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Carol Martin co-founded the Readers’ Club of Canada and publishing house PMA Books.Courtesy of the Family

Carol Martin, who died on Dec. 18 in Hastings County, Ont., was an early champion of Canadian publishing, a much-loved mentor and an editor who could gently prod an important story into being at her publishing house, PMA Books, which she co-founded with her husband, Peter Martin.

Publishing in Canada in the 1960s and 70s was difficult. Small houses struggled to get out stories that were important. Everyone worked on a shoestring and most were learning as they went. Ms. Martin was a steady hand in a turbulent time and the self-effacing behind-the-scenes person who got the work done, while believing as passionately in Canadian books as those who garnered the headlines.

Peter Carver, children’s book editor of Red Deer Press, points to the list of gifted editors, designers, writers and illustrators who spent their early careers working at or publishing with PMA Books. Among them are noted authors Janet Lunn and Tim Wynne-Jones, illustrator Brenda Clark (of Franklin fame), editors Shelley Tanaka and Val Wyatt, book designer Michael Solomon and Mr. Carver himself, who got his first publishing job at PMA Books.

Ms. Martin’s mentorship role extended beyond the doors of PMA Books. Annabel Slaight, co-founder of the groundbreaking magazine Owl and its sister book-publishing operation, says, “She was a wonderful person who helped me so much when we began Owl and Chickadee magazines. Getting people to believe that these magazines could be successful during our start up was tough. But I remember one particularly helpful evening with Carol spent watching a marvellous aurora borealis. Somehow in her quiet way she turned that experience into more confidence and hope.”

Patricia Aldana, founder of the noted children’s publisher Groundwood Books, recalls, “She was a very important mentor to me, and such an honourable Canada Council officer – as well as a very good publisher.” She adds, “She was such a truly good person, even though so often under very difficult circumstances.”

Born in Ottawa on March 25, 1935, Carol Janet Wood studied journalism at Carleton College (now University). Mr. Carver, then the student newspaper editor, remembers her as the quietly intelligent associate editor who was “swept off her feet by Peter Martin ... president of National Federation of Canadian University Students.” She married Mr. Martin halfway through her third year, moving to Toronto with him.

“Even in those early days,” Mr. Carver recalls, “[Mr. Martin] was talking about the idea of the Readers’ Club of Canada – and of course when they returned to Toronto, that was their initial project.”

Established by the Martins in 1959, the Readers’ Club of Canada (RCC) was an all-Canadian version of the Book of the Month Club. Its first selection was Mordecai Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.

While the venture had some successes, according to Roy MacSkimming’s The Perilous Trade: Publishing Canada’s Writers, it was a challenge to find books for the list and an even greater challenge to reach readers across the country with almost no advertising budget.

The couple published a book for the RCC in 1962 and, in 1965 they created the publishing house Peter Martin Associates, later PMA Books. Its list included 10 to 12 books a year focusing on Canadian politics, sociology and history. The children’s book list included a series of historical picture books and an experimental high-interest series for “reluctant readers” (children showing little interest in reading, whatever their level of literacy).

“[Ms. Martin] believed that, if a person had a great story, it should see the light of day,” says Michael Solomon, who joined the company in 1976.

Marketing was difficult in a vast country in the face of competition from the major U.S. and British houses. In the 1970s, Ms. Martin was involved in the creation of several organizations to promote Canadian literature, including the Association of Canadian Publishers (ACP) and the Association for the Export of Canadian Books (now Livres Canada Books). She was also instrumental in the founding of the Canadian Children’s Book Centre (CCBC), a national non-profit organization with a range of programs, including book giveaways, awards and the TD Canadian Children’s Book Week.

PMA Books was as vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the business as other publishers, and raising a family of three children was not easy. Asked if Ms. Martin ever got discouraged or infuriated by the business, her daughter, Pamela, responds, “Always. Two reasons. First, she was a true believer. The success of publishing in Canada was very important to her, and as you know, the challenges for all the independent publishers were great. The other, though, is that she found the money problems, the enormous debt the companies had, the lack of money for the family, etc., very difficult. My father was terrible with money and very prone to enthusiasms and schemes, which didn’t help.”

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David Johnston, former governor general of Canada, presents Carol Martin with the Order of Canada, in Ottawa on Feb. 13, 2015.MCpl Vincent Carbonneau/Rideau Hall

Phyllis Yaffe, the first executive director of the CCBC and later executive director of the ACP, describes Ms. Martin as a strong Canadian cultural nationalist who concentrated her efforts not on the political sphere but “at a level that was so much more about the books and the writers and [getting] Canadian books published.” She adds, “I remember Carol being an incredibly kind, gentle human being,”

The Martins’ marriage ended in 1976 and the following year Ms. Martin, who had served as senior editor, became president and publisher. The Readers’ Club of Canada was sold to the owners of Saturday Night magazine in 1978, and financial pressures forced the closing of PMA Books in 1981.

Ms. Martin moved back to Ottawa in 1982 to be the program officer in the Writing and Publishing section of the Canada Council. She did the job for eight years, bringing the same intelligence and generosity of spirit to the position that she had brought to her publishing career.

“She left the Council to pursue other work in publishing as a freelancer," Pamela recalls, "I believe at least in part because she didn’t think it was a good idea for the same person to administer the block grant program for too long.”

As a freelancer, Ms. Martin wrote magazine articles and books on a range of subjects, including A History of Canadian Gardening and The Apple: A History of Canada’s Perfect Fruit. She also authored two biographies of adventurous Canadian women, for young readers: Catharine Parr Traill: Backwoods Pioneer and Martha Black: Gold Rush Pioneer. In retirement, Ms. Martin immersed herself in her community. Mr. Solomon was a regular visitor to her home in Thomasburg. “I remember her as someone who was so embedded in her community, no matter what her walk in life. ... Everything was of interest to her.”

In 2011, the Association of Canadian Publishers honoured Ms. Martin as one of 12 pioneering women in publishing. She was named to the Order of Canada in 2015.

Ms. Martin, who was 84 and had a series of health complications, was predeceased by her brother Donald Wood. She leaves her children, Pamela, Christopher and Jeremy, and another brother, Franklin Wood.