Robin Farr interview by Roy MacSkimming [audio interview], 21 October 1998




Excerpt: Robin Farr Interview
Roy MacSkimming: One thing I wanted to start with, Robin – I was kind of fascinated by the coincidence, or the synchronicity, of the fact that you said you began your career on the 1st of January, 1950, which is the beginning of the period I’m covering.
Robin Farr: That’s right. I came here [to Toronto] on the 1st of January, 1950 to seek a job in publishing. I’d come from the West Coast, where I’d been teaching, and decided that rather than teach, this was an interesting field, a lively field, it seemed to me. I was fascinated. So I came down and arrived here with no contacts. But, you know, things were expanding, and educational publishing was expanding. Ontario had adopted the basic readers – authorized textbooks – the thing that you find talked about in the Royal Commission. Other provinces the same thing. And there were five or six very large and very profitable educational publishers.
One thinks of Dent and Gage and Book Society and Clarke, Irwin. I went with Copp Clark that very month, and largely because of Marsh Jeanneret’s presence there. It was a small company in terms of publishing but, as I’m sure you’re aware, it had a large printing operation. The publishing and the printing sort of cohabited the place uneasily. As I discovered later with Ryerson Press, it’s a very great mistake to have a printing operation of that size within a publishing operation. Anyhow, that’s how it all started. And so that was educational publishing, and that meant trips across western Canada.
R.M.: So you were a “traveller” to begin with.
R.F.: I was a traveler. I was carrying samples, and they were in suitcases and trunks. We went from place to place and sold as best we could, directly to teachers, for the most part. But the educational system was structured so that in some provinces you got to see very, very important superintendents. And your father was a Superintendent of Schools in Ottawa. One that I remember – I didn’t go to Ottawa, so I didn’t meet your father – but one was Jim Lorimer’s father. He was the Superintendent of Schools in Winnipeg – a rather austere man – [laughs - inaudible] – and so it went. And you know the drill – you called on these people, you did the usual sales thing, and you opened up all kinds of displays across the country.
R.M.: Would you take a hotel room for display purposes and have teachers in?
R.F.: Yes, teachers would come in. Superintendents would come in. Department of Education people would attend, occasionally, and that would be a coup. And so you [educational travellers] followed one another around the countryside. I would think the leader, at the point I came in, would surely have been W.J. Gage, largely because of the readers. You know, the Dick and Jane series.
R.M.: They were American –
R.F.: – they were American readers. We had American readers at Copp Clark – nobody was doing Canadian books, not that kind of book. Everybody convinced themselves then that development costs were too high for us to do this. So we brought them in and we “Canadianized” them. And I can recall sitting in a hotel room in Regina, one time, simply cutting out all the American coins [from a textbook] and pasting in the Canadian coins before I took it to show. I mean, it was that simple and that rudimentary. But it was a fascinating life in many ways, because we all set out at about the same time of the year, travelling almost until Christmas in the western provinces. That was my beat – the four western provinces.
R.M.: So really from the Lakehead –
R.F.: – west. And out one line – the CPR through Regina, Calgary and so on to Vancouver and Victoria, and back on the CN through Edmonton and Saskatoon and then back to Winnipeg. Along the way there were the displays – sometimes in schools, sometimes in the hotel. And the travellers were an interesting lot. They were largely led by a man named Frank Strowbridge. Does his name come up at all?
R.M: Well, his name used to come up at home, because my father mentioned him quite often – even my mother did, because my mother and I would always go with Dad to the OEA conventions, the Ontario Education Association, at Easter in Toronto – and Strowbridge, they said, gave the best parties.
R.F.: He did. He gave the best parties. He had the largest expense accounts. I remember him very fondly, but everyone else thought he was just too slick, I suppose. But Gage was enormously successful. And I remember sitting with him in a hotel room once. He just must have taken pity on this kid. Well, he up and poured me a drink and he poured himself a drink. And then he put half a glass of milk in his drink [laughs] and he said to me, “Now, the drink is for me, and the milk is for my ulcer.” I can remember that to this day. [laughter] And I can also remember checking out behind him in the hotels and being astonished at the bills he was paying, which I guess would be two or three hundred dollars for the few days he’d been there.
R.M.: A lot of hospitality?
R.F.: A lot of hospitality. It was good. Frank really had no ideas about educational theory. There was a man, though, at Gage who did.
R.M.: Wilfrid Wees?
R.F.: Yes, exactly – very, very clever and very astute, a very good educator. But Frank was out front as the salesman. And there was then Jim Totton at McClelland and Stewart. There was somebody at Clarke, Irwin whose name escapes me for the moment. There was also Nelson....
R.M.: Jim McNeillie?
R.F.: Well, McNeillie yes – very definitely.
R.M.: When I was at Clarke, Irwin in the mid ’60s, he was there.
R.F.: And he’s still alive. He’s married you know. He spends half the year in England and half the year in Canada. He married an English wife.
R.M.: But that’s not who you were thinking of.
R.F.: No. No, there was someone else. Dent had an office down on the west coast and had a foot in the door in the western provinces.
R.M.: What about Macmillan?
R.F.: Yes, Gladys Neale. Gladys was the grande dame of educational publishing – of the whole thing. I mean, I guess women didn’t travel and sell and conduct business then, but Gladys certainly did. She was just a force to be reckoned with. You know, austere – underneath it all very pleasant, very knowledgeable and very well acquainted with people that counted. So she was a major competitor. And Gage, and so on and so forth. But those were expanding years, Roy, you know. I stayed at Copp Clark through till 1960.
R.M.: As the enrolments in schools expanded, did the Canadian publishing programs also expand in these companies?
R.F.: Yes, they did. Because almost all provinces – and certainly the four western provinces, and Ontario – Circular 14 was the bible here. You had to get on Circular 14 in this province. And Circular 14 meant that you had to go through a kind of an appraisal process that was carefully timed, leading up to publication. And if you missed it, it was disastrous. It was a business disaster. Once you got on it, you were in a multiple [copy sale] situation. And that’s why companies were hiring so many people. The field was expanding. It’s astonishing to think that you could come back from a trip having sold, say, 175,000 copies – easily.
R.M.: Of mixed titles.
R.F.: Of one title! The Story of Canada, which we had – by Harman and Brown and Jeanneret – could easily sell 50,000 in each province. Just staggering. When I think back on it now, and the fight to sell, what? – five, six thousand copies? – that would be good business now. [But in those days] you could come back with that kind of an order. And I can remember the man who took these orders in the [Copp Clark] office, who looked after the printing, and so on. You would think this was a tremendous order, and then he sort of gave you the impression, ‘Well, where’s the rest of it? What have you been doing out there?’ French texts, maths and then the readers….
R.M.: And I suppose those kinds of sales numbers were really only possible because there was usually a single authorized text, was there? Or perhaps a couple? In a given subject and a given grade?
R.F.: That’s right. And not much worry about American books coming over the border, because the American educational publishers, when I think back on it, the main ones, were adequately represented in Canada – satisfied with their arrangements here. D.C. Heath was one we had, Peterson was another. They felt they had adequate representation. And so once a year you’d go down and visit with the American publisher and attend a sales conference-cum-seminar, and they would develop something new. But it was largely a matter – at the beginning, certainly, of that decade – of Canadianized books.
R.M.: So there were very few Canadian branches of the American educational companies. That came more in the late ’50s and ’60s?
R.F.: Right – and ’60s.
R.M.: So the Canadian houses really had two very lucrative streams of revenue coming in. They had big sales on their own books – that they had developed or that they had Canadianized – and then they had agency businesses as well.
R.F.: That was secure. It seemed very secure.
R.M.: So these companies must have been quite profitable.
R.F.: Yes, certainly they were. And by 1960, I think, the whole area of publishing had become a very, very large profit area in communications. It would be interesting to look back on some articles from that period. You know, there weren’t the conglomerates. There weren’t the mergers with other communications companies. It didn’t happen. Books were separate – magazines were separate – and the market was just expanding. There seemed to be no limits to growth.
R.M.: If you went into a province where your text was authorized for use in schools, then there was very little competition – very few other titles that the teacher could order. (Robin agrees) They weren’t allowed to order outside of the approved lists.
R.F.: And so the thing that you sold then was simply peripheral material. There were all kinds of companies that raced to produce peripheral stuff – teachers’ manuals, students’ guides, students’ manuals. And then the rest was library books, largely, which was a very burgeoning market.
R.M.: That was expanding also.
R.F.: That was expanding, definitely. So that was a great time to enter the field. And it didn’t seem like anything would ever upset it. I’m just trying to recollect in my own mind, but if you go back into the early ’60s, all of a sudden you have American companies taking away their agency rights and establishing here. I well remember when Cam Hughes told me that he was setting up [a Canadian branch] for Van Nostrand, which was one of McClelland & Stewart’s major, major agencies – and I’m sure that would have had a tremendous impact on M and S’s sales. And he wasn’t the first. He simply came in, set up, had a separate arrangement, and then [inaudible]
R.M.: I photocopied a story this morning from Quill and Quire – I think it was late 1969 – in which it was announced that Cam was doing that.. He was moving from Ryerson, and he and Geoff Dean were going to set up the Van Nostrand imprint in Canada.
R.F.: That’s right. And it was just about that time when all this began to crumble, I suppose, for the Canadian publishers. And also, I think that there were amazing changes in the educational system, in regard to educational material. Suddenly [textbook purchasing] money was freed. Circular 14 lost its preeminence, didn’t it, in this province.
R.M.: It still existed – and it still exists today, for that matter – but what....? When I was at Clarke, Irwin in the [late] ’60s, I was on the trade side. And of course that was the much smaller side of the editorial department – although we did maybe a dozen trade books a year – but mostly the company was an educational publishing company. So I wasn’t too aware of the specifics, but I gathered back then that, yes, there was much more competition now because teachers were freer, boards were freer to choose from a variety of texts. I think there was still a Circular 14, though. But I guess it was opened up quite a bit, wasn’t it?
R.F.: It was opened up. I don’t think it had the authority that it had had. And I think schools, boards I guess, maybe schools individually, could move money from book purchasing to gym equipment or audio-visual material. All of that began to change. I think you’ll find some of that being referred to in the [Ontario] Royal Commission [on Book Publishing].
R.M.: Yes, in the background papers.
R.F.: Some of it will be in there. And it will explain why there was such an enormous – and then, we got into the period that – well, New Press and all of the literary publishing that began to appear. It was an enormous surge of nationalism, wasn’t it, as you would be so aware of.
R.M.: And it was mostly on the trade side – although there was some interest in providing, especially at the university level, more Canadian material. There was a convergence of forces, the way you’re describing it. I’m kind of picturing the way in which the industry was changed by a combination of changes in curriculum and resources policy, and changes with the branch plants settling in Canada and the agency business diminishing – and then this kind of national self-awareness that produced a shift toward trade publishing. So really, the industry underwent a huge transformation, compared to what it had been when you entered.
R.F.: Absolutely. And those things that you’ve just mentioned were very true. Those are all good and very valid. And they all came – well, they didn’t come together at the same time, but they did come to shift the ground for publishing. All of a sudden, in this country, we weren’t producing educational texts to the extent that we had been. All of a sudden there were writers here and people publishing them. I can remember at Copp Clark – you know, we published the occasional trade book – but most of them would have been what would now be called “young adult” books. So they would be really aimed at libraries, at school and public libraries. A man named Jack Hayes produced some wonderful little histories in novel form, fictional form. I remember having lunch with him at the National Club – an odd place to meet an educational author, but he was an executive at Southam. Anyhow, there were a number of those, but they were very rare. And poetry – that’s the one thing that I think continued to be published, all through that period.
R.M.: Well, I don’t want to leave Copp Clark completely, but I know that certainly when you were at Ryerson, they had quite a vigorous poetry program, although that was [inaudible]. You mentioned the Gordie Howe book earlier that Copp Clark published.
R.F.: That was Ryerson.
R.M.: Oh, sorry.
R.F.: We [Copp Clark] wouldn’t do that. Although I can remember one book on curling, for some reason. But it was only a question of things that came floating in over the transom, as we used to say. Somebody would say, “We’ve had an awfully good year in educational sales, so we can do this.”
R.M.: While you were at Copp Clark, Robin, did your own role eventually change from being a traveller? Did you get into editorial at all?
R.F.: Yes, I went into editorial. And then I came forward with an idea, and that was that we shouldn’t be centered in Toronto. Since I was out in the west and travelling in the west, and there was a feeling in the west that you should be on the spot, I persuaded the company to move west to establish an office. And so we went – Peggy and I went out to Vancouver and established an office for them and handled all western business from there.
R.M.: What year would that have been?
R.F.: It would have been, I guess, about 1955-6, about 1956, I think.
R.M.: And how did that work?
R.F.: It worked very well – being closer to the people, getting to know the educational systems and the needs and the teachers, and so on. But where it didn’t work was this printing thing again – because like so many publishers then, Copp Clark was anchored to a printing operation that was very important to [inaudible] people – far more people on the printing side. And so, in the west, they suddenly decided that they wanted their books produced in the west – that is, physically produced. There were plants out there. There were places where they could produce books. And when I brought that idea back, there was enormous resistance to it, just enormous. What do these people think they’re doing? We do the books. We print the books. We produce the books. We ship them out. We don’t do it any other way. [Laughter]
R.M.: Toronto imperialism.
R.F.: It was – [laughs] – but you’re not a Toronto person, so you see it. You see, there is such a thing. It does exist.
R.M.: Well, I know how keenly it’s felt in the west, especially – we’re enemies.
R.F.: Ottawa is not the enemy to westerners.
R.M.: It’s not the only enemy.
R.F.: – not the only enemy. Toronto is the major one, because of a certain amount of arrogance, and enormous wealth and growth, and so on. But even then it was very apparent. And I can remember so well coming back and saying that we could sell – whatever it was – 40,000 copies, but they’re asking to have us give them a chance to quote on the printing: Absolute nonsense! I’m exaggerating because, of course, business [sense] takes over [in the end] and the book was produced in the west.
R.M.: Because that was really a regulation, a requirement.
R.F.: Yes, it became a requirement.
R.M.: You must have been in a tricky spot, because you were having to mediate between this Torontocentric attitude of the company, and the self-assertion in the western provinces. But being a westerner, you could sympathize with both sides.
R.F.: Yes. That at least was the tactic, you know [laughs] Although I guess I found more trouble here than I did when I was out in the west. I was given a very free reign. And the only company in Vancouver, at that time, was J.M. Dent. J.M. Dent had been very well established there, had their own house.
R.M.: Who was their manager?
R.F.: I’m trying to think.
R.M.: There was a fellow called Keith Sacre but I think he was just a rep.
R.F.: The man here then [at Dent] was C.J. Eustace. He was a very powerful figure in Canadian publishing. And Dent and McClelland & Stewart shared the premises on Bloor Street in Toronto, M & S being somewhat the junior. There was a house, an old house up on Bloor Street – I can see it yet – where Dent was, and M & S was in there.
R.M.: In the Annex somewhere?
R.F.: Yes, on the north side of Bloor. There’s a new hotel there now, the International something or other [Intercontinental, R.M.] Right in there.
R.M.: Between Avenue Road and Bedford.
R.F.: That’s right. That’s where old Mr. McClelland [John Sr.] was blowing the dust off the books – [laughs] – no, literally. One of the good salesmen we had at Copp Clark was a chap named Desmond Newell. Des was a very accomplished – we would call him now a trade salesman, he did sell to retail accounts. Anyhow, before the war he had worked for M & S, and he told the story about coming back after the war – he rejoined them after the war, the same time Jack [McClelland] did – and old Mr. McClelland was with him in the warehouse one day and said, “Well now, we have all these books and they sell like hot cakes,” [laughter .... makes blowing sound] and he’d blow the dust off them. And of course M & S was that kind of publisher, you know.
R.M.: Like hot cakes, eh? When you were in Vancouver, were you acquiring or developing educational books, as well as selling?
R.F.: Yes. That’s where the other side of it began to come in. I did some editorial work down here. Then when I got out there, I had a free reign.
R.M.: [Books] that would meet the specific requirements of the curriculum?
R.F.: – of the curriculum. Of Alberta and the Prairie provinces as well. So the change was coming, although I don’t think really anyone saw it coming, say, in 1959-60. I don’t think so. There were a lot of writers emerging and a need to publish them, and I guess – well, you know that part of it, Roy – New Press is a good example of that, isn’t it?
R.M.: Well, in the 10 or 12 years before the New Presses and the Anansis and so on started, Jack started really building a trade list at M & S. And that was when he began to bring out Berton and Mowat and Peter Newman and Margaret Laurence and so on. I think that was the first harbinger of change, M & S emerging, after Jack had really taken over the reigns, as a strong trade house. But Macmillan was the important trade publisher, wasn’t it?
R.F.: Yes, that’s right.
R.M.: People forget that now, or never knew it. And that’s one of the things I need to re-establish in this book.
R.F.: Well, I’m glad you’re doing that, because you’re quite right – Macmillan, through John Gray, and before him Hugh Eayrs. Hugh Eayrs and John Gray – they were, how would I put it, they epitomized the best in publishing. They were aware of their responsibilities to authors. They were aware of the business side, and the necessity to maintain the business side to support all the other things. John Gray used to say that publishing is 95 percent business and 5 percent art – or something like that – or 5 percent writing. An exaggeration – but what he meant was that, without that foundation, you couldn’t do the other things. And he himself – well, take Mazo de la Roche, for example. That’s going a long way back, way, way back, yet [she was] a Canadian author who was widely read, widely translated, enormously successful, within that close relationship with John Gray.
R.M.: He was her publisher. I’ve seen photographs of them together.
R.F.: Yes, he was her publisher. He had none of the flamboyance, of course, of Jack and all that. And there’s Gladys Neale propping everything up [at Macmillan]. And John Gray and Hugh Eayrs realizing the importance of that side of the business [educational publishing], which one would have to say was not the case at M & S. Jack never understood educational publishing. And had little interest in it, which was a great pity, I think. One of my closest friends then was Jim Totton, who ran educational publishing [at M&S]. You know, it was infuriating – Jack would pay so little attention to what was the money-maker for the company. And I don’t want to denigrate Jack in any way, and his accomplishments, but there might have been other ways, you know, to get that job done that he wanted to do. But anyhow.
R.M.: Well, he really sacrificed both of the traditional sources of revenue for a Canadian publisher, because he did downgrade the educational and the college publishing, but he also began to divest himself of agencies. One year, I think it was ’63, he actually cut loose about 23 agencies. And he swears to this day that it was the right thing to do, because they were taking too much time and energy, too many resources, away from publishing Canadian books. He kept, I think, five agencies – Little Brown, Lippincott and three others, perhaps Atheneum. But he really was abandoning these traditional supports of the Canadian program and almost staking everything on publishing Canadian trade books.
R.F.: Very true. That’s a good way to put it.
R.M.: But was that a disaster, then, when he did that? Was that what got him into such financial difficulty as early as 1967-68?
R.F.: I think – let’s put it this way – I think a lot of that financial disaster could have been – some of it could have been avoided, I’m sure of it, if Jack had cultivated those areas of the business. But maybe that was the price – I don’t know. It took a toll.
R.M.: Yes, it did. Another one of the stories I copied from Quill & Quire this morning was from early 1970. The Ernst & Ernst Report had just come out, which is the first report that really documented the extent of the publishing business in Canada. And I think in the very next issue there was a headline, “McClelland Wants Out.” And that was 1970. It was 15 years before he finally sold the company to Avie Bennett. So he was already in quite a hole.
R.F.: Oh, he was in an enormous hole. I worked with Jack, you know, in 1967, in the Centennial period. There was a tremendous amount of stuff going on just before I went and moved to Ryerson. But that hole had been just developing for a very long, long time, until there was the [Ontario government] emergency loan. What year would that have been? That must have been 1969, ’70?
R.M.: That was as a result of the Royal Commission making an interim recommendation in ’71.
R.F.: How much of that would have been necessary, you know, and all the other things – I don’t know.
R.M.: It was a very considerable amount – almost a million dollars. A lot of money.
R.F.: Yes, that was a lot of money. And it had to be pushed through with great speed. It sort of skewed the whole basis of the Royal Commission, in a sense, because instead of proceeding at a proper pace and saying, “These are all the things that we should do,” all of a sudden there’s a enormous crisis and the public is saying, “What’s the matter here, why does tax money have to flow like this -- even before these people have reached the point of knowing what it’s all about?” Anyhow.
R.M.: Was there much questioning that you can recall of that decision by the Ontario government to lend M & S a million dollars?
R.F.: There always was, Roy. There always was enormous – it remained in their minds, you know. There was always a feeling, I’m afraid – I don’t know how much of this – but there was always a feeling in Ontario that....Jack was a loser. You know – why the hell do we do this? Why do we need to be bombarded, every year? And you know politicians. Politicians – you can say what you like about them, but they’re not losers. That’s the interesting thing. Every four years, they’ve won their job. There’s a funny psychology – I’ve seen it at the federal level and also the provincial level. They’re not losers. Now, when they lose the election, yes, they become losers. But the whole psychology of the politician [in government] is that they’re not losers. And that was a very strong sentiment in the Ontario government. It hurt other people. It hurt the whole industry.