Does Publishing History Repeat Itself?: From Macmillan to M&S

Ruth Panofsky, author of The Literary Legacy of the Macmillan Company of Canada: Making Books and Mapping Culture, discusses the news of Random House of Canada’s acquisition of McClelland and Stewart.

The news that Random House of Canada has acquired sole ownership of McClelland & Stewart has broken just as I prepare for the launch of my forthcoming book, The Literary Legacy of the Macmillan Company of Canada: Making Books and Mapping Culture. A formidable publishing house, Macmillan once shared centre stage with M&S as one of Canada’s premier publishers.

The closing chapter in M&S’s history as a Canadian-owned company that enjoyed legendary status as The Canadian Publishers under the redoubtable Jack McClelland recalls the final, tenuous years of Macmillan, when the firm was a wholly owned Canadian company, first under Maclean Hunter, and latterly under Gage.

Throughout the twentieth century, publishing in Canada was a “perilous” undertaking, as Roy MacSkimming aptly describes in his book, The Perilous Trade: Publishing Canada’s Writers, issued – rather ironically – in 2003 by McClelland & Stewart. Canadian publishing has never been more perilous, however, than in recent years when the nature of book publishing has been transformed by the digital rise and the publishing industry worldwide has come under siege. It is remarkable, in fact, that M&S retained its position as a primarily Canadian-owned company until the second decade of the twenty-first century. Despite financial vagaries, the company remained fiercely Canadian in ownership and culture – hence, the absorption of the company by Random House is felt deeply by all those who care about Canadian literary culture and the Canadian book business.

Unlike M&S, which was always Canadian owned, Macmillan was established in 1905 as a branch plant of Macmillan and Company in London. Like M&S, however, it developed an intensely Canadian culture and became an indisputable leader in Canadian publishing. Early in its history, Macmillan’s active role in Canada’s cultural development was sanctioned by its foreign owners who recognized the importance and value of establishing a strong connection with local authors and readers. Under visionary publishers Hugh Eayrs and John Gray, the Macmillan Company of Canada imprint rose to prominence and Macmillan books touched countless readers in homes, classrooms, and libraries across the country. In large part, the triumvirate of Ryerson Press, McClelland & Stewart, and the Macmillan Company of Canada was responsible for fostering a modern Canadian literary culture.

The last of the great Canadian publishing companies, M&S was tied to visionary individuals like its founder John McClelland and his dynamic successor, son Jack, whose name remains synonymous with the rise of Canadian literature. Random House’s gain is this country’s cultural loss, which will reverberate for years to come among the book-minded of this country. My forthcoming book records the rise and fall of another cultural institution – the Macmillan Company of Canada – whose painful loss is still felt keenly among those who are now reeling at the news that McClelland & Stewart is no longer our own.


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