Live and Learn: Anna Porter

The publisher, writer and Key Porter Books founder on one of the toughest businesses.

I was born in Hungary and was heavily influenced by my grandfather. He was this extraordinary, larger-than-life figure. He had a passion for history, and he loved to tell stories. He was my childhood hero. As far as I was concerned, he could do no wrong.

I started reading books when I was very, very young. I wanted to be a writer–a poet actually. I wrote heroic, galloping verse in which magnificent things happened to fabulous heroes and heroines.

My mother was in jail for eight months for trying to leave Hungary. In 1956, we finally got out. That was around the time of the revolution. I was almost 12. We eventually went to New Zealand. I guess my mother wanted to get as far away as possible.

I think I am tougher than most people, thanks to my experiences growing up. I can withstand an awful lot of pressure, and I don't expect things to always work out. This is very good training for the book publishing business in Canada.

When I landed in London, I got a job as a proofreader. I didn't like the job, but I liked the publishing atmosphere. A couple of years later, I had a chance to come to Canada. I learned about the real business of publishing from a master: Jack McClelland.

Canada, as a publishing country, is truly in the worst possible situation. It is not protected by a unique language, and it's right next to the U.S. The market here for books is terrific, but to try and find shelf space for a Canadian publisher is very, very tough.

Publishing is a combination of art and business. You have to be tough in business. But you also have to look at a manuscript, read quickly so it doesn't take up your whole day, and get a sense of whether it could be successfully published. That's art.

A good book keeps you wanting to read on. It has a story that engages you, and it has credible people. That's true of both fiction and non-fiction. Most mistakes I have made have been in publishing things I didn't think were very good but that I thought would sell. As opposed to: “This is absolutely brilliant, it's so wonderful, I can't put it down. But how am I going to sell it?”

When I started out in Canada, there were three bookstore chains. Now there is one big chain. So if a particular buyer gives a book a skip, that means you've lost more than 50% of your market. Indigo is a good retailer, and CEO Heather Reisman is passionate about books. But from a publisher's point of view, it was nicer when there was more competition.

I've already written five books. The first was a murder mystery set in the publishing business. It was so much fun to write, I wrote two more. And then I was down in New York, and one of the book chains there asked if I had a book on Dracula. I said, “Yeah, sure,” but it wasn't true. When I got back, I couldn't find anyone with the sightest interest in writing a quick book on vampires. Finally, in my pain and agony, I wrote it myself under a pseudonym.

But the book I really took most seriously was The Story Teller. It was based on stories my grandfather told me about his experiences in Hungary. He hid a number of Jewish people in 1944, and I became interested about what really happened.

I had a perfectly good job working with the people who had bought Key Porter in 2004. They were really quite stunned when I decided to leave. They weren't expecting me to quit so early.

I'm just as busy as I was before I left my job. I'm still trying to get unbusy. I do some consulting on the side, and I'm working on another book. It has to be done by November–it's in my contract. I'm also on a number of boards, including some corporate boards.

When I do have spare time, I like to hang out with my kids. I enjoy being with my two daughters, and I just became a grandmother for the first time. I play bridge once month with my mother and her elderly Hungarian friends. I'm not very good, but they indulge me. I go to plays with my husband. I play tennis. And I read books. Lots and lots of books.

Anna Porter

Born in Budapest, Hungary;
birthdate a well-guarded secret”
Book publisher, writer

Graduates from University of Canterbury in New Zealand; starts career as junior editor with Cassell & Co. in London.

Already a junior editor at Collier MacMillan, takes job at McClelland & Stewart in Canada; later becomes editor-in-chief.

Starts independent publisher Key Porter Books; authors includes Farley Mowat and Margaret Atwood (children's books).

While keeping duties at Key Porter, becomes executive chairman at Doubleday Canada Ltd., a position held until 1991.

After selling Key Porter to H. B. Fenn & Co., quits to devote more time to writing and family, but stays on as a company director.