"The Queen Bee of the Canadian Book Trade": Anna Porter and Key Porter Books

by Mary Trush, University of Alberta

Anna Porter is a true survivor of the Canadian publishing trade who achieved success through Jack McClelland’s mentorship, dedication, and hard work, to establish herself as reigning diva of the Canadian publishing industry. Multi-talented and known for her business savvy, Porter was president and publisher of Seal Books, and had a controlling interest in Doubleday Canada. In 1979 she successfully founded Key Porter Books. She has also authored several novels and notable works of non-fiction.

Anna (Szigethy) Porter began her Canadian publishing career in 1969 at McClelland & Stewart (M&S) as editorial coordinator, under Jack McClelland’s directorship. Genuinely impressed with Porter’s exceptional editorial and organizational skills, McClelland quickly promoted her to executive director in 1970 and editorial CP00625.jpgdirector in 1974. Porter eventually rose to become editor-in-chief, as McClelland highly valued her expertise and opinions regarding the management of his publishing house. McClelland’s philosophy was that authors were vital to the success of a publisher. Porter completely understood this concept and is greatly esteemed as an editor who built strong relationships with writers, many of whom she remains close friends with today.

In Jack McClelland, Anna Porter found a mentor who deeply influenced her throughout her career at M&S and for many years beyond. In 1978 McClelland encouraged her to become president and publisher of Seal Books, a paperback publishing house co-owned by M&S and U.S.-based Bantam Books. Porter headed Seal Books until 1992.

CP00615-edited.jpgDuring her years at M&S, Porter developed a passion for Canadian authors, as well as an ambition to succeed in the publishing world, which held her in good stead when she resigned from M&S in 1979 to found her own publishing house, Key Porter Books, along with Michael de Pencier of Key Publishers. Although McClelland was reluctant to lose her, he respectfully supported her decision and was confident of her future success as a publisher in her own right.

As CEO and publisher of Key Porter Books, Porter initially published Canadian-authored works, mainly non-fiction and illustrated books. The firm’s first best-seller was journalist Alan Fotheringham’s Malice in Blunderland, Or How the Grits CP00274.jpgStole Christmas (1982), written, as Fotheringham stated, because “God in Her wisdom placed me on this planet so as to keep the Liberals humble. It’s a nasty job but someone has to do it.” Another great success came when Porter commissioned Jean Chrétien, politician and future prime minister of Canada, to write his memoirs. Straight from the Heart was published in 1985 and sold 120,000 copies. Publisher and editor Phyllis Bruce, quoted in Roy MacSkimming’s The Perilous Trade, notes: “Anna’s idea of doing a book with Chrétien was a stroke of genius. Others, who shall remain nameless, said, ‘What a dumb idea. Why would you do that?’ But she just went for it. It was the breakthrough book that put Key Porter on the map.” Deeply committed to developing and promoting Canadian writers, Porter sought out and published works by Canadian literary icons such as Farley Mowat, Dennis Lee, and Margaret Atwood, as well as historians Modris Eksteins and Irving Abella, and film director Norman Jewison. As a publisher, Porter’s strengths included a talent for developing new book ideas and maintaining good relationships with authors.

CP00276.jpgIn 1986 Porter partnered with Doubleday Canada and purchased a controlling interest in that firm, in addition to running Key Porter Books. She was CEO of Doubleday’s Canadian division and was instrumental in boosting the Canadian publishing industry by promoting Canadian books selected for the Doubleday Book Club, a move which saw Canadian titles increase as much as 25 percent. In 1987 Porter acquired a majority interest in Seal Books; however, by 1992 she had divested her interests in that company and in Doubleday Canada in order to concentrate on managing Key Porter Books and to pursue her own writing.

Challenges in the Canadian publishing industry began to mount in the 1990s CP00276-24.jpgas the federal government drastically slashed funding for publishing development programs. To survive the storm, Porter implemented several clever business strategies. A major initiative was the purchase of Lester & Orpen Dennys, to continue its program of publishing international fiction and Judaica, and a partnership with publisher Malcolm Lester to form Lester Publishing Ltd., issuing hard-cover fiction, non-fiction, and a line of children’s books, including the very successful titles, The Story of Canada (1992), and Beethoven Lives Upstairs (1993) by Barbara Nichol. Another survival strategy for Porter was to aggressively seek out international markets. She sold the rights to hundreds of Canadian books to U.S. publishers CP00705.jpgand distributors, and to publishers all around the world. Porter remained committed to publishing Canadian authors, but astutely observed that relying on the Canadian market alone could be disastrous for the company. Hence, she built up an export-friendly list of commercially minded titles, such as Nicholas de Lange’s The Illustrated History of the Jewish People (1997), works by photographers Freeman Patterson and Dudley Witney, and juvenile titles by Margaret Atwood, as part of a diversification scheme, expecting at least one-third to one-half of the business to be international. Focusing on international sales resulted in an increase in exported illustrated books, and in many cases the company’s U.S. sales surpassed those in Canada.

CP00224.jpgAnna Porter retired from publishing in April 2005, selling a controlling stake of Key Porter Books, the company she operated for twenty-five years, to H.B. Fenn and Company. In addition to her achievements as a publisher, Porter is a successful writer, having completed four novels, a memoir of her grandfather, entitled The Storyteller (2000), and an insightful portrait of a Holocaust hero (Kasztner’s Train, 2007). Fiercely dedicated to her profession, Porter was a formidable force in the world of Canadian publishing. She served on various associations and boards, energetically contributing her expertise in the publishing industry, and tirelessly advocating for the cultural importance of independent publishing. In a Globe and Mail article published on 11 May 2004, she is described as “the queen bee of Canada’s book trade.” In 1992, Porter’s achievements and efforts to bring international recognition to Canadian authors were recognized when she was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada. Since then she has been awarded the Order of Ontario (2003) and several honorary doctoral degrees.

Media Gallery

Front cover of Key Porter Books backlist catalogue, Jan-May 1996
Key Porter Books backlist catalogue, Jan-May 1996
Key Porter Books backlist catalogue, Jan-May 1996
Key Porter Books backlist catalogue, Jan-May 1996
Key Porter Books backlist catalogue, Jan-May 1996
Key Porter Books backlist catalogue, Jan-May 1996
Key Porter Books backlist catalogue, Jan-May 1996
Key Porter Books backlist catalogue, Jan-May 1996
Key Porter Books backlist catalogue, Jan-May 1996
Key Porter Books backlist catalogue, Jan-May 1996


Further Resources

“Women in the Canadian Book Trade: Anna Porter.” Updated 12 April 2005. Library and Archives Canada. http://www.collectionscanada.ca/women/002026-292-e.html
Accessed 6 March 2006.

Crawley, Devin. “The Internationalists: Canadian Publishers are Actively Courting Global Markets More Than Ever. Are They Better Off for It?” Quill & Quire, June 2001: 6.

Fotheringham, Alan. Personal website: http://www.drfoth.com/index.html

Hubbard, Jaimie. “Don’t Judge Anna Porter by Her Cover: Ambitious, Wily and
Contradictory, There are Many Sides to One of Our Most Successful Book Publishers.” Financial Post 15 July 1991: 5.

King, James. Jack: A Life with Writers. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 1999.

Konotopetz, Gyle. “Literary Dynamo Kindles Lifelong Passion.” Business Edge. 22 December 2005. http://www.businessedge.ca/article.cfm/newsID/11469.cfm
Accessed 14 October 2008.

MacSkimming, Roy. The Perilous Trade: Book Publishing in Canada, 1946-2006. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2003.

McDonald, Scott. “Key Porter at the Crossroads.” Quill & Quire, July 2004, 4.

Olijnyk, Zena. “Live and Learn: Anna Porter.” Canadian Business Online. 22 May 2006. http://www.canadianbusiness.com/managing/ceo_interviews/article.jsp?
Accessed 26 March 2009.

Weiler, Derek. “Porter’s New Phase.” Quill & Quire, July 2005, 6.

Archival Resources

McClelland & Stewart Ltd. fonds, McMcMaster University

Key Porter Books fonds, McMaster University