Stanley Colbert: 1927- 2010
Stanley Colbert, the often controversial former head of HarperCollins Canada, died Tuesday morning in Toronto General Hospital, aged 82.
Before heading up HarperCollins, Colbert wore many hats. As a child during the Great Depression, he stole potatoes from New York grocers. As a young man, he produced several American television shows, including Flipper. In 1977, he moved to Canada to become an executive producer at CBC, then started the Colbert Literary Agency.
In 1989, U.S. media mogul Rupert Murdoch executed the merger of William Collins & Sons and Harper & Row, creating HarperCollins U.S. Shortly after, Colbert and his wife Nancy were given majority ownership of the resulting Canadian arm, HarperCollins Canada. As an American, and as an agent moving into publishing, Colbert immediately ruffled industry feathers by making changes to long-established publishing traditions.
Colbert made a point of buying stock from the U.S. parent company on a non-returnable basis, just to prove that his firm could make it on its own; at the 1989 Canadian Booksellers Association convention, he set up a fax machine in the HarperCollins booth to send orders directly to the warehouse, a move that other publishers considered brazen and tactless; he told literary agents that the company wouldn’t look at manuscripts that had been sent to other publishers simultaneously.
Former employees remember Colbert as an eccentric visionary, at times abrasive and loud, but always involved and determined. “With Stanley, it was either his way or the doorway, so it didn’t take that long to convince us to try new things,” says H.B. Fenn and Company vice-president of marketing Tom Best, a former vice-president of sales at HarperCollins Canada. Best adds that he admired Colbert’s readiness to experiment, even if some of the projects didn’t work out. He recalls, for example, Colbert’s decision to print catalogues on a monthly basis, which eventually had to be given up as too costly. “He wasn’t the easiest boss to work for, but he was very good at challenging people to do better, and he was incredibly generous.”
According to author Marq de Villiers, a former client of the Colbert Literary Agency, the retired publisher was still bubbling over with ideas when they last met for lunch several years ago near Colbert’s Bloor Street apartment. “He had ideas for books, publishing ventures … they just spilled out of him, like a never-ending stream,” says de Villiers.
HarperCollins vice-president and publisher Phyllis Bruce says she owes the latter portion of her career to the Colberts, who brought her over to Harper from Key Porter Books in 1992 to launch her own eponymous imprint. “I’ll always appreciate their championing of Canadian authors and their support for our new publishing program,” she says.
Colbert is survived by his wife, a son, two daughters, and four grandchildren.