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Industry insiders dismayed by Davidar departure

David Davidar in 2003, the year he became head of Penguin Canada.

john morstad/The Globe and Mail

The tight-knit Canadian publishing industry roiled with speculation and dismay yesterday following the surprise news that David Davidar, the former head of Penguin Canada who is now leading the iconic firm's new international division from Toronto, had suddenly decided to leave the company.

Widely credited for engineering a turnaround in the local imprint's fortunes since he took over in 2003, India-born Davidar signed up such writers as Joseph Boyden and Michael Winter to boost the bird's fiction lists. On his watch, the Canadian division doubled its revenues, won a Giller Prize for Boyden's Through Black Spruce, and earned two nominations this year for its new Hamish Hamilton Canada imprint.

Many literary agents and colleagues worried that the announcement, made in Toronto Tuesday by John Makinson, London-based chairman and CEO of The Penguin Group, signifies a retreat from the company's commitment to Canadian publishing. Penguin International, a division established to enter new markets in the developing world, will no longer be managed from Toronto, according to spokesman Yvonne Hunter. Beginning mid-August, she added, Toronto staff will report to David Shanks, head of Penguin USA, in New York.

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I just felt I wanted to see if I could do something other than managing a company David Davidar

"This does not reflect well on Penguin," said Jackie Kaiser, a former Penguin employee and now senior literary agent, representing such authors as Yann Martel. "It's difficult not to be distressed by the fact this company will not have the leadership of a Canadian president."

Others suggested that Davidar's abrupt departure reflects deeper problems at the company, until recently celebrated as one of the most successful publishers in the country.

In fact, Davidar said Wednesday, the decision had been "under discussion for months." But executives and employees at the company's Eglinton Avenue headquarters expressed just as much surprise at the news as onlookers.

Quelling the rumours became a full-time job for the outgoing president yesterday, who said that he left the company mainly in order to work full time on his third novel. "I just felt I wanted to see if I could do something other than managing a company," Davidar said in a telephone interview, noting that his August resignation will mark his 25th anniversary with Penguin.

His position as head of the new Penguin International division "took up an awful lot more time than I anticipated," Davidar said. "So after six months it just seemed to me I can either do this for the rest of my life, or I could carve out some time for myself."

Davidar and his wife recently bought a house in Toronto that they will be "loath to leave," he said, adding that he expects the family will soon relocate to Delhi. "I couldn't begin to say with any degree of certainty where I'll be a year from now."

The company's future is complicated by the fact that Nicole Winstanley, named Penguin Canada publisher at the time of Davidar's promotion to Penguin International earlier this year, will soon be leaving her post for a maternity leave. In her absence the company will be managed by Ivan Held, president of Penguin imprint GP Putnam in New York, according to Hunter.

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Toronto educator Cynthia Good, who preceded Davidar as head of Penguin Canada, echoed Kaiser's concern. "It would disturb me to think this was a long term plan - to have someone from outside the country determining the directions and deciding the parameters for a Canadian publishing program," she said. "It was never that way during the 20 years I was with the company. We had our autonomy, and I hope that would be the same now."

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