Thank you very much to everyone who came to our Trainee Showcase on 12th July. We really appreciated your support.
One of the highlights of the day was the guest lecture by publisher Andrew Bax. For anyone who missed it, or would like to revisit it, the full script is below. Many thanks again to Andrew for preparing this interesting and informative talk.
The trainees’ presentation slides will follow soon!
Oxford, as we all know, is an extraordinary place. The Bookseller, the UK’s trade magazine for publishers and booksellers revealed, some years ago, that the city of Oxford had the greatest density of published authors in the world. It also discovered that over 200 publishing companies were registered in Oxford, including my own.
I got into publishing by accident. In 1965 I was young, irresponsible and in Oxford without a job. A friend told me that there were always vacancies for science graduates at a firm called Pergamon Press. I had only five ‘O’ levels but applied anyway – and was accepted. I joined a team of about ten handling the production of academic journals from offices in Headington Hill Hall, now part of Brooke’s University. Initially, my working space was a windowsill and the top of a filing cabinet in the attic above the boss’s bedroom. The boss was called Robert Maxwell.
Robert Maxwell acquired his name by deed pole in 1948. His real name was Jan Hoch and he originated from that turbulent part of eastern Europe that changed from Czechoslovakia to Hungary and is now part of Ukraine. His family were Jewish cattle dealers and, after the Nazis invaded, most of them were taken to Auschwitz, where they died. Young Jan had escaped however, and joined the Czechoslovak Army in exile and, later, the Royal Staffordshire Regiment. He saw active service across Europe, was awarded the MC and, at the end of the war, was promoted to the rank of Captain. He was then sent to Berlin as part of the mission to revive the German economy, and was appointed to the publishing house, Springer Verlag. Springer was sitting on valuable scientific research and, recognising the opportunity, Maxwell had it translated into English and published it through a company he formed for the purpose. That was the beginning of Pergamon Press. In preparation for this talk I discovered that Pergamon began as a collaboration with a certain Paul Rosebaud who had been a senior scientist in the Nazi hierarchy. Throughout the war, however, he had been secretly spying for Britain.
When the world finally emerged from the devastation of World War II, governments and universities began to invest heavily in scientific research. Then, as now, it was vital for those involved in such work to be aware of what was happening in other centres. Then, as now, there was competition and collaboration, often fuelled by personal ambition. The established publishers were slow on the uptake and communication was often achieved through correspondence and international conferences.
Enter Robert Maxwell. One of his techniques was to use an international conference to launch a new journal. After a visit by Maxwell, often at the conference itself, the host academic was persuaded to continue his good work by editing a new journal in the subject, and the conference papers would provide the first issue. Everyone working in the field wanted to have their work published in the journal and library funds were used to pay for it. Thus it was that a pile of manuscripts was delivered to my desk for a new journal to be called Journal of Quantitative Spectroscopy and Radiative Transfer. Maxwell had brought them with him from a conference in Rio de Janeiro. That journal, I see, is now in its 200th volume and has an in-print price of £6742. This was happening all the time and journals were being launched in subjects we’d hardly heard of. Editors, usually unpaid, competed for the best papers, frequency of publication was increased and, of course, the price. Then Maxwell introduced page charges so that contributors had to pay for the privilege of publication, and their library for the privilege of subscribing. For a while he took advantage of currency fluctuations so that customers might he invoiced in US dollars one day and Japanese yen the next. In books he invented a series called the Commonwealth Library for which he received a guaranteed order from the Commonwealth Office for 500 copies of each title published. As you can imagine, that series grew very rapidly, often from material culled from the journals. While all this was going on he was also Labour MP for Buckingham. And all that happened during the 18 months I was with Pergamon.
Eighteen months was about average. If you stayed any longer you were liable to be sacked or relocated anywhere in the world. I was getting married and this kind of uncertainty was just too exciting. Maxwell was a tyrant, a man of immense dynamism and creative energy and, eventually, a fraudster on a massive scale. There is no time here to cover the Maxwell story but, towards the beginning of the 1990s his empire began to unravel and, in desperation, he plundered his employee’s pension scheme to the tune of some £440million. He died by falling from his yacht off the Canary Islands and debate still rages about whether he jumped or whether he was pushed. Afterwards, he was found to have some 300 companies, most of which only he knew about. He had also been involved in arms deals between eastern Europe and Israel, and it is probable that he had been an agent for Mossad. He is buried in Jerusalem.
After Pergamon I joined part of the Blackwell empire. There were about a dozen of us in offices next to The Bear in Alfred Street. I was with the firm for 20 years during which time it expanded rapidly, moving to its own purpose-built premises in Osney Mead which are now part of the Bodleian and, eventually, employing over 200 people in offices in five countries. It was run by another big character, Per Saugman, who I got to know quite well. As a young man he was employed in the bookshop as part of an exchange scheme with the firm of Munksgaard in Copenhagen. It seems he quickly outgrew the challenges of bookselling so, in 1957, he was invited to revive an old publishing imprint, Blackwell Scientific Publications, which had been dormant for years. It was suggested that, with the growth of the NHS, he should consider medicine.
Per knew nothing about medicine but he thought he would start with blood. So, like Maxwell, he went to a conference in London where he announced his intention to launch the British Journal of Haematology. The leading lights in the field were anxious to become involved and it is now on Volume 177 with an in-print subscription price of £1777. It was the beginning of a substantial journal portfolio. With books his technique was to ‘seek advice’ from the highest authority on what topics are inadequately covered and who might be best to write them. Ego and ambition drove these men and, in those days it was usually men and, in the end, these chaps recommended themselves, which is what Per wanted all along. However, for authors, the financial rewards were modest. The international expert on Megaloblastic Anaemias told me that his fat, expensive monograph had ruined his health and his marriage and that on calculating his royalties he had earned just 4p an hour.
Whereas Maxwell got his way be terrifying people, Per did it with charm. He was articulate and terrific company; if he was speaking here instead of me he would do so without stumbling and without notes. He had his frailties though; there was a bit of Swiss bankery and he was a terrible womaniser.
Blackwell provided me with a series of lucky breaks. After a short time in journals I took on publicity, sales and marketing. Except we weren’t allowed to call it that because the patriarch of the firm, Sir Basil Blackwell, believed that ‘good books sell themselves’ so anything advertised was automatically deemed to be suspect. After a few years the director to whom I was reporting became ill and was off work for a while. I stepped into his shoes and, apart from one big mistake, I did quite well. The big mistake caused an almighty row with our partners in North America, the C.V. Mosby Company and I was dispatched to St Louis, Missouri to be eaten alive by their management team. In the end it was quite a tame affair. I was ushered into the president’s suite, where everyone was hushed and deferential, and then into the office of the great man himself, in which the carpet was so think you almost waded through it. We talked about this and that and, after a decent interval, he considered that honour was satisfied and the meeting was over. Years later I bumped into him at the Frankfurt Book Fair; he was working as a sales rep. So whatever mistake he made, it was bigger than mine.
C.V. Mosby was one of a number of US publishers for which we were stock-holding agents for Europe, often with reciprocal arrangements in America. One of these was CRC Press. CRC stands for the Chemical Rubber Company and their business began in manufacturing rubber valves and tubes for use in laboratories. One of their best-selling items was a rubber apron with a pocket into which they inserted a free booklet called the Handbook of Chemistry & Physics. That booklet proved to be so popular that people were buying the apron just to obtain the Handbook. Eventually they gave up the rubbery stuff and became publishers. By the time we were involved that Handbook was published annually with over 2500 pages, and had spawned many others.
All this meant that we had a lot of books to sell. No-one in the firm had taken on the role before but, through trial and error, I managed to hold down the job and eventually headed up a marketing department of 12 which, at one point included Robert Maxwell’s son, Kevin.
One thing I managed to do quite well was to sell books in bulk to the pharmaceutical industry. Books seemed less like a bribe than the lavish hospitality that such companies gave to those doctors who prescribed their drugs. I was negotiating one particular deal as the board of Blackwell Scientific Publications was in the throes of succession planning. It was a very big deal, and complicated, requiring the directors to sign up to something new. But they were too distracted by other concerns and rejected it. So I reported back to the pharmaceutical company that Blackwell wouldn’t do it, but that I would. Somehow I got away with it. I had six days to register a company, find an office, print some visiting cards and sign the contract. That was on 6 June 1987 and was the beginning of my own company, Radcliffe Publishing. I didn’t have a shadow of Maxwell’s dynamism or a fraction of Per Saugman’s personality, but those guys taught me a lot.
At that time Margaret Thatcher was overhauling things as prime minister and Kenneth Clarke, as her Minister for Health, was embarking on a radical reform of the NHS. Part of this involved upgrading the quality of primary care. GPs had little on-going training, were rarely supervised and were badly paid but suddenly they found themselves under great pressure to improve their service, with the prospect of greatly increasing their earnings. My Blackwell days had opened doors to a lot of useful contacts, including the British Medical Association, the doctors’ union. Soon after Radcliffe started I had a call from the BMA asking me to attend an urgent meeting in London that same morning. Within an hour I had agreed to publish a series of books on the Business Side of General Practice; the BMA’s senior negotiator wrote the first one in nine weeks and we published it in another nine weeks. That was very fast, it sold in huge numbers and put us on the map. Another in the series sold 47,000 copies even though there were only 25,000 GPs at the time; that was because I had sold it to four pharmaceutical companies, working in competition. As the marketing manager of Glaxo told me ‘all’s fair in love, war and pharmaceutical advertising.’
Radcliffe started life in a single room in the Jam Factory in Park End Street; we expanded into a second room then moved to a light industrial unit in Osney Mead, then into a second one. In 1995 we moved again, into a beautiful Victorian house in Abingdon. By then we were employing about 15 people, many of them former colleague from Blackwell. They were strongly motivated by the success we were enjoying. We had found our niche in primary care; it was a very big niche and we were providing serious competition to the established publishers. Their reaction was to try to buy us; I had enquires from OUP, Churchill-Livingstone, Taylor & Francis and my old employers, Blackwell. They were talking millions and I rejected all offers; we were having just too much fun. It was too good to last though.
The first problem was the internet which undermined all the traditional publishing models and caused confusion throughout the industry, not just for us at Radcliffe. We did, however, invent something called Radcliffe Interactive. This hosted several consumer-related portals, including Divorce Online which is still going. It was financed by someone I first knew as a stationery salesman when I first joined Blackwell. He had gone on to become a publisher himself, and like Radcliffe, made himself troublesome to his rivals. However, when Routledge offered to buy him out, unlike me, he said yes. With the proceeds he became a business angel, financing start ups from an office he rented from us in our Abingdon home. Sadly we have lost touch now but when we last met he had a manor house in Berkshire, a house in California and a vineyard in South Africa.
Our second problem was that, having rejected all takeovers, our rivals decided to close in on us and, eventually, we ceased to be unique. So from around 2000 onwards we plateaued. I was also becoming aware of my own limitations; I had an inadequate grasp of financial management and I didn’t understand the internet so I decided my time was up. I felt we needed new blood at the top but that view was not shared by my colleagues; we had worked together for a long time and we all felt a strong loyalty to the company and to each other. In the end I promoted our marketing manager to managing director and elevated myself to chairman.
In 2010 Radcliffe was acquired by a firm called Electric Word whose owners seemed only interested in manipulating the price on the Stock Exchange and publishing suffered as a consequence. After a few years they sold Radcliffe to Taylor & Francis which, by then, had itself become part of a huge international communications conglomerate called Informa which included Routledge and CRC Press, names I have mentioned earlier. However, I am pleased to be able to tell you that the Radcliffe imprint continues but for reasons I cannot begin to understand, it publishes from the CRC offices in Boca Raton, Florida.
And that is where I was going to end this little talk but, in her biographical notes Jessica mentioned Bombus Books. This is the imprint of Oxford Inc, a group of writers to which I belong and which has self-published a few books of fiction and non-fiction. Last year we launched a writing competition for stories based on the No 13 bus which plies between the station and John Radcliffe Hospital. The best entries appeared in Double-Decker, available from Blackwells and other good bookshops, and three of the stories are by Jessica. That is how we came to meet and, I guess, why I am standing here today.