Thirty-five is a good age to take stock, for an individual or an organisation. You are not too far distant from your original vision, and it is not too late to make changes. In 1986, Bloomsbury Publishing was born in a small office above a Chinese restaurant in Putney, well-known as the starting point of the annual University Boat Race.
Nigel Newton tells us how two years earlier while on leave from his publishing company, he had decided to start a “new, independent medium sized publisher of books of editorial excellence and originality with high standards of design and production.”
As ambitions go, that is not a bad one to have—most publishers start out with similar plans. Many of them, however, get swallowed up by large conglomerates, and books and readers then become products and consumers. The bottom line rules. To remain literary and independent is a challenge and an achievement.
Newton was joined by publisher David Reynolds and brought in Liz Calder as the first editor-in-chief. A marketing chief came on board, a logo was created, and the fun started. As Paul Baggaley, the current editor-in-chief writes here, they were a bunch of “ambitious, classy eccentrics”—like many of those they hired.
There might be something self-indulgent about self-celebrating a 35th birthday, but Newton disarms us with, “Please forgive us for doing this…It seemed more fun than doing nothing.”
You can’t argue with that. Especially when the idea of a sampler of the best of Bloomsbury fiction writers gives the celebration heft and comes with the hope, for the reader, of developing literary relationships.
Literature’s latest Nobel laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah is a Bloomsbury author—as are many winners of the Booker, Women’s Prize and the Pulitzer. This being a peep into the adult fiction list, J K Rowling and Neil Gaiman are missing from the anthology. But as an introduction to the works of Michael Ondatjee, Caryl Phillips, Nadine Gordimer, John Berger, Margaret Atwood, Anthony Bourdain, Joanna Trollope, John Irving, Donna Tartt, Khaled Hosseini, William Boyd, Kamila Shamsie, Howard Jacobson, Ann Patchett, George Saunders and Jhumpa Lahiri (to name just a few) it is valuable. You get to meet so many writers under one roof, and can decide which ones to pursue.
Bloomsbury’s first two editors (Alexandra Pringle took over from Calder in 2000) introduce two sections while Baggaley looks to the future in the final piece, giving us a glimpse into their world.
“Publishing a writer’s early books, then gradually building a reputation and a close relationship were guiding principles in the early years,” writes Calder, who also tells us, “Every time we secured a new deal with an author, we all climbed on to our chairs and cheered.” Clearly, you can’t be in publishing if you don’t nourish your inner child.
Pringle says, “At the heart of every publishing company are its editors, and that mysterious, mercurial thing, their taste. There are too their secret weapons, their readers,” and pays a tribute to her colleague, “the first reader of so many of our successes.” At Bloomsbury, she says quoting Calder, “we publish writers, not books.” This is a wonderful way of looking at the whole business. It is an attitude that calls for an ability to see success in the future while nursing patience and a certain bloody-mindedness for the present. Stand by your man (or woman), as Pringle says.
Publishers periodically issue booklets describing books they are launching in the future, with some details and notes on the authors. Some get important awards, some make pots of money, some fail, some live a short, glorious life and then are forgotten either completely or till the author suddenly becomes rich and famous with another book.
By reversing the process, and telling us what was rather than what will be, Bloomsbury 35 guarantees a familiarity with the books which have gone through some or all of the processes above. You can argue that some of the selections may not be from an author’s best work–but that is to ignore the essential thought behind the book. It is a celebration, a representative mix, a record of past glories and a guide to current and future reading for those who haven’t read these authors.
(Suresh Menon is a journalist, author and sports writer. His most recent book was Why Don’t you Write Something I Might Read)
About the book
Title: Bloomsbury 35: Thirty Five Years of Fiction at Bloomsbury
Edited by Liz Calder and Alexandra Pringle
Price: ₹491; 363 pages (paperback)
Check out the book on Amazon