&S continued to experience financial challenges and, in 2012, ownership was transferred entirely to Random House, where M&S now remains as an imprint of the larger publishing house, living on in “a virtual life” only, in Dewar’s words.

Dewar is blunt in her role as a cultural nationalist who opposed the sale: “[T]his is a story about the slow, secret murder of Canada’s nationalist publishing policy,” the book begins. She situates herself as a boomer who has believed that “a culturally, politically, and economically independent Canada” is “a really good idea.” She is herself, as she notes, implicated in the book, as a writer with many relationships in the industry, though she writes, she says, “with a pure heart.” It is the final transfer of 75% of M&S to Random House for one dollar that sets her off on her mission to uncover how the transfer was taking place. That 75% of the major backlist of CanLit titles was only valued at a dollar, she argues, suggests that there were other forces at play. Suspicious that Random House had in fact held de facto control of M&S since the University of Toronto transfer, Dewar sets out to find out what, exactly, was going on behind the scenes.

This reader, at least, is not quite convinced that Dewar found the fire behind the smoke. There are many things that don’t line up, many people’s versions of the story that conflict, and many documents that seem to contradict each other. Was the sale malicious? Was it a deliberate attempt to sidestep legislation? Dewar implies at times that the business moguls behind the scenes—the late Bennett at the centre of it all—were, at a minimum, out to maximize their investments. But she also goes further, bringing in the consolidation of the industry through Indigo-Chapters and the subsequent challenge to smaller presses in the country. She links Bertelsmann back to its connections with Nazi Germany and examines some of the troubling sides of Canada’s business elite. She makes many worrying links in this book. Yet what readers will conclude is up to them, as Dewar herself notes.

The Handover reads as a risky book written by a vociferous champion of the literary arts in Canada. Dewar comes across as pugnacious but also, at times, as being as lost in the minutiae as everyday readers might be when confronted by business terms like monopsony, oligopsony, puts, retainers, and so on. As she files freedom-of-information requests in succession to the University of Toronto, readers see Dewar pursuing a goal that never quite seems to come to light, but that yields plenty of conflicting information along the way. At an absolute minimum, Dewar’s writing should convince any reader that the publishing industry is just that: it is an industry, with industrial structures, a business framework, and a mindset equal to that framework. While publishing can be a labour of love, it is also a labour linked to money and markets and intellectual property and more. There is little room for romanticism about the industry as Dewar portrays it. Instead, CanLit, she reveals—at least in the most Toronto-business-centric sense—is about money, and sometimes lots of it. As the millions bounce around in The Handover, average writers in Canada (who earn a pittance in comparison) will have to either scratch their heads and wonder how it got to this point or else howl in indignation.



This review “There’s Smoke” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 16 May. 2018. Web.

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