04 March 2009

The Canadian Preview Book Society

Jacques Godbout's recent words of wisdom had me going back to my slight collection of his works, including this curiosity, a translation of the great man's Le couteau sur la table. It isn't an 'uncorrected proof', as claimed, but an advance copy issued to subscribers of McClelland & Stewart's ill-fated Canadian Preview Book Society. James King's biography of the late Jack McClelland, Jack: A Life With Writers, provides an entertaining account of what the publisher proclaimed 'the greatest single idea in the history of book publishing'. For ten dollars a year, society members would receive fake proofs in advance of publication. A good idea? I don't know. Certainly, it would have appealed to bibliophiles. But the execution was rotten. M & S, then a company with a reputation for missing pub dates, had trouble producing the advances; frequently society members received their copies after the finished book had arrived in bookstores.

By my count, the publisher issued eight Canadian Preview Book Society titles, including René Lévesque's Option-Québec (translated as An Option for Quebec), Pierre Berton's The Smug Minority and Mirror on the Floor, George Bowering's first novel. Each can be bought today for under C$20. To the collector of Canadian literature the most attractive is probably something called This Year in Jerusalem by Mordecai Richler. The only society offering in which the title is indicated as 'tentative', it was later published as Hunting Tigers Under Glass. Richler obviously liked the earlier title; he used it for his 1994 autobiography-cum-history-cum-commentary. That said, I think the most interesting of all the society's titles is The Bad News: Notes on the Mass Media and Their Masters by journalist Ken Lefollii, a book McClelland & Stewart cancelled under pressure from the conservative Toronto Telegram. Four years later, aged 95, the paper died. The Bad News lives on, but only in this faux proof form.

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