Otonabee Ward: Memories of a Career in Canadian Publishing

My recent book writing experience brought me into the 21st century publishing world, which is very different from my work in the industry. In the late 1970s I was an editor at a large publishing house. We editors were a diverse group: a young man whose former job was proofreading the phone book, another who was interested in Hobbit, a woman who had her own writing aspirations, and I, a graduate with my MA in English, with the dream of working in the glamorous publishing industry.

The books were divided into the trade, that is, those sold in bookstores, and the texts. We started with textbooks like novels and then worked our way up to more complicated books like history, geography, and science. We had to check facts, correct grammar and spelling, secure permissions, get ISBNs, then create a dummy layout with photos and illustrations for the art department.

We were belittled by the accounting, sales, and editorial staff – they thought we didn’t do the real work. But at the lower end of the hierarchy we thought we were superior to the discerning writers. We didn’t get tired of fretting about it – another editor would complain that a well-known writer called her drunk at night to discuss changes. I grumbled self-righteously that I would never have accepted the first manuscript from an unknown author that needed major revision.

In the large corner office sat the vice-president of the editorial board, an intimidating woman of about 75 who people said she had been there from the start. I was never quite sure what she was doing except for the manager, who would tell us about it. She was said to be independently wealthy and not on a salary.

She smoked on the chain and drank tea all day, perhaps enriched with something from her desk drawer. Her face had many fine lines from the cigarette life. Her wardrobe consisted of five suits, one for each day of the week, in styles that had long been fashionable. When she was that rich, she didn’t spend it on clothes. On my first Christmas party, which I worked there, we were all invited into their large mansion, which was decorated with leather armchairs, dark mahogany paneling, and Persian carpets like a gentlemen’s club, which in my opinion was not their taste.

After a couple of fires, our hostess dropped her vigilance. She said that she had lived with her domineering mother all her life. As a young woman, she fell in love with a widower who proposed marriage, but her mother would not let her. They would meet in secret, however. I could see the heartache in her eyes so many years later. Then her friend suddenly died, leaving her money and house, and she and her mother moved in. Her mother died a few years later, and all she had left was the house and work.

That winter, I was working on a stamp book that included multiple images, permissions, a complex layout, and an eccentric author, and when I finished the TP congratulated me on my good work. Even if it wasn’t true, I said that I enjoyed working on the book and that the stamps were like miniature works of art. After that, I seemed to get harder chemistry, math, and physics texts and knew the writing was on the wall.

Fast forward 40 years – I never thought I’d switch to the other side to become one of those dreaded writers. I can only hope I wasn’t as demanding or selfish as the ones we worked with at the time.


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