Publishing Lives

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0101John Murray2013093020140716

As the digital revolution shakes publishing to its foundations, writer and former publisher Robert McCrum explores the stories of five great British publishers. He looks back at their remarkable lives and asks what they can tell us about the challenges facing their successors today.

The story of British book publishing is the story of taking ink and paper, words and ideas, to the people. It's a tale of incredible showmen, hustlers, mavericks, gamblers and talent scouts - people with a global vision and pioneers who found new ways to take books to a mass market.

Robert starts with the John Murray publishing dynasty. In seven generations of John Murrays, the list of authors is a roll-call of English literature: Jane Austen, Lord Byron, Charles Darwin, Walter Scott, Arthur Conan Doyle, John Betjeman, and many more.

In 1768 John Murray set up a publishing company, whose most celebrated author was Lord Byron. When Murray published his 'Childe Harold' in 1812, it was said that Byron 'woke up to find himself famous'. It was also the making of Murray the publisher. Yet Murray participated in one of the most notorious acts in publishing history when he burnt the manuscript of Byron's personal memoirs because he thought the scandalous details would damage Byron's reputation.

During the Victorian age, through charm, luck and hard work, the second John Murray put himself at the centre of the literary scene and transformed his trade as a coarse bookseller into a profession for gentlemen.

Robert meets the seventh and last John Murray, as well as experts in literature and publishing, to discuss one of the oldest publishing houses in Britain.

Produced by Melissa FitzGerald

A Blakeway production for BBC Radio 4.

0102Allen Lane2013100120140723

Allen Lane left school at 16 and had no university education, yet he was fascinated by learning and education, ideas and argument. His revolutionary innovation was to produce a series of inexpensive books, in paper covers, at sixpence apiece - the price of a packet of cigarettes. It was an idea which came to him when, returning from visiting Agatha Christie in the West Country, he could find nothing worth reading on the Exeter railway station bookstall.

Allen Lane's brainwave - the Penguin - was the biggest single innovation in books of the twentieth century. Households across Britain began sprouting those colour-coded spines. Lane's Penguin books revolutionised publishing and changed people's lives.

Allen Lane's populist instincts told him that post-war Britain was hungry for knowledge. Central to post-war renewal, Penguin titles eventually sold 250 million copies. But he never dumbed down. His Pelican titles, specially commissioned non-fiction, became an informal university for 1950s Britons. Pelicans, said Lane, were "another form of education for people like me who left school at sixteen."

Lane was a great innovator and a great risk taker. In 1960 he took the biggest risk of all by publishing the infamous 'Lady Chatterley's Lover', which had become almost a byword for pornography. In publishing the novel, Lane deliberately risked prosecution.

Penguin, that jaunty little bird from the twentieth century, survives in the new century, still one of the most recognised publishing brands in the English-speaking world.

Robert McCrum meets Allen Lane's daughters, as well as experts in literature and publishing, to discuss the man who brought books to the mass market.

Producer: Melissa Fitzgerald

A Blakeway production for BBC Radio 4.

left school at 16 and had no university education, yet he was fascinated by learning and education, ideas and argument. His revolutionary innovation was to produce a series of inexpensive books, in paper covers, at sixpence apiece - the price of a packet of cigarettes. It was an idea which came to him when, returning from visiting Agatha Christie in the West Country, he could find nothing worth reading on the Exeter railway station bookstall.

0103Harold Macmillan2013100220140730

As the digital revolution shakes publishing to its foundations, writer and former publisher Robert McCrum explores how Harold Macmillan, the publishing Prime Minister, mixed politics with business.

Harold Macmillan was always a publisher and a politician. In both lives, he was a showman, an operator, and an inveterate reader. Print was in his DNA and books were his business. As a Conservative Prime Minister, he was also a successful publisher with the firm that carried his name.

The firm was founded in 1843 by two outsiders. Brothers Daniel and Alexander Macmillan were Scottish crofters. It's a story whose romantic undertones always stirred Harold Macmillan's love of a good tale.

Under Harold, Macmillan would become a publishing empire with a worldwide reach. As Prime Minister, Macmillan gave independence to Britain's African colonies. Officially, he was letting go. As a publisher, however, he was doing lucrative deals to secure the company's future. Simultaneously with decolonisation, Macmillan oversaw an ambitious expansion programme for the family firm. Macmillan remains one of the largest publishers in the world, operating in over seventy countries.

Today, the digital revolution has made publishing truly global. A world without borders, largely de-coupled from its colonial past. Publishers can now reach new markets across the English-speaking world at the click of a mouse, in a way Harold Macmillan could only dream of.

Robert meets Harold Macmillan's grandson, Lord Stockton, as well as experts in literature and publishing, to discuss the wily publishing Prime Minister.

Produced by Melissa FitzGerald

A Blakeway production for BBC Radio 4.

0104George Weidenfeld2013100320140910

Writer and former publisher, Robert McCrum meets George Weidenfeld to talk about his extraordinary publishing life.

Weidenfeld left his native Austria at the time of the Anschluss in 1938, the last survivor of a remarkable band of European émigrés - including André Deutsch, Paul Hamlyn and Ernest Hecht - who transformed the clubby world of British publishing after the Second World War.

Gambler, opportunist, intellectual, socialite, and still working at 94, Weidenfeld is a living witness to the changes that have taken place in British publishing over the last century.

In 1955, the exiled Russian author Vladimir Nabokov's novel 'Lolita' was published in Paris. Graham Greene had recognised it as a masterpiece, but in England the story of an obsessive sexual relationship between a 12-year-old girl and a middle-aged man was too hot to handle.

Only Weidenfeld, an outsider standing apart from the Fifties cultural consensus, dared to take the gamble and defy the censor. 'Lolita' became Weidenfeld's first bestseller - 200,000 copies in hardback alone. It was a milestone for his publishing house and for English literature.

Featuring George Weidenfeld and Lady Antonia Fraser.

Produced by Melissa FitzGerald

A Blakeway production for BBC Radio 4.

0105 LASTGeoffrey Faber2013100420140806

Geoffrey Faber was a brilliant middleman. He sought out the best new poetry and prose. And he hired a young American banker named T.S. Eliot - not just a poet of genius, but also a gifted publisher. Together, Eliot and Faber built one of the most influential literary lists of the twentieth century.

Faber was a classical scholar, a fellow of All Souls and a member of the Yorkshire brewing family Strong & Co. In 1924, bored with beer, he went into partnership with an Oxford friend, Maurice Gwyer, as a publisher. Gwyer already specialised in medical books and journals, but Faber had other ideas. Within five years he turned a company that published 'The Nursing Mirror' and the 'Hospital Newsletter' into one that hosted Siegfried Sassoon, Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot.

He championed the notion that Faber & Faber had a responsibility to the world to preserve the best in literature and encouraged enterprises that were not always commercial. Yet it was show business that saved the company when T.S. Eliot's 'Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats' became a hit musical.

In a landscape increasingly dominated by giant media empires, Faber & Faber remains one of the last great independent publishing houses in the UK. As the digital revolution shakes traditional publishing to its foundations, the firm is exploring new ways of presenting its authors, including Eliot, for a new generation of readers.

Robert meets Geoffrey's grandson Toby Faber, and literary and publishing experts, to explore Geoffrey Faber's life and the future of publishing in Britain.

Produced by Melissa FitzGerald

A Blakeway production for BBC Radio 4.

was a brilliant middleman. He sought out the best new poetry and prose. And he hired a young American banker named T.S. Eliot - not just a poet of genius, but also a gifted publisher. Together, Eliot and Faber built one of the most influential literary lists of the twentieth century.

0201Kaye Webb2014031020140813

Robert McCrum explores the stories of five great British publishers.

Kaye Webb was a children's book publisher of genius who shaped the literary imagination of generations. Through Puffin, Kaye Webb created an immortal library of children's books.

Towards the end of her life, Kaye Webb told Sue Lawley on Desert Island Discs, "I've had very good luck in the working sense and not such good luck in the private sense". Her third husband - the cartoonist Ronald Searle - left her for another woman, and she brought up their twin children alone. Yet as her own family disintegrated, she built up an increasingly happy and motivated professional family at Puffin Books, which she took over in 1961.

Paperbacks were booming and children's publishing was entering a golden age, with Webb leading the way. Puffin acquired the paperback rights to most of the best children's writers of the day: Roald Dahl, Rosemary Sutcliff, Maurice Sendak, Raymond Briggs, Leon Garfield, Joan Aiken, Nina Bawden, Quentin Blake, Shirley Hughes, Alan Garner, C.S. Lewis, and new authors such as Clive King, whose Stig of the Dump was one of Webb's most famous purchases.

Webb spent her final years in a wheelchair with arthritis. Sadly, the woman who produced so many happy endings for other people's children did not get her own.

Producer: Melissa FitzGerald

A Blakeway production for BBC Radio 4.

Paperbacks were booming and children's publishing was entering a golden age, with Webb leading the way. Puffin acquired the paperback rights to most of the best children's writers of the day: Roald Dahl, Rosemary Sutcliffe, Maurice Sendak, Raymond Briggs, Leon Garfield, Joan Aiken, Nina Bawden, Quentin Blake, Shirley Hughes, Alan Garner, C.S. Lewis, and new authors such as Clive King, whose Stig of the Dump was one of Webb's most famous purchases.

0202Victor Gollancz2014031120140820

Robert McCrum explores the stories of five great British publishers.

Victor Gollancz was a giant of 20th century British publishing. The firm he founded published works by Ford Madox Ford, George Orwell, Elizabeth Bowen, Daphne du Maurier, Franz Kafka, Kingsley Amis and John le Carre.

Gollancz used the profits from these bestselling authors to fund his political mission. He created the pioneering Left Book Club to campaign against the rise of fascism in Europe. It gained 45,000 members in its first year and, at its peak, was distributing nearly 60,000 books a month. The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell was its most famous title.

Victor Gollancz was a rare breed - a publisher with a social conscience. He was a great literary man who devoted his life to contemporary causes. In the process, he helped to change the world.

The Observer's Robert McCrum talks to publishing insiders including bestselling author, John le Carré, and Victor Gollancz's daughter Livia Gollancz.

Producer: Melissa FitzGerald

A Blakeway production for BBC Radio 4.

0203Norah Smallwood2014031220140827

Robert McCrum explores the stories of five great British publishers.

Norah Smallwood was the first woman to break into the traditional gentleman's club of publishing in the early 20th Century. She joined Chatto and Windus as a secretary in 1936 and rapidly worked her way up, becoming a partner after the Second World War, and managing director between 1975 and 1982. She was on the board of the Hogarth Press and worked closely with its founder, Leonard Woolf.

Her authors included Aldous Huxley, Elizabeth Taylor, Iris Murdoch, A. S. Byatt and Toni Morrison. She also became close friends with Dirk Bogarde, then one of Britain's leading movie stars, after she heard him on a late night radio show and spotted his potential as a writer. Iris Murdoch said she was 'a combination of comrade, leader, mother, business partner and muse'.

The Observer's Robert McCrum talks to publishing insiders including Dame Gail Rebuck and Booker prize-winning author, A. S. Byatt.

Producer: Melissa FitzGerald

A Blakeway production for BBC Radio 4.

0204Paul Hamlyn2014031320140917

Robert McCrum explores the stories of five great British publishers.

Paul Hamlyn revolutionised the British book trade in the 20th century, turning it from a cosy club serving the elite into an industrial powerhouse. A Jewish émigré from Berlin, he entered publishing by selling books from a barrow at Camden Market. But he soon ran low on stock and started his own firm, printing books cheaply but handsomely in Eastern Europe. His great insight was that beautiful colour plate books could be produced for the mass market at very low prices.

Hamlyn was an outsider who was looked down on by the gentlemen who had traditionally dominated publishing, but he achieved his ambition to become the biggest publisher on the block. Along the way he transformed the industry with a revolution in lifestyle books - cookery, gardening, history, art - mass-produced at high quality.

Hamlyn was at the forefront of the non-fiction revolution that transformed bookshops and brought colour to post-war Britain. Marguerite Patten's Cookery in Colour of 1962 quickly became an unprecedented bestseller. Today's bestseller lists, packed with celebrity chefs, would have been inconceivable before Paul Hamlyn discovered and developed this new market.

Robert McCrum talks to publishing insiders including Tim Hely Hutchinson and Lady Helen Hamlyn.

Producer: Melissa FitzGerald

A Blakeway production for BBC Radio 4.

0205 LASTCarmen Callil2014031420140903

Robert McCrum explores the stories of five great British publishers.

Carmen Callil set out to change the world with her pioneering feminist publishing house, Virago Press. Arriving in London from Australia in 1960, she started as a "publicity girl", then one of the few publishing jobs available to women who did not want to be secretaries.

In 1973 she founded Virago Press to "publish books by women which celebrated women's lives, and which would, by so doing, spread the message of women's liberation to the whole population". Virago's first publication was Fenwomen: A Portrait of Women in an English Village by Mary Chamberlain. This oral history set out as Virago meant to go on, giving voice to previously silent women.

Despite some criticism from the established literary world, Virago quickly became a success. In 1978, Carmen launched the hugely influential Modern Classics series, with their distinctive green spines, celebrating and reviving the work of hundreds of often neglected female writers. Since then, the Modern Classics series has become Virago's hallmark.

Carmen left Virago to run Chatto in the 80s, and retired from publishing in 1994. The company she founded over 40 years ago has evolved and changed, yet the founding principles remain the same, to publish the best of women's writing and to celebrate women's lives thorough literature. Since 1973, women have made a significant contribution to literature, as bestsellers, as Booker Prize winners and as readers shaping the modern book trade.

Featuring Carmen Callil, Ursula Owen and Lennie Goodings.

Producer: Melissa FitzGerald

A Blakeway Production production for BBC Radio 4.