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35 Years in Publishing

Discussion in 'Café Life' started by Rachel Caldecott-Thornton, Dec 4, 2017.


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  1. No idea if this is the place to post this, but I thought it might be of general interest. Feel free to chastise me, or delete the post, if it isn't appropriate.

    Those were the days
    – Oliver Caldecott

    Some reflections on 35 years in publishing. Written late 1988 or early 1989. Oliver Caldecott died in November 1989.

    A few years after coming to England from Cape Town, I worked for Shell for some time before I managed to land a publishing job in London. It was the early 1950s. England was still recovering from World War II; some rationing was still in force and no one had begun to rebuild London which, every autumn, had its traditional yellow pea soup fog and in the suburbs and the more Dickensian bits of the city, men still went around lighting gas lamps.

    Publishing had resumed much as I imagine it had been in the late 1930s. Imprints named after their founders were still either run by them or by those who bore their names. Nobody I knew had television until a few years later ITV started and then most people did.

    Paperbacks were around; had been since the mid-thirties when Penguins were 6d, but paperback rights were not a factor in publishing decisions. Books made their way to success or failure in hardback: first the new book, then the cheap edition and often a book club selection (reprinted a year later in a club edition usually on a 3d a copy royalty arrangement). Hardback books – even first novels – sold, to public and private lending libraries, and even to real people who bought them often in substantial quantities. (I remember Victor Gollancz discussing whether to print 180,000 or 200,000 of a new Daphne du Maurier).

    I spent the first ten years of my publishing life (after an abortive few months at Victor Gollancz) working on advertising and publicity for Phoenix House and later as editorial head and manager of Readers Union and its satellite specialist book clubs. All were reprint clubs offering monthly or bi-monthly choices at 3/6 or 5/- each. The company was the creation of and run by John Baker, a tall, shy, serious man, self-educated, a true English non-conformist, entirely committed to the ethics of self-improvement and hard work but with a quiet rather sardonic wit. He was one of the great innovators of British publishing. Before the war, he had created Readers Union, the first general book club, dedicated to the idea that good books, durably bound, should be available to all. His trade imprint, Phoenix House, was also motivated by the idea that all publishing was, in a sense, educational and the children’s series, such as The Young Travellers, were outstanding in presenting information in an entertaining way. The adult list was what would nowadays be called ‘green’ – natural history, country life, conservation, and archaeology.

    In addition to the book clubs – Readers Union and a number of specialist ones – Phoenix House sold mail order bookcases and art reproductions. It was – I don’t know whether this had always been the case – a subsidiary of JM Dent and some years after I joined a firm of consultants recommended that Phoenix be fully merged with the parent company.

    When this daft recommendation was implemented, John Baker went on to the Dent board and he asked me if I’d take over the clubs – six in all (I added a seventh later). Within a short time John Baker himself – finding life as part of JM Dent frustratingly impossible – resigned to found a new company, John Baker Ltd, with Martin Secker (by now very old and liable to talk about ‘Bosie’ as if Oscar Wilde’s friend had just that minute left the office).

    John Baker Ltd lasted a few years until John’s death.

    So much, I thought, for the advice of business consultants who had effectively destroyed one of the liveliest and most creative small houses of the time.

    Running the clubs was enjoyable and brought me into contact with most leading publishers of the day. Subsidiary rights hadn’t yet become a full-time activity and Editorial Directors or even proprietors usually handled sales to book clubs. Readers Union did quite a number of ‘optional extras’ – run-ons from publishers’ reprints or overstocks or art books and the like; getting such orders from a club made the difference between a profitable book and a disaster.

    This aspect of book clubbing began increasingly to dominate, and clubs eventually became ‘simultaneous’ with no compulsory monthly selection.

    In 1965, I was invited by Tony Godwin to join Penguin as Fiction Editor.

    While I’d been buried in book clubs and coping with a growing family and trying to find my way as a painter, the world had undergone a profound transformation. This was the period of protest, satire and the youth/underground/pop culture of Oz and IT, of mini-skirts and flowered shirts, of illustrated covers on Penguins and of rumoured (but mainly verbal) sexual permissiveness. Allen Lane had got away with Lady Chatterley a few years earlier. The paperback boom was beginning and advances were escalating. The whole business was becoming much more competitive and Corgi, New English Library and Pan were threatening Penguin’s dominance.

    Tony Godwin had been brought into Penguin as fiction editor by Allan Lane in the period immediately after the Lady Chatterley trial and Penguin going public. He’d been a brilliant bookseller and rapidly proved himself a brilliant publisher. His energy and imagination were astonishing; his style however, was frequently abrasive and many of the Penguin old guard resented him and believed he was aiming to supersede Allen Lane. Sir Allen, at this time in semi-retirement, must have decided, at sometime in the mid-sixties that Tony would have to go and engineered a showdown, claiming that Tony planned to vulgarize Penguin marketing. Tony was fired. There was consternation in the book trade and a major row in the press. Allen Lane, clearly shaken, realised that if Penguin were not to lose its market leadership he must appease the editors (though I doubt he ever forgave our public support for Godwin) and demonstrate that editorial independence and radical policies were secure. He therefore accepted Dieter Pevsner’s and my proposal that Tony’s job as Editorial Director should be shared between us, thus providing continuity. I looked after the ‘orange’ list (fiction and non-fiction) ; Dieter oversaw the ‘blue’ list – Pelicans and the specialised series. Dieter and I had far greater freedom than any house would give its editors nowadays; perhaps more than other companies gave theirs then. We could acquire or authorise the acquisition of any book we liked with an advance up to £3,000 – the equivalent of well over £20,000 in today’s currency – without reference to any higher authority or committee!

    Those were the days!

    Working with editors like Jill Norman, Judith Burnley, Peter Wright, Jim Cochrane, Robert Hutchison, Neil Middleton, Niko Stangos, Julia Vellacott in London and others such as Kaye Webb at Harmondsworth, was exhilarating and creative. (And knowing that quality in design and production was being protected by the eagle-eyed Hans Schmoller was immensely reassuring). Like everyone at Penguin they’d been inspired by Allen Lane’s original vision of Penguins, a vision which had survived the disruption of the Godwin crisis and which informed the brilliant publishing record at Penguins in the sixties. And, precisely because as a group we were deep-down so serious about what we were doing we also managed to have fun doing it. The potted marijuana plants on the fire escape at the Penguin John Street office may have given an impression of a rather irreverent and fashionable anti-establishment pose, though I don’t think anyone actually smoked a joint in the office. In fact, I doubt if any group of editors ever worked so hard and with such commitment.

    During the months of the Godwin crisis and over the next couple of years I worked quite closely with Allen Lane. Allen Lane was always shrewd, polite, suave and cool but rather remote and very private. He’d become one of those erect, silver-haired immaculate English gentlemen who seem not so much alive as preserved. I admired him but found it difficult to imagine how he’d been in his youth; idealistic, ambitious, ruthless, workaholic and passionate. (Actually, I could imagine ruthless: he still was). I remember accompanying him to visit Max Reinhart to negotiate the paperback rights in Ulysses – his long cherished ambition. Allen was affable, determined, razor-sharp, and decisive. It was an impressive performance, especially from a man so fragile in health and ostensibly so ‘out of touch’.

    When he became really ill, a softer, more likeable Allen Lane became visible. Lying in his hospital bed he begged for gossip, scandal and malicious rumour; he commented (when shown our new Edna O’Brien covers, all of naked female flesh): ‘Nothing like tits on the cover for selling books. Ha! Ha! (Vulgarize Penguins? Perish the thought!).

    Just before his final illness Allen Lane had appointed Christopher Dolley (who’d been running Penguin US) as Managing Director while that remarkably radical Tory, Sir Edward Boyle was acting Chairman. This interregnum lasted a few months until Allen Lane died. Pearson Longman moved rapidly to acquire Penguins; the Beatles broke up; the seventies were with us.

    It seemed for a while as if nothing had really changed. But it had. The new corporate face of publishing was becoming less and less attractive to those of us who’d enjoyed liberated sixties ways. During the period of Allen Lane’s illness and the months following his death when Pearson Longman were establishing control, life became much more fraught as it became apparent that the consensus over what, in publishing terms, Penguins was for and which had held editorial, sales, marketing and management together since Allen Lane founded the company, was breaking down. Certainly Management wanted Penguin to be lively, but not ‘noisy’, not embarrassing, controversial, or politically extreme.

    Confrontations between ‘us’ and ‘them’ became frequent and Dieter and I and senior editorial colleagues held regular crisis meetings at ‘Sydney’s’ – as we dubbed the motorway café on the M4 which was part of Sidney Bernstein’s Granada empire.

    Eventually, management hit upon the idea of an Editorial ‘supremo’ to be a buffer between us, the London editors, and Harmondsworth. The well-known historian and sometime publisher Peter Calvocoressi, was appointed to this thankless task. Bit it was too late. Dieter and I had already committed to take up Random House’s offer and, in July 1972, we left to start Wildwood House (rather guiltily as we hated leaving ‘Calvo’ in the hot seat, especially as we’d not been able to alert him in advance of our plans).

    Our departure from Penguin coincided with that of Charles Clark who’d been in charge of Penguin Education. The result was a period of reshuffling which only ended, a few years later, with the appointment of Peter Mayer.

    Going small was the flavour of the early 70s. New imprints began to proliferate, the most enduring of which has proved to be Virago. By this time, too, television (which had been unimportant a decade earlier) had gained colour and seemed likely to become the main source of popular entertainment, news and information, at least in a popularised and superficial kind of way.

    Paperback publishing had had to become slicker, more aggressive in marketing. On the other hand, new ideas were in vogue and the campuses were intellectually alive and very rebellious. There were by now a number of ‘egg head’ paperback series – Fontana, Picador, Paladin (started by the late, great Tony Richardson) and Papermac among them. It seemed, at first, to be a good time to be a small publisher.

    Then came the oil-price recession and, as inflation rose into double figures, everything got a lot tougher: the miners’ strike, the three-day week, the decline of the Labour Government. In 1975 Random House had dropped Wildwood and we were on our own. Looking back I can’t quite work out how we survived the next five years through four or five involuntary changes of warehouse, as many office moves and crippling overdraft charges. But we did, although poor and hard-pressed. We even managed some rather good publishing.

    By hindsight it now seems as if Wildwood was the first ‘alternative’ publishing house. We wanted to open a dialogue of ideas between the alternative/underground culture of the day (and especially its new ‘holistic’ health and spiritual philosophies) on the one hand, and the scientific mainstream (which was represented on our list by authors such as Sir Peter Medaware) on the other. I suppose that that in itself was a fairly ‘alternative’ thing to try to do, and certainly in our general approach and style we had more in common with the ‘alternative cultures’ than with orthodoxy. Titles such as Capra’s Tao of Physics, Jolan Chang’s Tao of Love and Sex, Frederick Frank’s Zen of Seeing, Nick Saunder’s Alternative London, Gregory Bateson’s Mind and Nature, Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English’s Tao Te Ching, the multi-authored Index of Possibilities, ‘Undercurrent’s’ Radical Technologystand out of course, but the list was diverse and eclectic: we even introduced Gary Trudeau’s Doonesbury strip to Britain.

    In 1979/80 Wildwood House was bought by L W Carp. One by one, Dieter Pevsner, David Harrison and I left for other jobs. At least we still had our shirts.

    I joined Hutchinson (which since 1972 had been headed by Charles Clark), and in 1984 I got the chance to run Hutchinson’s Rider subsidiary which specialised mysticism, Oriental philosophy and books on spiritual growth. Hutchinson was, at this time, somewhat in the doldrums and it was no real surprise when, following Charles Clark’s departure in 1984 it was learned that it was to merge with another company. The only surprise was that it was with Century that it was merging.

    Hutchinson represented the old world of British publishing. It had been around nearly 100 years. It was large, had a gigantic backlist and innumerable subsidiary imprints, most long defunct, and seemed weighed down by its past. Century, on the other hand, was the future, an archetypal eighties house; young ambitious, energetic. It seemed an odd match. But then so do many of the mergers, takeovers and combinations that have recently transformed British publishing from cottage to corporate industry. The old entrepreneurial companies have in many cases been absorbed into managerial structures remote in feel from the literary and cultural tone of earlier times and largely irrelevant to the idea and objectives of their founders, their imprints surviving or being revived rather like famous marques preserved by the motor industry purely for reasons of nostalgia and marketing.

    Nevertheless, what is surprising is how much of the old Hutchinson has genuinely survived the merger. Even my oddball Rider list has been kept going and I’ve been allowed to run it very much as a small unit within the larger whole.

    Anyway, for a few years all went well until the autumn of 1987 when I had a serious operation and spent the weeks of recuperation wonder what next. I decided two things. First it was time to take it easier (keeping up with the youthful pace of Century is quite tiring), and deep down I still hankered for real small publishing. Somehow, the Wildwood years had given me a jaundiced outlook on hierarchies and bureaucratic structures. I dreamed of having another shot at independence.

    This seemed an impossible dream, however, until suddenly and unexpectedly Jamie George and Frances Howard-Gordon owners of that lively West Country shop, Gothic Image in Glastonbury, suggested I take over the editorial direction of the publishing activities, Gothic Image Publications. So I’m off to Glastonbury, that magical, mysterious and very odd place where the best (and perhaps the worst too) of the sixties and seventies survive beneath the Tor; where Arthurian legend, Eastern spirituality and eco-feminism coexist; where the talk is of earth energies and leys; where pagan rituals and Christian pilgrimages alike are on the summer agenda; where tourists flock to see the Abbey and the Glastonbury Thorn (which flowers at Christmas), and where people actually buy books, meditate, and celebrate solstices. There I will edit a small series of original paperbacks and try to recapture some of the spirit of old Wildwood;

    I expect to suffer some London withdrawal symptoms but having more time to pain, less pressure, and no Northern Line is an invigorating prospect.


    In an increasingly conglomerate-dominated publishing industry there is undoubtedly a widespread feeling of alienation among both editors and writers. Some managements tend to treat editors as interchangeable technicians whose job it is to get the product our and not raise awkward questions about the direction, quality and content of the lists they work on. And certainly not to spend too much time guiding, consulting or cosseting authors. Authors, not surprisingly, resent this and many move from house to house perhaps following an editor in whom they have confidence or in the hope of finding an imprint which will give them some – however token – share of promotion budgets or pay them adequately for their work.

    Meanwhile the corporations depend increasingly on the mass media for interviews, chat-show appearances or adaptations of books, or as a source for ‘spin-offs’ and personality authors (most of whom, of course, cannot write). It all seems to have less and less to do with the notion that publishing is about dissemination of knowledge, ideas, values and works of literary quality.

    Since, by their very nature, television and other mass media (or even electronic information retrieval systems) cannot perform this function, we remain culturally dependent on the book and must hope that there will in the future still be publishers prepared to devote at least some of the revenue generated by the commercial ephemera churned out by their companies to publish some real books.

    So far, there are, but the pressures on the industry are enormous. In the face of the coming multiplicity of TV channels, of 1992, of VAT of books and the probable demise of the Net Book Agreement, one cannot be too sure.

    Still, hopefully, in 35 years time someone will be writing a nostalgic piece on how much fun it all was way back in the 1980s and 90s…
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  2. Marc Joan

    Marc Joan Venerated Member Founding Member

    Fascinating! Your father, I guess?
  3. Yup, my dad. But I think it might have been interesting anyway :)
  4. MaryA

    MaryA Well-Known Member

    I was enthralled, love the insider histories of old publishing houses and newspaper groups.

    Earlier this year I did a book chapter on George Green from Cape Town who was the editor of the Cape Times newspaper in the 1890s and then editor of the Kimberley Diamond Fields Advertiser when the South African gold rush was on.

    I'm hoping I get a chance to read your dad on Glastonbury.
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  5. Sadly, he died shortly after starting in Glastonbury, aged 64.
  6. Talking of South Africa, I recently discovered some amazing cartoons my father did as a 15 yr old about WW2 which were published in a Cape Town Newspaper at the time. Fantastic caricatures of Hitler, Mussolini, Hirohito, etc. The cartoon museum in London has suggested that I try getting them republished (probably in SA given his parents were well known SA painters). Anyway, it all made for an interesting childhood. Dad in publishing and mum a writer (dad never helped her, I hasten to add). Both dead now, so I can't pick their brains -oooh nasty image just popped into my mind there...
  7. MaryA

    MaryA Well-Known Member

    @Rachel, let me think about this and I'll see if I can suggest someone in Cape Town for you to contact. Publishing here is very hard-pressed but I wonder if you might not show the cartoons at an exhibition or something? How many cartoons did he produce as a teen prodigy? The war years in South Africa make for a lesser-known and intriguing history too.

    I saw your dad had died, but was hoping he['d written something on Glastonbury.

    Oh, I've just realised you're talking about Harry Stratford Caldecott who did those lovely paintings of the old Malay Quarter in Cape Town! I've seen them at Ashby's gallery. You have some rich family history there, Rachel.

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  8. MaryA

    MaryA Well-Known Member

    This via my friend Steve Lunderstedt in Kimberley, @Rachel.

  9. Yeah, this hung in our dining room for a while.
    My grandmother was Florence Zerffi (Caldecott). A formidable woman :)
  10. Thank you for that :)
  11. I have no idea if this facebook page link will work, but here goes... https://www.facebook.com/rachel.tho...10152108525804794.1073741846.731359793&type=3
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  12. Marc Joan

    Marc Joan Venerated Member Founding Member

    Wow! I'd love to dig up my family history, but suspect there's nothing behind me other than a long line of downtrodden peasants, alternately bickering with each other and abasing themselves before the nobility. Come to think of it, nothing's changed...
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