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The SRB Interview: David Campbell – Scottish Review of Books
by SRB

The SRB Interview: David Campbell

May 13, 2011 | by SRB

Twenty years ago David Campbell relaunched Everyman’s Library with the aim of producing beautiful books in hardback that would withstand the ravages of time. The original Library was the brainchild of Joseph Dent (1849-1926), a self-taught London bookbinder who, in 1906, adopted the motto, ‘Everyman, I will go with thee, and be thy guide, in thy most need to go by thy side.’  Then as now it is quoted in all the books in the Everyman’s Library. Alan Taylor interviewed Campbell, who is 63, at Barbreck House near Lochgilphead, which he bought in 1985 and to which he returns from London as often as he can. The interview was conducted outdoors in brilliant, blinding sunshine before and after a convivial lunch which included Campbell’s own-grown oysters.

Scottish Review of Books:
Wasn’t the original Everyman’s Library another great invention  of the Victorians?

David Campbell: Yes. There had been various classics series before, quite often of German inspiration, various people had done classics but no one had done it on the same scale as Joseph Dent. Joe Dent was a really interesting figure. He was a complete autodidact. He left school at thirteen. He was the tenth child of a Darlington housepainter and he was apprenticed as a book binder. Aged nineteen, he walked to London with a half-a-crown in his pocket and he made his first, I should think pretty small, fortune, buying books in the Charing Cross Road, rebinding them and then selling them back to the same booksellers. But like a lot of self-taught men he had fantastic respect for the classics, particularly Shakespeare, and in 1906, with Ernest Rhys, his general editor, they invented Everyman’s Library.

It was born of what could be, probably has been, called an age of improvement. You used the word ‘autodidact’ and this was the age of the autodidact.
Everyman was also inspired by William Morris. There was a tremendous sense of self-improvement, of night classes, and that reading good books improved the mind and helped people. Everyman was absolutely central to that tradition.

And it was a tradition that was inspired by the printing explosion, cheap print, a burgeoning reading of books thanks to the introduction in 1870 of the Education Act, a public library movement that was in its infancy and, I suppose more broadly, a respect for education and learning. People felt that by reading and acquiring knowledge they could get on. Was that in Dent’s mind?
I think that was very much the case. Ask many families and I think they still have these aspirations, and these concerns.

Do they?
Yes, I think they do. I still think there’s great respect for education, for all the problems of our educational system. Everyman was, until Penguin came along in 1935, the main vehicle of the classics in this country, and sold over 50 million books by its 50th anniversary in 1956.

Part of the ethos also, of course, was that they should be cheap enough for ordinary, working people to buy.
Sixpence a volume. Dent came up with these wonderful orotund Victorian sentences. For five pounds, he said, a man or a woman could be intellectually rich
for life. He also said that his books should ‘appeal to every kind of reader: the worker, the student, the cultured man, the child, the man and the woman’.

The same, relatively speaking, could perhaps be said now. Why spend £9,000 a year on tuition fees for a creative writing course when you could spend it on books? Would that not be a better investment?
I would agree with that. For a thousand pounds you could buy enough of the great masters to keep you happy for life. People are still reading the classics. I had the idea for reviving Everyman probably as early as the late 1970s. I worked in Paris for Gallimard and I always admired the Pleiade series. I thought: why doesn’t the English language have a Pleiade? I thought Everyman in a way was a sort of Pleiade. Then, much later on, I discovered that Andre Schiffrin’s father, Jaques Schiffrin, who founded the Pleiade in 1930s, before it was sold to Gallimard, was copying in a way what Joe Dent was doing. He was very inspired by the Everyman’s Library. And I, thirty, forty years on, was inspired by what Gallimard was doing. So these things go round in circles. Publishers don’t invent the wheel. The average sewn clothbound hardback from Everyman’s Library costs between £9.99 and £14.99 and is printed on acid-free paper that will not discolour with age. Publishers now boast of their paper from renewable sources. All forests are renewable. What matters to book lovers is that the paper is acid-free and will not discolour like so many modern paperbacks printed on newsprint quality paper.

When Dent was introducing his library how accepted was the canon?
The first point to make, I suppose, is that Joseph Dent in his lifetime didn’t publish copyright authors. He really was publishing the dead classics and by the 1970s, three or four generations of Dents later and new management and indeed new owners, Dent had published – they were friends – Conrad and Forster. When I took over Everyman in 1990 they were the only two copyrighted authors in Everyman. And I thought to myself, if I’m saying to the world these are the most important writers and these are the authors and titles you want to have a more permanent edition rather than a disintegrating paperback you can’t suddenly say there’s nothing been written of any quality since 1920. So I quickly went out and bought non-exclusive hardback reprint rights to really the whole of the twentieth century. So I galloped through Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Lampedusa, Pasternak, you name it. Now we have probably over 300 copyright titles.

Was that expensive to do?
Yes, fairly. But not as much you might expect. Because I was asking for something that nobody else wanted.

Like buying a ruin.
I said to publishers, if you want to continue publishing Marquez in hardback do so but you can’t license it to anyone else but me.
At the time when I relaunched Everyman in September, 1991, a lot of commentators thought I was completely bananas because publishing was done essentially in paperback. The hardback came out and a year later it went into paperback and that was the end of the hardback. It was very, very unusual for any author to be kept in hardback. Twenty years ago there wasn’t even the internet. Certainly, we couldn’t imagine e-books. And, in a way, I think I’ve been rather lucky. My view then was, having moved house many times, paperbacks are great when you buy them new, but they’re pretty foul after ten years. The pages fall out and they’re not much good for rereading or lending to somebody or giving to somebody. I thought that the English language and English literature, which is perhaps the greatest literature in the world, deserved something more permanent. I was just trying to offer what John Updike very obligingly called us, a permanent library of reference. I hadn’t anticipated what’s now happening – fascinating – the e-book revolution. My suspicion is that the paperback will not disappear but at least fifty per cent of paperback sales will disappear, because people will simply buy e-books, and if people want to buy a proper book they will buy a hardback. And if they want something just to read and perhaps not re-read they will buy an e-book.


Let’s talk more about that later. For the moment let’s rewind and talk a bit about the canon. In Dent’s day this must have been set pretty much in stone. These were the books that everyone who wanted to think of himself as educated and cultivated must read.
Oddly enough, if you look at the first twenty Everyman titles published about eight of them you and I wouldn’t really have heard of. There were some pretty wacky things. Ainsworth’s story about the Tower of London hasn’t been in print for about fifty years. The same, curiously, is true of some of the first ten Penguin titles.

Eric Linklater’s Poet’s Pub, Gone to Earth by Mary Webb, Twenty-Five by Beverly Nichols…
Exactly. After Joseph Dent’s death in 1926, by the thirties or forties, there were well over a thousand titles in Everyman’s, a hell of an achievement. Motley’s Dutch Republic I would love to do but wouldn’t dare!

I’ve seen it festering on the shelves of many secondhand booksellers’. How about Froude’s Life of Carlyle?
Maybe not. Carlyle himself, of course.

Dante was there and is still read and, interestingly enough, is consistently one of our bestsellers. The Divine Comedy is always in our top five titles, possibly because we’re the only edition in hardback or paperback that has the Botticelli drawings.

Do you think Dent died fulfilled? Had he realised his ambition?
I think so, yes. And a richer man, I think, than publishers are these days. No, I think he was a very fulfilled man and Ernest Rhys too. They both wrote their memoirs.

Clearly, they were men with a mission. Did Dent have an advisory panel to help him select the titles?
I don’t think so. I do have a very informal advisory panel. When I came back from Paris, where I’d been a French publisher for much of the previous 20 years, I didn’t really know anybody in British academe, outside my own university, or in the media.
I only had one employee at the time. We had a curious office above a sex shop in Berwick Street in Soho and I wrote to many people – Frank Kermode, John Carey, John Bayley, Isaiah Berlin. The first person to reply was Isaiah who said I will not come to meetings ever but I will bombard you with ideas. And he jolly well did. He was fantastic. I’ve now got a group of people on either side of the Atlantic and they fire ideas at me and I ask them for ideas on whether I should do this and who could write an introduction. It’s been invaluable to me.

How kindly do they receive your rejections?
I don’t think I have rejected their suggestions. No. A good friend and member of my advisory board suggested I do an edition of [the poet, Arthur Hugh] Clough and I haven’t, I’m afraid. I think it would be very difficult to sell. Publishing is always a compromise between what really you want to do and what you believe you should do. At the same time you’ve got to balance the books.

How difficult is it to resuscitate authors who’re now deemed ‘neglected’. William Gerhardie, say, or Jocelyn Brooke or Henry Green, even?
Henry Green is a possibility and he has been resuscitated occasionally in paperback.
There are many, many writers. In my office in Clerkenwell we have all 1200 of the [original] Everyman’s. And while many are admirable and marvellous there are many you simply couldn’t do today.  I don’t think we have yet brought back into fashion a great, completely neglected writer. We have a lot of great writers who don’t sell particularly strongly. Penelope Fitzgerald I think is a simply wonderful writer but she’s not a tremendous seller.

How important to you is the design of your books?
I have always passionately felt that the book must always be a beautiful object and this sense, which I’ve had for a very long time, is borne out in a way by the e-book revolution.
E-books I believe will knock very far sideways paperback sales. In America now fifty to sixty per cent of even literary fiction is electronic sales. And I think the same thing is going to happen in the U.K. much quicker than we think. It doesn’t worry me at all with Everyman because people will always want a permanent alternative.
You can’t put e-books on a shelf. You can’t lend them, you can’t give them away.

But they can take them away from you…
They can take them away after a number of years or a number of usages. But I think what has happened in paperback publishing in this country is very sad. Talk to the publisher of any of the big paperback companies and they have no control over the aesthetics of the books they publish. The quality of paper and whether a book is re-typeset is decided by the production director who is controlled by the financial director or the accountants. There are many, many reasons why small publishers, such as Bloodaxe and Canongate, will thrive. In this shaky environment they will do well because the editors, the heads of the houses, can have total control. I think it’s a great mistake to be printing paperbacks on newsprint. DTV – the German paperback house – or Adelphi in Italy publish fabulously nice books. Always crisp new typography, fine paper, sewn bindings – this is a book that is a beautiful thing to own and handle.

This doesn’t seem to be appreciated by many people, including many avid readers. How is it we’ve come seemingly to separate the aesthetic from the content?
Oddly enough I think Apple and Kindle have been very skilful. Although you and I probably don’t want to use these things they have understood the aesthetic of the book and they’ve understood that in some ways better than paperback publishers. Their typography is good, their page design is good. And the actual object, the iPad, is quite a beautiful, elegant object. They have understood the aesthetics. Paperback publishers for the last 25 years, since the great designers like Germano Facetti at Penguin in the 1960s and 1970s, have not. There are still a few publishers who publish beautiful books but I never buy a hardback in this country. I buy all my hardbacks in America. Americans still care about typography. Their books are bound with cloth, they’re sewn.

In contrast, Everyman’s seems very good value for money.
My model was, as I say, the Pleiade. But in France it’s a different book culture, a different buying culture. Pleiade books cost £45 to £50. They’re printed on Bible paper, and have beautiful typography and a leather, or sort of flexi-leather binding.
I don’t particularly like it myself but it is leather. I just knew the Anglo-Saxon buying public are just not going to pay that sort of money for a book. So I knew I had to be within spitting distance of paperbacks. When I launched Everyman twenty years ago now the cheapest were £6.99 when paperbacks were £4.99 or £5.99. There were many cases when a cloth-bound, sewn book on acid-free paper was cheaper than a Penguin. But I have a tiny company and I oversee these things myself. I go on press myself. In the early days I asked the printer to reprint an entire run, an entire book, because I thought the inking wasn’t right. And we’ve printed every single book since the start – when I borrowed a million pounds to start up Everyman, my first printing bill was more than million pounds, so I knew I had to go to a printer who understood what I was on about and had confidence in me. As it happens I went to the biggest printer in Europe, Mohndruck, with whom I’d done a lot of work when I was at Hachette in Paris, and we have a fantastic relationship. But I’ve often driven them mad by saying, I’m sorry you’ve made a mistake on that page you’ve got to do the whole thing again.


Who was your designer?
A brilliant young designer from the Royal College of Art called Peter Wilberg. I have an old friend who’s a professor there who recommended Peter. The jackets are done by the art director and her assistant at Knopf. We try deliberately to produce a more beautiful book than other people and at as affordable a price as we can possibly make it.

The equivalent series to Everyman in the United States is the Library of America. Often, I’ve noticed, its books are sponsored by philanthropic individuals or institutions. Is that the route you’ve ever considered going down?
No. Sure, we’ve had our hairy moments. Everyman is now owned by Knopf in New York. Just before our centenary in 2006 I wanted to ensure that Everyman would be around and doing if not the same thing, something similar in another 100 years and I thought it was slightly too identified with me and was worried what would happen to it if I dropped off my bicycle. Any way, we sell four times as many books in America and it’s been a fantastic relationship. It’s a bigger market, five times the population.

You were also responsible for the Millennium Project whereby you gave sets of Everyman’s Library to schools. One Edinburgh school librarian, I recall, refused to accept a set because she said the books were not ‘relevant’ to the students who used her library.
One of the things I’m proudest of, apart from reviving Everyman, was to have made the gift of 300 books to every state secondary school in the UK and to 1700 schools in 77 countries in the developing world at no cost to them whatsoever other that a second-class stamp to say that they would accept a gift. There were 4,300 state secondary schools. When it was first rumoured the news somehow got round that there were ten or so schools refusing to accept the gift and newspapers kept ringing me up to ask who these schools were. I didn’t want to reveal them. I thought it was quite wrong and invidious. I didn’t want to get into that. But the Daily Mail being the Daily Mail tracked down this unfortunate librarian in Edinburgh – who was immediately disavowed by her head teacher. But she made the incredible mistake of holding up Herodotus and saying this book is boring. First of all he is the fount of all great historical writing. But he’s also unbelievably entertaining and modern.
The idea, which I’m afraid a number of politicians have, that high culture is elitist is absurd. High culture is available to everybody and it’s unbelievably patronising to say that it’s the preserve of only the middle classes, it is ludicrous. You can’t tell what children are going to respond to. One or two librarians wrote to us and said, why is this public money being given? It wasn’t public money. One or two people said they’d like to have computer consoles or whatever.  I’d set up a charitable trust. This was my gift as a private publisher to mark the millennium. I said, if you want to give sports facilities or whatever raise the money yourselves. We gave away 1.7 million books. We did it in batches of 50 books. So every six months every school would get three or four boxes of books.
If one child from a bookless background in every school – and these books will last at least 50 years if not 100 years – every year has his or her life enhanced, enlarged or changed by coming across books outside the school’s syllabus this project was worth it. We got letters, very moving letters, thousands of them, from teachers, librarians and school kids. I remember a letter from Golspie in the north of Sutherland from a teacher, saying he could hardly believe that a 14-year-old had devoured Anna Karenin and was now devouring War and Peace. Marvellous. This is what I wanted to do. You’ve got to learn to be a reader in your youth.

How many titles are there now in the Library?
We have about 360 adult titles and probably between all the various series we have about 600 titles now: anthologies, children’s classics, pocket poets, pocket classics, some highbrow guidebooks. We publish around 20 titles a year.

Does the Library grow like topsy or is it like filling in a jigsaw?
I think it grows fairly organically. I’m conscious of the fact that we don’t have enough German literature. We have Kafka, [Joseph] Roth, Gunter Grass, Thomas Mann…

Heinrich Boll?
I’m not absolutely sure Boll’s quite good enough. I adored his novels when I was 18. I do read Boll occasionally in German because it’s quite easy. I can’t read Thomas Mann in German. There’s a tremendous explosion of literature in South America and Asia. We’ve done quite a lot of Chinese and Indian writers but not enough from today.

What about non-fiction?

Some of our bestsellers are historical nonfiction, such as de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Our edition of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is probably better than anyone else’s. I’d like to develop that much more. I think the British and the French over the last fifty years have produced some amazing historians. We’ve just published Cellini’s Autobiography. Have you read that since you were 17? There’s a cannon cast by Cellini outside the castle at Inverary. It was dug up at Tobermory from an armada ship.


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