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Book Makers : British Publishing in the Twentieth Century


Iain Stevenson


London: British Library, 2010. xviii-314 p. ISBN: 0712309616; 9780712309615


Reviewed by Antoine Capet

Université de Rouen


Members of the teaching profession are generally familiar with the cruel joke, “Those who can – do; those who can’t – teach” (some perversely adding “those who can't teach – inspect”). In an antithetical manner, one is reminded of this when opening Book Makers. The author is currently Professor of Publishing at University College, London – but he worked for some thirty years (starting in 1977 with Longmans) in what he sees as this “business like no other” [xv], “a unique form of business” [xviii],(1) and what some publishers like Frederic Warburg liked to picture as “a business that was not quite business-like” [203]. He therefore spent a substantial part of the period covered as an insider – sometimes a very active participant, which enables him to give a first-hand account of the new developments which shook the industry (he also uses that word [xv]) in the last third of the twentieth century.

His narrative theoretically starts with the adoption of the Net Book Agreement by the trade in 1899 (in fact, in the first chapter, we have very interesting accounts of the birth of the great publishing houses in the 18th(2) and 19th centuries), and it effectively stops with its demise in 1995. That it was a self-contained period is made clear in the concluding sentences of his last chapter, ‘The End of the Affair’:

Thus in that chill autumn of 1995 both the last vestige of a form of publishing that had come in with the twentieth century disappeared and the publishing house of its architect, Sir Frederick Macmillan, fell into foreign hands.(3) It both felt like, and truly was, the end of an era. [288]

The Net Book Agreement put an end to the deregulation of book prices which had taken place in 1852 (at a time when the governing élites eagerly furthered Free Trade and laissez-faire, of course) much against the will of those engaged in publishing and book selling. From 1899 to 1995, under the Agreement, no price war was possible on books: all retail outlets (originally mostly bookshops and corner shops selling sweets, cigarettes and newspapers) had to sell the same books at the same price, the main exceptions being school books and prizes and contracts with libraries and institutions. The scheme was modelled on “Resale Price Maintenance”, which remained in place for many products until the deregulation movement of the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher. By the mid-1990s, we learn, “only books and proprietary medicines” continued to have regulated prices [285] – Stevenson does not tell us if proprietary medicines are now the object of a price war among chemists.

Why books finally lost their special protection in 1995 is of course discussed at length in Book Makers. Whatever the effects of “Thatcherite restructuring”, the retailing sector was moving fast, with supermarket chains like ASDA “not accustomed to their suppliers dictating the prices they charged to customers” [285]. Big new chains of booksellers were equally impatient with the old rules. Some publishing executives also joined the fray in favour of abolition, calculating that their powerful houses would benefit. It is here that Professor Stevenson’s inside knowledge of the protagonists really comes into its own – for instance when he explains why the Executive Chairman of HarperCollins(4) (formed by Rupert Murdoch in 1989 after he finally acquired Collins in an easy battle with the French Groupe de la Cité(5) – he already controlled Harper & Row) pronounced in favour of abolition:

His iconoclastic attitude did him no harm with his boss Rupert Murdoch who relished destroying any protectionist sacred cows which strayed into his path – provided, of course, their disposal did not harm his own business [287].

It is clear that the author does not like Rupert Murdoch – his other preferred target not unexpectedly being Robert Maxwell(6), “arguably both one of the most brilliant and most villainous characters ever to grace and disgrace British publishing” [130]. Stevenson’s obituary of the latter(7) is however somehow admirative of his publishing achievements (of which he seems to see few if any in the former):

Maxwell at least possessed as much courage as he lacked scruple (he had, after all, been decorated with the Military Cross for his wartime exploits) and I think he just realized that he had reached the end of the financial road. After almost forty-five years of dubious dealings, duplicity, fraud and sharp practice(8) (along with, let it be said, brilliant publishing and tremendous vision and entrepreneurship), he quite simply had nowhere else to go – and took what must have seemed to have been the only course open to him [282-283].

One might be tempted to think that Stevenson’s judgement is tainted by a certain xenophobia (Murdoch is of course Australian-American, and Robert Maxwell “born Abraham (later renamed Ludvik) Hoch in Szlatina on the Romanian-Czechoslovakian border in 1923 … became Ian Robert Maxwell [in 1946] (some say appropriating the name of a fellow officer from a Scottish regiment who had been killed)” [130]). But nothing could be further from the truth, as he readily pays tribute to the great figures of Central and Eastern European ascendency who have so largely contributed to the evolution and development of British publishing, starting with William Heinemann (“Born in 1863 in Surbiton into a cultured family of Jewish antecedents with German connections (his father was from Hanover)” [3]), and ending with Paul Hamlyn (“born in Germany in 1926 to a cultured and bookish Jewish paediatrician. His family, actually named Hamburger, fled Nazi persecution in 1933 to settle in London where the young Paul, having been teased as ‘sausage’ at school, adopted the less culinary-sounding Hamlyn” [136-137]) – not forgetting André Deutsch, Martin Secker, Frederic Warburg, George Weidenfeld, Frank Cass (“another innovative and creative publisher with an east European Jewish heritage” [137]) and of course Victor Gollancz. Of all these refugees or descendants of refugees who brought “innovative new blood” [128] to British publishing, Stevenson is most admirative of Paul Hamlyn, who largely revolutionised the trade when he founded his Octopus publishing house in 1972.

In the 1960s, British publishers had turned to Eastern Europe, notably Czechoslovakia, to obtain lower printing costs (though the quality was equally low). Hamlyn went further, outsourcing printing to Hong Kong brokers and “obtaining flexible printing of a very high quality at rock-bottom prices from a range of suppliers in the then British colony… a revolutionary concept that gave Octopus unique advantages in the market” [217]. His “idea of …‘omnibus’… hardback volumes… containing four or five novels” could not be realised by conventional processes for less than £12.50 – but Hamlyn was able to make a profit selling his Hong Kong tomes “bound in full cloth and elegantly printed on high-quality paper” at £3.95 [219]. It is obvious that for Stevenson, Hamlyn – “a man of great contradictions” [249] – is the archetype of the flamboyant entrepreneur who illustrates his point that publishing is “a unique form of business”. In spite of “some personal indulgence of great bad taste such as his famous pink Rolls-Royce, Hamlyn was a figure of genuine cultural importance” [139]. Stevenson particularly insists on the fact that the “omnibus” series was not based only on easy-to-sell popular novels:

The initial list of titles had cunningly mixed highly commercial authors like Nevil Shute and Erle Stanley Gardner with “serious” authors such as Somerset Maugham, Franz Kafka, John Steinbeck and D.H. Lawrence. The reaction of the market was ecstatic right across the list. Most of the initial printings sold out in a week, and reprints amounting to a total of a million copies were ordered and quickly absorbed. Other publishers clamoured to join the scheme.

Hamlyn was characteristically canny. He waited almost a year before adding four new titles, with the choice of authors again ranging from mid- to high-brow. They comprised collections of H.G. Wells, Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene and C.S. Forester [219].

Naturally, the parallel with Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin Books, springs to mind – and Stevenson does not fail to compare the two giants of twentieth-century British mass publishing:

There is more than a touch of similarity between Lane’s social purpose with Penguin and Hamlyn’s bringing of good literature to an entirely new audience… Like Lane, he always put the business and its balance sheet first (and enjoyed the fruits of his enterprise with lavish living), but he got a lot of personal satisfaction from making money out of creating new readers [220].

In his discussion of Allen Lane, Stevenson is somehow handicapped by the recent publication of a new major biography(9) – a handicap which he does not have in the many pages which he rightly devotes to Hamlyn.(10) Still, Stevenson concisely manages to sum up Allen Lane’s unique contribution to the twentieth-century British publishing scene in one carefully balanced long sentence:

Lane, born in Bristol in 1902, can fairly be claimed as the most important British publisher of the century – not only for his creation of a new type of book and the identification of a new reading market, but also for his influence on others, his contribution to the overall shaping of the book business and his bravery (and occasional arrogance and foolhardiness) in fighting for the freedom to publish and read [99].(11)

At first glance, the same largely holds good for Stevenson’s chapter devoted to the Second World War years, “Winning on the Book Front”: what could he add to Valerie Holman’s recent comprehensive monograph?(12) In fact, he manages to shed light on many individual initiatives which can only be alluded to in Holman’s book – a good example being his treatment of John Lehmann at the Hogarth Press (“one of the few Bloomsbury-based publishing houses to be bombed out” [in September 1940]):

Its publishing was now directed by the brilliant editor John Lehmann (he would later set up his own imprint in 1946) who conceived the New Hogarth Library of poets and, probably his greatest achievement, New Writing and Daylight. This quarterly hardback periodical introduced the work of many notable new writers in prose and poetry, including William Sansom, Cecil Day Lewis (eventually to become Poet Laureate) and Raymond Williams… Lehmann also produced a successful "New Writers" series for Penguin [127].

Likewise, Stevenson has an excellent quotation from Michael Joseph’s 1945 assessment of the likely (and gloomy) prospects of British publishing in the post-war years [126]. It indeed had to face hard times, both on the distribution and bookselling fronts, which had been profoundly disturbed by the war, and on the manufacturing front, with continued shortages of paper, suitable metals for types and of course manpower – a situation largely forgotten today. But this was also a great time for enterprising newcomers like André Deutsch (“born in Hungary in 1917, the son of a Jewish dentist”), who founded his house in 1944 [129], Paul Hamlyn, who launched Books for Pleasure in 1949 and the ubiquitous Robert Maxwell, who built his giant – but flimsy – empire on his Pergamon Press, created in 1950 amid accusations of double-dealing, and specialising in the publication of academic journals. What Stevenson has to write on the process which brought such fat profits to the Pergamon Press (and continues to do so for its current parent company, Reed Elsevier, the world’s largest publisher) makes unpalatable reading for academic authors:

He foresaw  the coming great expansion in universities and research institutes that would shortly inundate the world with research papers, and he realized that the greatest market for his product would be the very people who produced it. Effectively he would sell back to scientists (or more correctly to their libraries and grant-givers) their own work at high prices. What was more, they would provide the papers and the editing labour for free “for the good of science”. It was a commercial model made in Maxwellian heaven [142].

Stevenson of course gives plenty of statistics on sales and turnover which show beyond doubt that the publishing industry went from strength to strength after the initial post-war difficulties, with the exception of 1975, when “for only the second time since records had begun to be kept in 1947…fewer new books were published than in the previous year” [205]. The story of forced mergers, vicious conspiracies and hostile take-over bids, with constant back-stabbing and no holds barred between former friends and colleagues with outwardly impeccable manners working in the posh districts of London, makes Book Makers sometimes look like a bad thriller with an improbable plot. Yet the result is there: behind the façade of hundreds of independent publishers,(13) behind the household names of the great surviving houses, the industry is concentrated as never before – and only one large bookselling chain is now left: Waterstones, founded in 1984 by Tim Waterstone, and currently part of HMV.

Only two new major imprints saw the light of day in the late twentieth century: Bloomsbury, founded in 1986 (with no connection whatsoever with the famous group or district: “Its first offices were in distinctly unliterary Putney, above a Chinese restaurant” [278]), which was lucky enough to publish “an unknown (and much rejected) author called J.K. Rowling” in 1997 [279]; and Headline, catering for the “downmarket popular taste”, also founded in 1986 by “the younger son of the eighth Earl of Donoughmore, educated at Eton and Oxford”, Tim Hely Hutchinson. It was another success story of daring take-overs and acquisitions, recalling a Monopoly game and resulting in the creation of Hodder Headline – so much so that

when he was ready to sell out to the retailer W.H. Smith in 1999 the combined company realized £189 million, yielding him in the circumstances a relatively modest personal profit of £4 million [280].(14)

Who said that publishing was not a business like others?



1 We incidentally learn in the book why the pagination of the Table of Contents, Acknowledgements, Foreword, Introduction, etc. usually is in Roman figures, as in this instance: in case of new editions, they can be modified without affecting that of the text proper – and vice-versa.

2 Longmans was founded in 1724. The firm published Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary [12]. Stevenson explains the variations in the preferred spelling, Longman / Longmans.

3 In 1995, Macmillan was taken over by Holtzbrinck, described by Stevenson as “a German media combine” [288]. It is of course far less famous than the Bertelsmann group, which now controls (among others) Cape, Chatto, Secker & Warburg and Virago through its wholly-owned subsidiary Random House [292].

4 “The lack of space in the orthography of the firm’s name is deliberate, and a lamentable vestige of late 1980s branding pretension” [269].

5 Itself formed in 1988 and comprising Larousse, Nathan, Plon and France-Loisirs [271].

6 The two were sworn enemies, after their heated battle for the control of News of the World in 1969 [281].

7 Who died in November 1991, “drowned in apparent suicide”, jumping from the deck of his yacht near the Canary Islands [282].

8 Many, needless to say, are exposed in the book.

9 Lewis, Jeremy. Penguin Special : The Life and Times of Allen Lane. London : Viking, 2005. In his Bibliography, Stevenson also mentions Williams, W.E. Allen Lane : A Personal Portrait. London : Bodley Head, 1973, Morpurgo, J.E. Allen Lane, King Penguin : A Biography. London: Hutchinson, 1979, and Hare, Steve (ed.) Penguin Portrait : Allen Lane and the Penguin Editors, 1935-1970. London : Penguin Books, 1995 and McCleery, Alistair. ‘The return of the publisher to book history : The case of Allen Lane’. Book History 5 (2002) : 161-185.

10 Stevenson notes the fact that he curiously has no biographer: “Hamlyn is surely a figure who for his cultural and business importance deserves a full-scale biography” [139].

11 The chapter on the 1960s is entitled “From the end of the Chatterley ban to the Beatles’ last LP” – with of course full coverage of “the end of the Chatterley ban”.

12 Holman, Valerie. Print for Victory : Book Publishing in England, 1939-1945. London : British Library, 2008. See comprehensive review in November 2010 issue of Global War Studies.

13 “There are probably still over ten thousand active publishing imprints in the United Kingdom. They are producing more books than ever and participating in an industry which, with a turnover approaching £4 billion, secures for this small, off-shore island its position as the world’s leading publishing nation in creativity, diversity, influence and reach” [292-293].

14 Stevenson adds a note telling us that W.H. Smith re-sold Hodder Headline to Hachette Livre, which by 2008 had become the largest British publisher. “Hachette itself is ultimately owned by the French industrial conglomerate Lagardère, which is, among other things, a major arms manufacturer” [291].







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