Key Porter Books ceases operations

Key Porter Books announced Friday that it has suspended publishing operations while it considers "restructuring options."

Key Porter Books announced Friday that it has suspended publishing operations while it considers "a number of restructuring options."

The publishing company, which turns out about 100 Canadian non-fiction titles annually, has shown signs of difficulty for the past eight months, including laying off 11 employees and shutting its Toronto office last September.

In a statement issued Friday, Key Porter publisher Jordan Fenn said the company has stopped operations "temporarily" and will attempt to sell its back catalogue. Key Porter is owned by Bolton, Ont.-based H.B. Fenn, which bought a controlling interest in 2004.

"Key Porter Books has played a leading role in giving a voice to the Canadian story and we will do everything possible to ensure that voice continues to be heard," Fenn said.

Key Porter, started in 1979 by Anna Porter, has a back catalogue that includes books by high-profile personalities such as Gordon Ramsay, the Scott Morrison hockey books, as well as work by writers such as Farley Mowat and Joan Barfoot.

The troubled company moved its main office from downtown Toronto to the H.B. Fenn office in Bolton last fall because of financial difficulties.

'Truly sad'

Contacted by CBC News, company founder Anna Porter said it is "truly sad the company is not thriving."

"It was a wonderful 27 years, and I hope it will still be there in another 27 years," she said.

Fenn held out hope in its statement that Key Porter could continue, saying the restructuring is being done with "a view to continuing as a leader in the Canadian publishing industry."

People in Canada's literary community say Key Porter's demise would be a great loss to Canadian publishing.

Toronto literary agent Beverley Slopen said Key Porter plays an important role in the Canadian market.

"It publishes a kind of mainstream, diverse range of books aimed at the general reader — self-help, political memoir, souvenir books," she said.

For a vibrant literary culture, there should be diversity, she said, but all that is left now in the market is three larger publishers and a handful of struggling small publishers who put out very few titles each year.

The troubles at H.B. Fenn began last year, when it lost its key distribution contract for Hachette from Britain and the U.S. 

Fenn's strength on the distribution end helped underwrite some of its publishing interests.

The publishing business is susceptible to poor retail sales — and Canadian retail books sales declined in the first half of 2010, according to BookNet Canada.

E-books are still a very small portion of the market, and it is not yet known how consumers will adopt them, said Chris Bucci, of literary agency Anne McDermid & Assoc.

"We've seen a lot of publishers, not just in Canada, but also in the U.S., downsizing or going under and even the bigger publishers letting people go," he said.

'Terrible for Canadian writers'

"The industry right now is in a very … fragile state and people are trying to figure out what works and what doesn't. E-books are more part of long-term thinking than short-term effects on Key Porter."

Bucci said the demise of Key Porter is sure to hurt prospects for Canadian writers.

"I think it's terrible for Canadian writers. We don't have enough publishers as it is, and I think it's going to mean that the bigger, U.S. multinationals will have even more control over what gets published here, because Key Porter was a bigger player than the small publishers out there. It hurts the options of Canadian authors."

Julie Devaney, author of My Leaky Body, was set to publish her first book with Key Porter in the spring. (Julie Devaney)
Key Porter published Christopher Shulgan's fatherhood memoir Superdad  last fall, hooking up with the author through the McDermid agency. It came out the same week the publisher laid off 11 employees, but Key Porter continued to arrange events and the memoir got a lot of attention, Bucci said.

Julie Devaney was not as fortunate. Her first book, My Leaky Body, about her experiences negotiating the Canadian health-care system with Crohn's disease, was scheduled for publication by Key Porter in the spring. She told CBC News she hasn't been contacted by Key Porter.

"I am very disappointed that they haven't been in contact with authors and that we had to hear through the media. My book was supposed to come out in April and we were discussing marketing," she said.

Devaney said it was a "very intense process" getting the memoir ready and that it was a shock when the editor she worked with was laid off last fall. She said she hopes to find another publisher.

"For me, when I was looking for a publisher for my book, it was very much about the Canadian health-care system and the context of Canadian politics and history. It's going to be a real loss for Canadian literature and Canadian non-fiction that something so specialized and so Canadian is now not going to exist."

With files from The Canadian Press