In 1967, Scott McIntyre, a UBC graduate looking to break into publishing, presented a book proposal to Jim Douglas, a well-connected sales rep and occasional editor based in Vancouver. McIntyre’s idea for a collection of scenic Vancouver photographs taken by a friend didn’t garner much interest, but Douglas was impressed by his enthusiasm. He later cut McIntyre, who was two decades his junior, into his sales business, and in 1970 they founded their own publishing house, J. J. Douglas Ltd.
At first, the press’s titles consisted mainly of cookbooks, but eventually it found more success with children’s stories. Johann’s Gift to Christmas, featuring a hungry church mouse, was a hit in 1972 and later became an animated short film. J. J. Douglas was fortunate to come about at a time when Canadians were becoming interested in learning more about their country. The publisher satiated that desire with books on Canadian history, culture and the arts, and served as an outlet for Canadian writers.
Douglas retired in 1980, and his protege took over the company, since renamed Douglas & McIntyre. Its devotion to promoting Canadian authors was both noble and necessary, but not always enough to pay the bills. Corporate biographies helped cash flow, as did a textbook division that was sold in the 1980s. Douglas & McIntyre never lost its focus on Canadian authors, however, and took risks others would not. It published an illustrated history of dance in Canada in 1989, for instance, after the book had been rejected by a competitor.
Douglas & McIntyre grew into the largest independent publisher in B.C., and eventually became the largest independent publisher in all of Canada—not so much because of blockbuster growth, but because its peers went bankrupt or sold to the subsidiaries of larger foreign publishers. As the industry consolidated, independents were helpless against the publishing giants, who spent big for shelf space, promotion and talent. The shift toward e-books and the deep discounts offered by Amazon also squeezed margins across the industry.
Douglas & McIntyre held out for a long time against these forces, but it was not immune. On Oct. 22, Scott McIntyre was scheduled to be in Toronto to receive the inaugural Ivy Award for his “substantial contribution to Canadian publishing.” He couldn’t attend. A speech was read on his behalf: “It is bittersweet indeed that serious business issues have prevented me from being here,” he wrote. Within hours, the company announced it would be placed in bankruptcy protection while it attempts to find an investor or buyer for its assets.
A few days later, publishing titans Random House and Penguin announced merger plans. The prospects for a small Canadian publisher to go it alone, especially when its larger rivals are forced to consolidate, are now bleak.