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Books The Harry Potter whisperer: Publishing executive Allan MacDougall, 71, was a book-selling natural whose biggest coup was bringing a boy wizard to Canada

Allan McDougall of Raincoast Books shown reading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets from the Harry Potter series of books, Feb. 21, 2000.

BRIAN HOWELL/The Globe and Mail

Allan MacDougall was a bootstrap entrepreneur whose life story had a tragic twist. A savvy dealmaker who was genuinely curious about the world, he could work a room without a whiff of artifice. He loved reading, storytelling, having fun and most of all his family.

A high-school dropout, Mr. MacDougall stumbled into publishing in the early 1970s, in the heady days of cultural nationalism when writers such as Margaret Atwood, Pierre Berton, Farley Mowat and Peter Newman rode high on bestseller lists and travelled the country promoting their titles in a retail bookstore environment that had yet to be devastated by big-box stores, e-books and online shopping.

Like his mentor Jack McClelland, Mr. MacDougall was a natural at promotion, sales and publicity, but he grew into an astute tactical and strategic manager capable of devising and orchestrating Raincoast Books, a national warehousing and distribution service, and, for a time, a book publisher.

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“We took a page out of the mafia book,” Mr. MacDougall once explained. “If you can control distribution, you can control your destiny. That’s what separates us from other people; we learned the business first.”

Raincoast’s biggest coup came in the late 1990s, when it became first the distributor and then publisher in Canada of a series of children’s books about a bespectacled boy wizard with a lightning-shaped scar on his forehead. The books were written by an unknown named J.K. Rowling and published in Britain by Bloomsbury. Hard now to imagine the hoopla, the print runs, the costumes, the parties and the round-the-clock lineups to buy the newest volume in the seven-book series.

Mr. MacDougall persuaded Ms. Rowling, who would later become the world’s first billionaire author, to come to Canada and appear at the Toronto International Festival of Authors in October, 2000, at a mass public reading in the SkyDome (now Rogers Centre) to promote Volume 4, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. It was hailed as the biggest reading in the history of book publishing, with more than 20,000 fans of all ages turning out to see their favourite author.

“I really thought I was a hard worker until Harry Potter, and then I realized I was a complete lazy slob,” Mr. MacDougall told this writer with disarming candour in a 2000 interview. Managing a bestselling series over several years in several different formats and editions was a logistical and cash-flow nightmare.

Part of the buzz about the Potter phenomenon was generated by the secrecy around each new book – akin to keeping the Enigma code or the timing of the D-Day landings under wraps. (When Raincoast learned, for example, that The Globe had secured a review copy of Volume 6, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, it slapped an injunction on the newspaper.)

There were no advance reading copies, and manuscripts were handled on a need-to-know basis. Lynn Henry (now publishing director of Knopf Canada), then Raincoast’s editorial director, was the only person in the company entrusted to proof the unpublished manuscript after it was delivered under top security from Britain. Not even Mr. MacDougall, the man in charge of the enterprise, had a key to the special locked filing cabinet where the manuscript was stored.

Around the time the crucial print-run numbers were being calculated, he would drop by Ms. Henry’s office for a chat. She remembered him cautiously inquiring, “So, Lynn, it’s pretty good this time, is it? Maybe even better than the last? Don’t say a word, but, you know, just give me a thumbs up or thumbs down!”

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He was masking his anxiety with a joke – a typical MacDougall ploy. As he admitted in an interview with the Vancouver Sun in 2005, “What’s driven me from Day 1 is fear. My ass has always been on the line. My house, my family, my children and obviously my pride. I don’t want to go down.”

The stress and the planning paid off. Sales of Harry Potter were massive, reputed to be more than 500 million copies worldwide, with translations into 80 languages. But the series represented more than financial and entrepreneurial success for Mr. MacDougall. He loved the fact that the books had spawned a new generation of readers. Reading had saved him, and he believed it could do the same for others.

He had little time to enjoy his success. In 2009, two years after Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh and final book, was released, Mr. MacDougall was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. After a relentless, decade-long decline, he died of pneumonia on Feb. 19 in Point Grey Private Hospital in Vancouver. He was 71.

Allan MacDougall was born on March 7, 1947, in Montreal, the only son and second child of Nini Keefer MacDougall and her husband, Peter Lewis MacDougall. A Second World War veteran, Peter was captured during the fall of Hong Kong in December, 1941, and spent the rest of the war in a Japanese POW camp.

After he was liberated, Peter worked as a salesman, moving his family from Montreal to New York and London before settling in Ottawa. His son, who was not a diligent pupil, chafed at regimentation and rote learning. He later admitted that his parents had kicked him out of the house, although “in the nicest possible way,” after he “flunked Grade 12 twice,” first as a boarder at Bishop’s College School in Lennoxville, Que., and then at Rideau High in Ottawa.

On his own, with very little formal education, Allan MacDougall picked up a job as an accountant’s assistant in a bank. Four years later, he went travelling in the Middle East and almost died from typhoid fever. While recovering, he visited his older sister in Britain, and by chance met a member of the Collins publishing family, who whetted his curiosity about the making and selling of books.

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Back in Ottawa, Mr. MacDougall met Angela (Angie) Andras, the daughter of the late Liberal politician Bob Andras. Four years older and travel-hardened, Mr. MacDougall was unlike the other young men she knew.

“He was passionate about reading, which was my thing because I had just finished a degree in English literature,” she recalled in an interview. “He was a very complex guy,” she said of the man she married in 1973. “Super fun,” and with “an amazing, relaxed kind of intelligence.”

They had a creature in common – a bad-tempered parrot that was owned by mutual friends. The second or third time they met, Mr. MacDougall was carrying the bird on his shoulder. The parrot was “vicious” and “a biter,” and Mr. MacDougall was the only person who could even touch it, let along serve as a mobile avian perch.

Mr. MacDougall was driving a cab, but he was determined to get a job at McClelland & Stewart, then the pinnacle of Canadian publishing in Toronto. One story has him relentlessly phoning the switchboard every day until he was finally given an interview; another says he drove Peter Taylor, then marketing director of M&S, to the Ottawa airport in his cab, chatted about publishing en route and showed up the next day at M&S headquarters in suburban Toronto looking for a job. However he got in the door, Mr. MacDougall was hired as a sales rep in 1972, and rose to sales manager within four years.

Canadian publishing, which had been centred in Toronto, began to establish footholds in the west in the 1970s. Jim Douglas and Scott McIntyre, both former sales reps for M&S, founded the publishing company Douglas & McIntyre in 1976. That same year, Mr. McIntyre’s former partner Mark Stanton invited Mr. MacDougall to move to Vancouver and join him in a new sales firm called Stanton and MacDougall.

“We represented practically all of the Canadian publishers at that time,” Mr. Stanton said in an e-mail about the firm, which later became Raincoast. At the end of 1998, “with the strength of the Harry Potter Books on schedule,” Mr. Stanton sold his “majority shareholding” in Raincoast and “retired as president and publisher.”

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Mr. MacDougall stepped down in October, 2009, after his Alzheimer’s diagnosis, and was succeeded as chief executive by John Sawyer, a veteran Raincoast employee who was well respected as the architect of many of the company’s operational systems.

In retrospect, Mr. MacDougall’s illness wasn’t a surprise, even in someone so young. His wife had noticed that he was forgetting conversations and repeating himself, but the pivotal moment came one night when the couple were dining in a restaurant. “He always had fantastic social skills and manners,” she recalled, but on this occasion, he didn’t realize that they had finished dinner and it was time to go home. Reminding him had no effect, so eventually she motioned to the waiter, but “Allan had no idea what to do with the bill.” Finally, Ms. MacDougall opened her wallet and got out her credit card. As they left the restaurant, she burst into tears because she knew from the years she had spent as the primary caregiver for her mother, who died from Alzheimer’s at 90, that her husband had also fallen victim to that terrible disease.

Although she was suffering from a “tidal wave of grief,” Ms. MacDougall said her husband’s death made her grateful that she and her family had had his physical presence for so long, even though he had been unable to speak for the previous five years. Unexpectedly, she was heartened by e-mails and phone calls from people who wanted to share cherished memories about Mr. MacDougall.

“When somebody is that ill,’ she said, “you become quite isolated and lonely as a family, so we had forgotten how much he was loved. The response to news of his death has been amazing and it has let us bring him back.”

Mr. MacDougall leaves his wife, Angie; three children; five grandchildren; and his sister, Diana Johnson. A celebration of his life is planned in Vancouver on March 7, on what would have been his 72nd birthday.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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