Here is a two-part article by the late Alan Davidson describing the activities of Prospect Books and PPC from the time of its foundation in 1979. The originals can be found in PPC 47 and 48 of 1994.
The Prospect Behind Us – Alan Davidson
Readers will already be aware that the book publication part of Prospect Books passed into the hands of Tom Jaine in June of last year, just over 12 years after the publication of our first book. I feel a certain impulse to say something about the history of those twelve and a half years and to put on record some of our experiences.
Prospect Books was born when PPC was born, and the twin birth was a haphazard affair. One could have demonstrated by logical argument the desirability of creating some sort of journal on food history; but what precipitated the birth was not a rational discussion but a freakish conjunction of circumstances.
Let me first sketch in the background. In 1975 my wife (hereafter Jane) and I returned to London from Laos, simultaneously shedding our past diplomatic career (we needed only a day or so to wriggle out of that carapace) and preparing to be writers instead – indeed two partly written books were in our baggage when we landed at Heathrow. At that time it was still seafood, seafood, seafood for me and translating Alexandre Dumas’ ‘Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine’ for Jane. A kindly warning given to us that activities of this sort were unlikely to bring more than slight financial rewards proved to be true. Jane Grigson, who gave the warning, also provided a partial remedy. She helped tide us over by propelling me into the arms of Time/Life Books, whose huge ‘Good Cook’ series of 30 or more volumes was just starting, with Richard Olney as mastermind. I was embraced as a ‘consultant’, first on seafood and then on just about everything else.
It was brilliant of Time/Life to have Richard set the stamp of his creative mind on the series (and to have his artist’s hands photographed in volume after volume as he did the hands-on work in their kitchen). But they didn’t want him to go (as we would now say) over the top; so they ensured that there was a counterweight, in the form of the massive bureaucracy at their headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia, and the equally massive rule book which they had compiled for the project. In requiring slavish conformity to these rules they drove Richard, not infrequently, to a state of enraged frustration. This frustration was especially acute over the rule that no recipe could be reproduced in the books unless it had first been published elsewhere. It emerged almost at the outset that there were certain recipes which, as Richard saw it and as any sensible person would agree, just had to be in, but which could not be found in a satisfactory form in any existing publication.
When we visited him one day and heard him inveighing against this petty rule and describing its dire consequences, a solution mysteriously took shape, like a piece of ectoplasm, over the lunch table. It seemed that Richard could only be rescued from his impasse by the creation of a new journal to serve as the vehicle for rapid publication of a few recipes which could then be transferred to ‘Good Cook’ volumes.
The shape and substance of the new journal was then largely determined by the views which Elizabeth David had already formed about what the world needed in this particular field of endeavour. We were all willing listeners. We were as enthusiastic as she was for helping the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. So the first issue of the journal was to benefit that good cause. I and Jane, backed by Elizabeth and Richard and Jill Norman and our family, were to be its editors and publishers. And it all happened, swiftly and successfully; and Richard had his recipe sources available in time; see the second and last items in the extract below from the Table of Contents.
- Elizabeth David, ‘Hunt the Ice Cream’ 8
- ‘Nathan d’Aulnay’, ‘Aubergine Gratin’ 14
- Sheila Thompson, ‘Leaves from a Lowland Scots Recipe Book’ 15
- Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz, ‘Coriander’ 18
- Caroline Cookson, ‘The Technology of Cooking in the British Isles, 1600 to 1950 – Part 1: Before the Use of Gas’ 23
- Jeremiah Tower, ‘Pear and Watercress Soup’ 42
- Elizabeth David, ‘A True Gentlewoman’s Delight’ 43
- Maria Kaneva-Johnson, ‘In Praise of Simplicity’ 54
- ‘Tante Ursule’, ‘Crayfish d la Bordelaise’ 60
By no means all of those who presided over the birth of PPC expected the infant to survive for more than one or two issues. However, it did, and it was soon peering over the side of its crib and looking to see what other activities it might perform. It was at this point that Jane and I met Sri Owen and learned that the ‘Home Book of Indonesian Cookery’, at that time her only published work, was reaching the end of its natural life and that the publishers, Faber, had reluctantly concluded that it would not be viable in paperback form. Since we had a special interest in the food and cooking of South-East Asia, and were confident that Sri’s book would have a future as a paperback (all the more so if a substantial amount of the background information which Faber had not wished to include could be restored to it), we responded positively when Sri asked us whether we might take on the book. We had never published a book before but we supposed that it would not be very difficult. With the warm support of Rosemary Goad at Faber, we set to work with Sri and her husband Roger to bring ‘Indonesian Food and Cooking’ into being.
Again, what we did could be logically justified, but the fact that we did it depended on various coincidences and most certainly did not represent any considered decision to go into the publishing of books.
A further coincidence led to our second title. Somewhere in the South of England a second-hand bookseller had had on his shelves, hovering uneasily in an area devoted to agriculture, the two volumes of Richard Bradley’s ’The Country Housewife and Lady’s Director’ (1736). Mike McKirdy, who was then building up with his wife Tessa what has since become the large and flourishing business known as Cook’s Books, noticed Bradley’s volumes, realised that they were essentially cookery books, and very interesting ones too, bought them and brought them to us with the suggestion that we might like to consider a facsimile reprint. The idea appealed to us greatly, all the more so since it seemed that Richard Bradley, the first Professor of Botany at Cambridge had been unjustly vilified by his successor in that chair and deserved a belated rehabilitation. Our daughter Caroline, a historian, willingly undertook the task of editing the books to become a single volume. The Oxford University Press (Printing Division, now abolished) lavished their design and typographical skills on the book, and out it came.
This was the first occasion on which we really had to think very hard about the size of the print run. Whereas the Indonesian book had been inexpensive to produce and seemed to be sure of selling to the tune of several thousand, Bradley was very expensive (almost £7 per copy, at 1980 prices) and we really could not tell how many people would fork out £18 (again, at 1980 prices) for it. We finally settled on a print run of 780, accepting what any other publisher would have regarded as a grotesquely tight ratio between unit production cost and retail price and hoping for the best. After the first flurry of sales it looked as though we had been too optimistic. However, a lucky break in the USA, where the University Press of Virginia had become our distributors, saved the day. James Beard, one of the triumvirate of the best-known cookery writers in the States, set eyes on the book and in his own words had ‘an immediate love affair’ with it. A focal point of the love affair was Bradley’s recipe for Pineapple Tart, the earliest such recipe in English and one which Caroline had tried and found wonderfully good. (It seemed that a recipe which combined historical interest and delicious results was an irresistible lure; Jane Grigson wrote about it too, picking it out as her favourite.)
Beard was by now at the end of his illustrious career and indeed at the end of his long life; the piece on Bradley which appeared under his familiar bye-line was in fact the last of his syndicated columns, and it had a dramatic effect on our fortunes. The University Press of Virginia were overwhelmed with orders and very soon Bradley was out of print.
Meanwhile, in 1981, we had a bumper year for new titles. The first of these, ‘Traditional Recipes of Laos’, was essentially a facsimile edition of manuscript recipe notebooks compiled by the late royal chef in the then Kingdom of Laos. We took pleasure in telling other publishers that we were doing this, and in observing their amazement – amazement which we compounded by remarking that the manuscript was not in ordinary Lao script but in a special and antique palace script which even Lao people could not read with complete ease. We might also have mentioned that the notebooks were of that maddening French type whose pages are completely covered with a close grid of pale blue lines and that it had taken three Lao people (by coincidence immured at what was just the right time for us in a London hospital for tropical diseases, where they were being rid of a rare parasite) three weeks and several pots of whiting-out liquid and many very fine brushes to efface all trace of the blue lines. To be fair, we should then have explained that the recipes were accompanied by a translation (done by a team of Lao and Thai young women, working with our youngest daughter Jennifer) and a full introduction about Lao ingredients and foodways, and many beautiful drawings by a Lao artist (Soun Vannithone, who had already attracted attention by his lovely illustrations for Sri Owen’s book). The cover, also by Soun, was brilliant. Even so, the venture looked risky, especially as we had to plan a print run of 2500.
However, the Lao venture was supported by three factors. First, there was no other worthwhile book on the subject. Second, profits were to help Lao refugees in the UK (for whom we helped buy a Lao typewriter, among other things). Third, there were large numbers of Lao refugees around the world, and it was not only they (anxious to preserve their culinary culture) but also all those engaged in helping to look after them who formed a special market for the book.
I like to think that there was a fourth factor; that our seemingly lunatic enterprise had heavenly support. Before leaving Laos in 1975, we had paid a visit to the royal chef’s widow in the royal capital, Luang Prabang. Our purpose had simply been to thank her for the use of some of her late husband’s recipes in a book I had written and published on ‘Fish and Fish Dishes of Laos’. But she told us to our astonishment that it had been her husband’s dying wish that his recipes should be published and the revenues used to repair the shelter of a certain statue of the Buddha in Luang Prabang. It became clear that she saw us as the people who could bring this about.
I stammered something to the effect that we would see what we could do when we returned to the outside world. In return I received one of those unmistakeable ‘you-are-the-man’ looks from her clear eyes as she pronounced with great distinctness words which were translated for us as: ‘If you succeed, then the soul of my dear husband will at last rest in peace.’
Well, that seemed to settle it. If the soul of Phia Sing could only rest in peace when we had seen to the publication of his book, we would see to it. The decision involved no thought about markets or costs or technical problems; it just emerged out of the air in that small room in Luang Prabang. (Of course at that time we were not, and did not intend to become, publishers; but who could seriously suppose that any other publisher would step forward? Yes, we could sense that our fate was being determined there and then.)
As it happened, it was a good decision. The book did well in every way, giving much pleasure to many people and bringing benefits to the Lao community in England (Phia Sing’s son, whom we later tracked down selling jeans in a clothes shop in Paris, had readily agreed that his father’s wish about the shelter for the statue could be transmuted into a wish for the welfare of Lao people who had become refugees), and made money for Prospect Books too.
So far we were working on the basis that each book or batch of books generated revenues to finance the next publications. So the offbeat Laos book, born in the mountains and jungle of one of the remotest parts of S E Asia, found itself fathering a facsimile reprint of an 18th century work by an English ecclesiastical antiquarian, the Reverend Richard Warner. His ‘Antiquitates Culinariae’, containing the text of the ‘Forme of Cury’, the most famous of early English cookery manuscripts, was an extremely elegant book, in a handsome large format and was embellished by two colour plates, one (a two-page spread) showing ‘A Peacock Feast’. As with Bradley, it was Mike McKirdy who offered us a fine copy of the original, thinking that we would fancy reproducing it. Once we had seen it and admired the amazing typography of the title page, we were full of enthusiasm.
Again, it was the OUP who attended to the printing. We had formed an agreeable relationship with them and valued the advice which they provided at no extra charge; on this occasion to bind Warner in quarter leather, but using ‘comminuted’ (ie finely shredded and reconstituted) leather from Germany.
The next task entrusted to the OUP had been brewing for some time. We had learned that Virginia Maclean had composed as a thesis for a degree at Edinburgh, a ‘short-title catalogue’ of books in English on cookery and household matters, 1701-1800, and that this had been ‘stuck’ at another publishing house, which declined to say either yea or nay, for a very long time. Knowing how useful such a catalogue would be to ourselves, and to others with similar interests, we urged Virginia to wrest the book out of the indecisive hands in which it lay, and bring it to us.
To help equip ourselves for the task of editing and producing the book, we bought some works on the art of bibliography (about which we had hitherto known nothing); and we did realise that there is a considerable difference between a short-title catalogue and a bibliography proper, although both things can be classed in the category of bibliographies if the term is used in its widest sense. Virginia’s work, following precise guide lines laid down by the University of Edinburgh about what ground to cover, omitted much information which people would like to have. Ideally, there would be a new edition of the book, embodying various corrections and much additional information; but the task of going over all the ground again, this time with a different brief, and turning the short-title catalogue into a full bibliography would be a considerable one. How considerable, we learned from our further experiences in this field.
Virginia’s book, almost ready for publication, was announced at the Oxford Symposium in 1981, and the pioneering nature of her work aroused great interest and admiration. Indeed four symposiasts were so inspired that they resolved to form a team to carry on Virginia’s work into the period 1800-1914, and to cover their chosen ground in full depth. Lynette Hunter undertook the task of project coordinator and subsequently had the satisfaction of seeing two of the proposed three new volumes come into existence. These are the two which are habitually listed under the names Dena Attar and Elizabeth Driver on page 6 of PPC. As anyone who has acquired them will be well aware, they represent an enormous amount of work, which might fairly be described as a labour of love, since the royalties, on even the most optimistic assumptions, could never bring to the authors and their coordinator more than a token recompense for their pains. I should add that little Prospect Books could never have managed to finance the production of these volumes but for the fact that Lynette Hunter was able to organise their composition ‘on disc’ in such a way that the eventual typesetting charges were far far less than they would normally have been. What this manoeuvre involved was that she and the two authors had to absorb, in terms of their own time and effort, a large body of work whose cost would otherwise have been almost prohibitive. Also, the University of Leeds, famed for the rich culinary collections in its Brotherton Library, made available a substantial sum to aid publication of each of the two volumes; a generous gesture which put food historians and bibliophiles in their debt.
Meanwhile the long series of Oxford Symposium Documents had begun to appear, first for 1981 and then (excepting 1982, when there was no symposium) for every subsequent year. The index, recently compiled by Russell Harris, to these volumes shows what a huge resource they collectively represent, and what a wide range of subjects has been covered. A curious feature of the series, from the publisher’s point of view, is that the first volume was by far the least impressive in appearance – a miscellany of different typewriter typefaces and layouts within – but was also by far the most popular and profitable, now out of print again after three impressions. Perhaps the combination of novelty with a general and attractive theme (National and Regional Cuisines) goes a long way towards explaining its success.
The production of facsimile reprints of old cookery books continued until 1985. One of these, ‘A Book of Fruits and Flowers’ (1984), was edited by C Anne Wilson, whose brilliant but relentless exposure of the manner in which the original book had been cobbled together in 1653 seemed to some people likely to be a self-defeating feature for a publisher intent on achieving good sales figures. Ah, we replied piously, what we and our public seek is the truth. The same explanation had served for our publication in 1983 (in two installments, in PPC 13 and 14) of the major essay by Jennifer Stead which revealed, shortly before we published a reprint of the first edition (1747) of Hannah Glasse’s ‘The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy’, that Mrs Glasse had been a plagiarist on a grand scale and that her presentation of herself as a pioneer in writing plain, comprehensible recipes and in banishing fancy French tricks from the kitchen was an audacious feat of deception. Many of her ‘plainly written’ recipes had been composed by the (presumably male) author/compiler of ‘The Whole Duty of a Woman’ two decades earlier and pinched by her verbatim, while her own book included a number of the expensive French recipes which she professed to despise.
Two of the facsimile reprints were facilitated by Stephanie Hoppen, through whose hands many old cookery books were passing at that time. But for her kindness, we could not have republished Charles Carter’s ‘The Complete Practical Cook’ of 1730; and it was from her that we acquired a copy of ‘Adam’s Luxury and Eve’s Cookery’ (1744), a remarkable little book whose author or authors are and will perhaps for ever remain unidentified.
In parallel to this activity, we continued the series, which our book on Laos had begun, of specialist works on little known cuisines. Tibet came next, in 1985, followed by Afghanistan in 1986. The author of our Tibetan book, Rinjing Dorje, lived in Seattle, where he once acted as bodyguard for the Dalai Lama, which is why that dignitary gave him a specially blessed white silk square for Prospect Books.
The Afghan book, which appeared under the title ‘Noshe Djan’, exemplified two points. First, the author, Helen Saberi, asked that all her royalties should go straight to charities providing humanitarian aid for Afghanistan. This had a quite unmistakable effect in increasing sales, especially among readers of the magazine ‘She’, which carried a feature article about the book and mentioned this aspect. Secondly, its history threw into high relief the contrast between what we were trying to do and what conventional publishers were looking for. Helen’s book was conceived and originally written as a ‘pure’ chronicle of how Afghans prepared and cooked their foods. By the time she and her husband Nasir arrived with it on our doorstep it had under gone drastic changes. The influence of the general attitudes prevailing in the publishing world at the time (’please take out the background information and simplify the recipes – you know, adapt it all for use in a typical English kitchen…’) had drained the book of its true Afghan vitality and of all that the likes of ourselves would regard as really really interesting. This devitalisation had been a distasteful and dampening task for Helen and we hardly dared ask her whether she would now be willing to put it all back in, and more besides. But we did and she was.
Another title of 1986, ‘Honey from a Weed’ by Patience Grey, presented different challenges. Here we were dealing with an author who needed no persuading to provide background information and to be authentic. If we were pure, she was purer still! And this applied also to her motivation; she told us that she simply wished her accumulated knowledge to be preserved in a permanent, beautiful form for the benefit of her grandchildren. No, on this occasion there was something of a role reversal involved. We knew that ‘Honey from a Weed’ had been offered to just about all the publishers in London who could have been expected to be interested in it, and we knew what their reactions had been: a great book, but its complexity … oh dear, what an editorial task! … and how could Patience be persuaded to switch her attention even a little bit from the grandchildren and cooperate in making the book more saleable to the public?
Our reaction was different: a great book, and whatever the difficulties we just have to do it. But we too felt that certain things had to be done to make this magnificent work more accessible, and that … well, to cut short a long story, the correspondence in which I engaged with Patience proved to be by far the most voluminous and in many ways the most fascinating of any I have ever conducted, and the week I spent in Apulia with her, drawing final conclusions from these long and detailed discussions, was an experience of remarkable intensity. In the end, under the roof shown in Corinna Sargood’s drawing (in the book), we agreed on everything. M
any fine tributes have been paid to the book which emerged from all this. My favourite is that of Theodora Fitzgibbon, who said: ‘It is not like any other book written in the past 50 years, and its memory will stay for ever.’ Some years later, we were able to republish the 1960s classic, ‘Plats du Jour’ by Patience Gray and Primrose Boyd, with its famous Penguin cover by David Gentleman.
In 1988 we made our contribution to medieval food studies by publishing ‘An Ordinance of Pottage’. This early text, which Professor Constance Hieatt edited for us, is in size and importance fully comparable to ‘A Forme of Cury’, but had never previously been published.
In the following year we published ‘Majorcan Food and Cookery’ by Elizabeth Carter. Here, as with ‘Noshe Djan’, my wife played an important role in persuading the author to talk aloud about her experience and then to put down on paper what she’d just been saying. Jane found that what authors ‘hadn’t really thought suitable’ for inclusion in a book might well constitute the best bits after this process had been gone through.
The output of new titles was already diminishing (other preoccupations, less energy and money available) by the beginning of 1991, when I had a heart attack and – despite a good recovery – came fairly soon to the conclusion that, of my various activities, book publishing should not last much longer. However, we still had two commitments. The first was to publish Barbara Yeomans’ translation of Rumohr’s ‘Geist der Kochkunst’. Barbara had nobly volunteered to do this major translation (see the essay by Michael Symons in this issue of PPC), and we absolutely had to bring it out. After a delay, we did, just in time to hand it over to Tom Jaine as, effectively, his first PB title.
The second commitment, to republish Robert May’s ‘The Accomplish’t Cook’ (the finest English cookery book of the 17th century) dated back a very long way. We had, back in the 1980s, arranged for Marcus Bell to do most of the research needed for an introduction, and I had got most of the glossary ready. Presented with this ‘kit’, Tom Jaine willingly took on the project. To our delight, this book will at last come out in August of this year – around the time when this issue of PPC reaches you.
This takes us into the future. And there are more good things to come. Tom Jaine’s current catalogue gives details – and it shows of course which of the books mentioned in this history are still available (most of them, but for the time being Bradley, Warner, Carter, and Hannah Glasse are out of print).
When I attended a meeting in Santa Barbara, California, to set up the American Institute of Wine and Food and its journal and publishing programme, I quickly learned the conventional wisdom about what things have to be done first in such a situation: namely deciding how many millions of dollars have to be raised in advance of any activity, and appointing a firm of fund-raisers to attend to this.
It was fortunate that I was unaware of these requirements when Prospect Books was founded, otherwise nothing would have happened. We naively thought that if the ten partners each put the same amount into the kitty we ought to be able to manage. And, given the financial situation of Partner Six, our youngest daughter (Jennifer), we reckoned that this amount had to be £5.
Of course we needed premises. So we allocated part of a broom cupboard under the stairs in our house, plus a small table in an adjacent room and a box of file cards. That seemed to be sufficient and indeed was for quite a while. There were no utility bills, as the presence of this cuckoo in our nest (as it subsequently turned out to be) did not make any measurable difference to our consumption of electricity and most of the phone calls were to people I enjoyed chatting with anyway.
By the time we needed to pay the printers for the first issue of PPC more than enough revenues had come in from subscribers. Had we stumbled on the secret of a no-capital-needed enterprise? So it seemed, but later on we discovered that publishing books did, eventually, need capital. For the record, a total of £25000 was required by the time we passed our tenth anniversary.
To begin with, we did everything ourselves, ie my wife Jane and myself plus some daughterly help. Soon, however, we got ourselves paid help (Christine Adams was the pioneer here), starting with two hours a week and building up eventually to four days a week. Mary Gibbs was the first ‘help’ to work a half week, and a wonderful help she was, but she had met rather a good-looking explorer at the North Pole and went off to marry him. Felicia Freeland was with us next, fresh from anthropological studies in Indonesia, and distinguished herself by organising one of the first Oxford Symposia on Food History – including the keying in of many papers.
And so it went on until, around 1982, we fell into a new pattern of having a series of helpers, whom we came to think of as apprentices, since they planned to enter publishing and we were the chosen point of entry. No one would have chosen us for financial reasons, since the pay we offered was deplorably low; but what we could give was hands-on training in all aspects of publishing – editing, design, production, dealing with authors, publicity, repping, the lot. It’s very hard to gain that sort of wide experience in one’s first year in a conventional publishing house.
This aspect was, for us, one of the great pleasures of the whole operation. Our apprentices were all young, mostly fresh from Oxford or Cambridge. Their presence in the household acted as a leaven, raising spirits, enlarging views of the world, speeding up the pace of everything.
Tom Elliott, in 1982, was the first apprentice. He could make it by bicycle from Chelsea to Hatchards in Piccadilly in 12 minutes. Hatchards once kept a customer waiting in their shop for one of our books while he performed this feat. When the time came for him to move on, he introduced his friend (and future wife) Carolyn Smith, who stayed with us nearly two years (1983 and part 1984) before departing for the Folio Society. She was followed by Candida Brazil (part 1984 and 1985), whose delicate sense of style foreshadowed a career which has now taken her to the Yale University Press and who was succeeded in her turn by Idonea Muggeridge (1986). Idonea masterminded our biggest launch party (for Patience Gray’s Honey from a Weed). Catherine Fairweather (1987), an even livelier version of the lively schoolgirl whom we had known in Laos in the mid 1970s, came next. Finally, Kate Scarborough (1988 and 1989), stayed longer than any of her predecessors and broke new ground when we sent her to the USA to explore the market there and set up a new distribution agent, and again when she went, twice, to the Frankfurt Book Fair on our behalf.
After Kate’s departure we had no similar arrangement, but were not without help. Over the next few years Helen Saberi, author of our Afghan book, Noshe Djan, took time out from working with me on the Oxford Companion to Food to deal with certain vital PB functions, especially royalty payments. The opera singer Russell Harris, lowering his voice, carried out tasks which called for expertise on computers. So did Daniel Owen, the baseball-capped younger son of Sri Owen, our Indonesian author.
We liked the idea of having one of our authors handle royalties for the others; it was reassuring for them. We always prided ourselves on being good about royalties. Well, we had to be, I suppose, since we never provided advances (mainly because our authors had already written their books when they arrived on our doorstep, but also because there were no funds with which to do so). What we could and did do was to pay royalties at quarterly intervals in the first year of a book’s life, and twice a year there after. And we did our calculations promptly and paid the sums due within a few weeks, rather than the months which are or were usual.
But, however enlightened we were about this sort of thing, this was of relatively little consequence to our authors by comparison with the bottom line question: how many copies of their books were we selling?
The main sales problem which faces any small British publisher is of course selling to bookshops in the UK. Broadly speaking, British book shops, with the exception of big ones in London and one or two each in places like Oxford, Cambridge, Glasgow and Bath, are unwilling to buy books for stock unless they can be expected to melt quickly off the shelves. On the whole, our books did not meet this criterion. So, although we conducted various experiments in trying to sell books outside London, for example in the Midlands and in East Anglia, through freelance reps, none worked. The clear lesson of twelve years was that the one thing which did work was having our own amateur rep go round the main outlets in London at fairly frequent intervals, keeping up a direct relationship with whoever bought books for the cookery section.
This sort of established relationship was not always necessary. Lucy Brazil (sister of Candida-the-apprentice) once took a few weeks off from preparing to be a doctor to be our temporary rep; and her results were brilliant. So were those achieved by the insouciant Harriet Jaine, willing to tread where no rep had trod before, in the winter of 1992/93. But on the whole we did better with a long-term rep, and for many years this was Marcus Bell, described by Patience Gray, whose book he indexed, as ‘the poet and bibliographer’, occupations which are no doubt compatible with repping but which would not normally be seen as leading to a successful sales career. In fact, what they ultimately led Marcus to was running a sugarcane plantation in Queensland.
However, while he worked for PB, Marcus demonstrated that his unusual credentials, buttressed by an unaggressive manner and infinite patience, plus an intimate knowledge of our books (he helped in editorial work too and knew all our authors) and a real interest in food history, could be highly effective. However, shops were not our only outlet. We made a lot of sales directly to PPC subscribers, in Britain or abroad, at full or almost full retail price; and this was a huge advantage. I remember a Penguin potentate saying wistfully that she envied us this – making a sale at retail price is almost unheard of for big publishers.
Moreover, PPC had its volunteer agents (see page 64) around the world, and they did a lot to sell books as well as deal with PPC matters. Philip and Mary Hyman, in Paris, were the pioneers here, quickly followed by Barbara Santich in Australia, Birgit Siesby in Denmark and Cathy Salzman in the Netherlands. Some remarkable feats were carried out in recruiting subscribers to PPC. Barbara for a time held the number of Australian subscribers at well over 100. Birgit exercised iron discipline in Scandinavia, and there were occasions when subscribers she had recruited confessed to us that they found PPC too difficult and were not resubscribing – ‘but please do not tell Birgit’ they would say.
We were also to be envied for the relationship we had with the University Press of Virginia in the USA. So long as the late Walker Cowan was alive and in charge of it, they distributed our books for us in North America on terms which were very favourable to us and in quantities which were really impressive; I recall one period when they were sending us the equivalent of around £10,000 a year. Moreover, they conducted all their transactions with traditional Southern courtesy, came to see us in London, and made us most welcome when we went to see them in Charlottesburg. After Walker Cowan’s death the arrangements had to be terminated; and we never found anything remotely as good to take their place.
Apart from these plus factors, we also enjoyed the benefits (as well as suffering the penalties) of being highly specialised. We were consistently successful with specialist cookbook shops (and mail order dealers). They would reorder and reorder. If we had the best book on a given subject – and we had perhaps a dozen books which clearly deserved that description – or was and would probably remain the only book of its kind (our half dozen or so facsimile reprints) – the potential life of the book would be, one might almost say, infinite. And the larger London bookshops, plus one or two exceptionally good small ones (Heywood Hill, John Sandoe), were good about stocking titles from our backlist, as well as the few new ones we produced each year.
The ‘few new ones’. One might say ‘very few’. Even in the mid 1980s, when we were at our most active, we only averaged about four; and that figure included the annual volume of Oxford Symposium Proceedings, whose format really precluded its being stocked by any general bookshop. However, we planned our print runs on the basis that all our titles were books of lasting interest and that we therefore wanted them to remain in print for five to ten years; so our backlist was strong.
The fact that we could maintain this strong backlist without overcommitting our slender financial resources was the result of sympathetic and practical advice from Ken Smith of Smith Settle, our printers for the last twelve years. It was he who explained that while it was an economy to print, say, all 2000 copies of a book in one go, it was equally an economy to bind initially only enough for a year or two, leaving the rest in ‘flat sheets’ or ‘book blocks’ until they were actually needed. And he, in his ‘Dutch uncle’ role, explained to us many other things, which a normal printer, or one less interested in the quality of his product, would have left us to find out for ourselves or not at all.
We had equally marvellous support on the typesetting side, in the form of Emma Glaisher, of a firm in Leeds which has had various names during the last twelve years but has for us always been ‘Emma’. Since Smith Settle are in Otley, just a few miles north of Leeds, the team we were using was geographically compact and well able to send proofs and camera-ready copy to and fro at high speed. From 1983 to 1993 they did PPC and they did all our books (the Oxford Symposium Documents, as always, being the exception).
One thing we used to do was to send apprentices up to Leeds and Otley to meet the production team, indeed to spend a couple of days with them, seeing just how they worked. This was well worth while. Apart from anything else, it gave apprentices confidence that, if they thought of a way of doing something, it wouldn’t be shot down because it was based on misapprehensions about what went on on ‘the shop floor’ up in Leeds and Otley. And this helped us, since we had many a bright idea and practical suggestion from the apprentices – if what I have written in earlier paragraphs suggests that the learning was all by them and the teaching all by us, that would be a skewed picture of the interchanges which went on all the time.
In sticking to these arrangements in Yorkshire, we transgressed the rule that publishers should always obtain rival estimates for any job, and at least consider taking the lowest. We knew that we ought to be doing this, but we didn’t. We found the established relationship with Emma and with the team at Smith Settle of such value to us that we didn’t want to face alternatives.
People have complimented us on the quality of the production of our books, and of PPC, and of course we respond with pleased looks and do indeed deserve some of the credit; but much of it is due to the people who did the actual work.
Indeed, looking back on it all, what impresses me is what a large number of people were involved in making this small enterprise work, and what a happy atmosphere of cooperation invested all its activities.