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Books Former Rogers president Ken Whyte launches non-fiction publishing house, acquires small press

Kenneth Whyte, former president of Rogers Publishing Ltd. and past editor of Maclean’s and the National Post, announced this week that he is launching a publishing venture that represents a departure from his decades in journalism: Canada’s newest publishing company, The Sutherland House, will release its first books in early 2019.

The press will be devoted to the publication of literary non-fiction, with books already under contract including We, The Meeple, an examination of culture, history, society and relationships through the medium of board games by former Walrus editor Jonathan Kay and board-game expert Jonathan Moriarty, and Perfect City, a guided tour of the world’s great cities by urban strategist Joe Berridge.

In an unusual move for a new publisher, The Sutherland House (TSH) has also acquired Canadian artisanal press The Porcupine’s Quill (PQL) from its founding owners, Tim and Elke Inkster, in a deal that will see PQL become an imprint of The Sutherland House. Though some initial reactions on social media expressed dismay at TSH’s acquisition of a Canadian literary institution, Whyte isn’t fazed. “So many people [on social media] have said great things about Tim Inkster and The Porcupine’s Quill. I loved hearing all that,” he said, “even from the people who are predicting I’ll wreck his company.”

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Though Whyte’s acquisition of Porcupine’s Quill means that he is starting out with a backlist of Canadian-authored titles, he has international ambitions for The Sutherland House. “I’m especially looking for books that will travel because I think that the Canadian writers who are making a living at it tend to be doing subjects that are of interest outside our borders,” he says. “As a publisher, it matters to me to have a big audience.”

Whyte already has Canadian sales and distribution lined up, and is exploring options in the United States, which he hopes to announce by fall. Beginning in 2019, he aims to publish six to eight non-fiction titles, expanding to eight to 10 the following year. TSH is seeking manuscripts and proposals from agents and authors to establish a list of biography, memoir, history, business, current affairs and travel that will appeal to an international audience.

Martha Webb, a literary agent and co-owner at CookeMcDermid Agency, noted that TSH would be filling a niche that is underserved in the country. “I think it’s a wonderful development. We have many excellent and vibrant independent publishers in Canada but many of them tend to focus on fiction.”

Martha Sharpe, a publishing veteran and owner of Toronto independent bookseller Flying Books, points to Whyte’s previous experience as an asset in publishing. “He’s proven himself as a developer of great talent,” she said, “and development of talent is the core thing that publishers do.”

She also noted the dearth of independent non-fiction publishers. “I think of presses very sadly missed, like Macfarlane Walter & Ross … When they left the scene, they left a big hole.” (Macfarlane Walter & Ross was in operation from 1988 to 2003.)

For seasoned magazine publisher Whyte, books “have always been on the agenda,” and the decision to go into book publishing was in part a reaction to what he sees as the increasingly fast-paced and reactive environment in journalism. “The kind of work I like to do – and the kind of writers I like to work with – is harder and harder to do in the newspaper and magazine world,” he said. “It occurred to me there was an opportunity in the market for another non-fiction publisher.”

It was Whyte’s friend Anna Porter, a writer and the founder of Key Porter Books, who advised that if he wanted to start a publishing house he should “learn how the business works” by acquiring one. “Part of me wanted to start from scratch,” says Whyte, “but picking up an established operation just gave me a head start. I talked to four or five but just felt a really good rapport with Tim [at The Porcupine’s Quill]. He’s looking to semi-retire over the next couple of years. He had this great publishing house – this well-oiled machine – and to be able to build on his infrastructure was a big leg up for me.”

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Under the new deal, The Porcupine’s Quill will continue to publish at full capacity while The Sutherland House gets off the ground, with Tim and Elke Inkster remaining “very involved” in the production of the upcoming PQL list. Their fall 2018 catalogue will continue as planned, and they have some titles tentatively scheduled for spring 2019. Beyond that, PQL’s annual list of new releases will be smaller than in the past, but, says Tim Inkster, its future becomes “immeasurably brighter” thanks to its acquisition by The Sutherland House, “because it gives the imprint a possible future” beyond his wife and himself.

For the time being, TSH is a one-person operation. Asked if he has anybody on staff, Whyte laughed: “No. I’m the editor and the publisher. I want to do this myself. I’m it.” He plans to hire freelance editors and publicists in due course, matching books with publishing professionals according to the requirements of each project.

In the meantime, he feels supported and “optimistic” about his migration from newspapers and magazines into books. “People in this business are unbelievably supportive and generous,” he said. “Much different than the business of journalism.”

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