Embracing Mrs Beeton
When my departure from Nelson’s was a certainty, Ken Watkins reminded me of our earlier conversation. He told me that he knew of a city financial firm who were most anxious to meet me. So it came about that I phoned to make an appointment to see Mr Pat Matthews of the First National Financial Corporation. To me this was a totally unknown quantity. Although the set-up sounded rather American, Ken assured me that it was not. To my friends who worked in the City, Matthews was apparently a figure of some mystery and great power who had made giant strides in the financial world in the previous five years.
When we met he was alone in his large office. He was polite but slightly distant; ill-at-ease, perhaps because I came from outside his magic circle of financial management. He was quite candid about the background and why I was needed. There had been an opportunity to buy a majority shareholding very reasonably in a small public company. It happened to be in publishing. The shares could be used for further expansion. The present management had not been a success. One or two other publishing houses might be acquired in the near future. It might be Ward Lock, or it might be Harrap, or it might even be Frederick Warne. At present he thought the first seemed the most likely. I asked him whether this build-up in publishing was a long-term objective. He seemed uncertain. ‘More so than most of our other interests’, he said. ‘It’s good for our image.’
He then outlined the terms. It was essential that I should be a substantial shareholder. If I could not provide the funds, his own bank, Cassell Arenz, would do so. And indeed they did. I had never borrowed money before (or since). But the whole situation seemed so dream-like and imbued with risk that I was quite prepared to go along with that part of it too. He assured me that, if appointed, I would be in charge, so any success we had would depend on me and would be well rewarded. My appointment would start if and when the further deal had been done. My tasks, he told me, were to restore Ward Lock, or whoever, to financial health and then to build up Marshall Morgan & Scott both by organic growth and by acquisition.
He then introduced me to Terry Maher, his colleague in charge of industrial acquisitions. But Mr Maher confessed that he was suffering from a man-sized hangover after some executive function on the previous night, and asked me to return a few days later.
Terry Maher and I spent a few weeks negotiating the terms of my contract. In view of my ignorance of the set-up, I felt it ought to be as foolproof as I could make it. My invaluable accountant, Henry Brandes, provided such expert advice, particularly over the taxation aspects on the proposed shareholding that it clearly took FNFC by surprise. Here, they thought, is a chap who seems to know all about taxation complexities. Later, after a pleasant lunch with Pat Matthews and his board, and further talks with Terry Maher, the contract was signed. All I had to do was to wait patiently while the vast cousinage of Ward Lock, a multitude of mini-shareholders, made up their minds to sell out. But I did not want to hang around in idleness. I felt it was a good moment to get more first-hand experience of the public’s interest in general trade books. Where better to do so than as an assistant on the shop floor of a provincial bookshop? I had long known a particularly able and dynamic bookseller in Manchester, Hilary Patterson, at Willshaws. I approached her, took her into my confidence about my future and became a trainee assistant, there to help the public as they came into her extraordinarily busy shop. When I got there I was staggered. The sale of practical books on gardening, cookery, antiques, sports and general information was way beyond what I had imagined. The same went for children’s books.
I was fully persuaded that here was a market the size of which I had seriously under-estimated with my far too intellectual and academic upbringing. Ward Lock, I thought, here I come. I have been at the sharp end and I now know what the public really wants.
My cover as a mere trainee was blown while I was actually still at Willshaws. A piece appeared in The Bookseller that I had been appointed joint managing director at Baker Street, the office of Ward Lock.
At the end of January 1971 Terry Maher took me to Ward Lock’s offices to meet the assembled directors and staff. For some reason, rumour had led them to expect their new boss to be a rising politician named John Selwyn Gummer. I never found out why. So when they got me, there was a puzzled reaction. I outlined my publishing background, which relieved them. I stressed that inevitably there would be changes, but also that l wanted to get a very clear picture on how the whole company worked before embarking on them.
In the event it took me three months until my knowledge of the firm and its many components was such that I felt confident about undertaking them. Curiously enough, after only six weeks I was approached by a small deputation, led by Gerry Speck, the firm’s editorial manager, complaining at the lack of change. He emphasized that changes were desperately necessary. I thanked the deputation for coming and asked them to be patient. When, after the stipulated three months, I began to change things really dramatically, no one complained.
Officially, I had been appointed as Ward Lock’s joint managing director, jointly, that was, with Tony Shipton, formerly the managing director. Tony had a wonderful sense of humour and when asked about our relationship usually responded by saying, ‘Oh, it’s very simple: Frank is more joint than I am’. When he left Ward Lock some eighteen months later to start his own business, we were still on the best of terms. For some months Tony’s aged father, the much revered Colonel Shipton, still came to the offices each day to read The Times and to telephone his friends. My sales and financial directors were the cousins, Peter and Christopher, both Locks and great-great-grandsons of one of the founders. Tony Shipton and they were cousins too.
Ward Lock had been founded in 1854 – the year of the Crimean War – by Ebenezer Ward and George Lock. The mainspring of its publishing business had been, and still was, the cookery and household books written by the young, brilliant and hyperactive Isabella Mary Beeton, before her early death at the age of twenty-eight in 1865. Ward Lock had acquired the rights in her books when they took over her unfortunate husband’s publishing business. I found out that the two founders had insisted on doing their own travelling – instead of employing representatives as other publishers did – because they felt it kept them more closely in touch with what the public wanted. They also sought outlets for their books which their competitors did not bother about.
Apart from Mrs Beeton, the firm had published the works of many famous authors in its time, such as Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes, of course, ‘lived’ at 22b Baker Street), Rider Haggard, Edgar Wallace and Dornford Yates. The last was the author of the Berry books, star turns in the 1920s and ’30s, which I intended to revive. After fifty years of association with the firm, Yates had written that ‘After very few visits there I felt an atmosphere of honesty and goodwill, such as I had never before encountered upon business premises’.
Right from its beginnings, Ward Lock catered sucessfully for the demands of popular information and general education, but recent shifts in public taste and much greater competition had not been taken sufficiently into account and there had been increasingly grievous losses. In some panic, the firm had sold its own printing works, its bindery, a firm of paper merchants and various bits of property. Its branch in Australia too was losing money heavily and had to be sold. To replace lost trade it had been decided to diversify into all sorts of areas of publishing which the firm knew little about, and these had merely increased the haemorrhaging. The downward path was demonstrated very clearly by Ward Lock’s budget for the year when I joined. A financial adviser had stressed to the old management the need for budgeting as an essential management tool. Thus, the first ever annual budget, fixed before my arrival, was for a loss of £70,000. This was the most important thing that I had to put right. In an early board meeting I re-christened this our ‘negative surplus’, and decreed that our principal priority should be to eliminate it.
There was another worrying matter. Ward Lock had, a few years earlier, been tempted into the educational market. Interesting books had been generated, particularly in the area of teacher training and the teaching of reading for the very young through a series of Reading Workshops, which were becoming popular as an alternative to class text books. The problem was that all this material was not selling in anything like acceptable numbers and we seemed to have vast stocks that barely seemed to move – and no cash.
It required drastic action if the educational company was to survive. I closed the offices for three weeks and sent the entire staff on the road to sell. And sell they did. Not only that, but they came into direct contact with schools and teachers who seemed impressed by such direct action and began to buy our material in healthy quantities. The story of this got out and about in the educational world and gave us quite a fillip.
I had been amazed to discover on working my way through each part of the firm that on the floor below my office there was a sort of editorial kitchen where books were prepared according to well-known recipes with scissors and paste from earlier publications, with a minimum of new input. Such books looked tired even before they got anywhere near production. Instead, we now commissioned authoritative books on practical subjects with a more attractive appeal in the fields that Ward Lock knew so well how to handle, such as crafts, cookery, particularly gardening and sports, antiques, militaria and travel guides. Ward Lock was famous for its guides. Most were for individual towns much frequented by holidaymakers. They were kept up-to-date from edition to edition by a vast cohort of retired clergymen who corresponded regularly with the series editor. But something had come into play since the series started many years earlier which we called the ‘mobility factor’. Many more people owned cars and did not just spend their time in a single location. We combined several such titles to cover a whole area, like South Devon or North Wales, and the sales soared up.
In the gardening field we had a magnificent prototype called Ward Lock’s Complete Book of Gardening which reprinted regularly. We produced similar, all-embracing books on greenhouse culture, on sailing, horse riding and other subjects. These not only sold well in their own right, but could also be split up into smaller, individual subjects which we published as short full-colour paperbacks. They sold at 75p each in a series we called ‘Concorde Books’, after the now aged supersonic aircraft. These too reprinted at astonishingly short intervals. The bookshops and the public loved them. Mrs Beeton’s Cookery and Household Management we dismembered and re-packaged in this way and such paperbacks were generally popular, particularly in Australia.
I remember being puzzled by the new domestic advance in deep freezing food. So we commissioned a paperback called Preparing Food for your Freezer. Other people must have been as ignorant as I. We sold 30,000 copies in a few weeks.
All this meant that the whole structure of the firm had to be changed. Thus we now needed two separate production units to cope with the very rapid expansion: one concentrating on new books and one on nursing along the back list. Our editorial department, too, completely changed. There was very close consultation with the sales department over fresh editorial ideas and often books were market tested in mock-up form before we put them in hand. Surprisingly this was a relatively novel idea, though it has to be said that sometimes I went ahead with a new project even if W H Smith, then by far our largest customer, had been less than enthusiastic.
While Ward Lock’s sales department and team of travellers were highly efficient, we lacked an effective publicity apparatus – but we found it on our doorstep. Pat Matthews had introduced me to a young man who worked for him who was very anxious to get into publishing. After the initial re-organisation we called in the young man, Martin Dunitz, and he took on the job of marketing the sale of rights. He learned very quickly and turned out to be brilliant at it. His other great advantage from my point of view was that here was someone who had lived by the bottom line and knew how to get there. Eventually he had so much work that we had to find someone just to handle the publicity and press contacts. One of our brightest secretaries volunteered for the job. Ruth Tobin had an extraordinary gift for handling the press, and gradually the new Ward Lock books received a degree of press coverage that they never had before.
No one was more impressed than our travellers who revelled in this new-found attention to our books. Such exposure helped sales tremendously because people actually asked for the books in the bookshops after they had read about them in the press. It seemed so simple, but in publishing this was so hard to achieve. The publicity also helped us to find new sales outlets through books sponsored by major utilities, like the Gas Council, who ordered the books they backed in quantities we had never heard of before. It was a joy to see Martin at the Frankfurt Book Fair where every moment of his time was taken up with meetings with overseas publishers wanting to buy rights in our new and forthcoming titles.
There was one occasion when he and I were talking to an elderly American publisher, much given to smoking enormous cigars. He was anxious to buy our new Complete Book of the Horse, for which there was a lot of competition from other US publishers. We were deep in conversation when we suddenly noticed that the hustle and bustle around us had ceased. No one else was on our stand, or indeed on any of the stands around us. No one was rushing along the gangways in the usual way. There was an eerie silence in the whole Fair building. The Ward Lock stand that year happened to face the stand of the Israelis who, for obvious political reasons, always brought a lot of security personnel with them. They too had gone. But standing in front of their booth was a lone, unattended briefcase. Everyone had been cleared because the feeling was that it might contain a bomb. The cigar-smoking American, Martin and I beat a hasty retreat just as a brave, senior German policeman picked up the briefcase and took it outside. Later it was discovered to contain nothing more dangerous than a notebook, some sandwiches and an apple. But it showed the international tension at the time.
We asked, at the end of the Fair, that in the following year we should be moved to another area not facing the Israeli stand. The Fair authorities obviously had a sense of humour. They placed us facing the Egyptian stand, where the political tension was just as high.
Martin’s greatest triumph was Ward Lock’s first television tie-up. He heard of a book being written on Hatha Yoga. These are gentle physical yoga exercises, and the book was being written by Lyn Marshall, a former ballet dancer and model who ran such a yoga school of her own. She also happened to be extremely attractive.
The book came out just before the television series started. The early morning programmes soon became popular. The effect on the book sales was astonishing. Wake Up to Yoga reprinted eight times within a matter of weeks and sold 180,000 copies in its first year. There was, of course, a second television series and a second book. It somehow seemed absolutely right that yoga should become so important in the new Ward Lock persona. To the founders of the firm it would have been totally incomprehensible.
Occasionally, as things improved, we allowed ourselves the odd publicity bonanza. I had been persuaded that it was essential to metricate the recipes in Mrs Beeton, as metrication was now taught in schools and the rising generation would be more familiar with grams and centimetres than with ounces and inches. This was particularly important in the case of Mrs Beeton, because our luxury edition (there were many editions) was a standard wedding present which accounted for a large proportion of our sales.
The metrication was a complex and expensive business as all the recipes had apparently to be re-cooked to get the proportions right. When the new edition was ready, Tony Shipton and I decided to launch it in style. We hired Clement Freud, cookery authority, humorist and Liberal MP, to organise the event for us. It began with a lunch with him to discuss the arrangements. We met in what turned out to be London’s most expensive restaurant. Tony literally went pale when he was presented with the bill. However, on the planned day we and a hundred guests all repaired to Paddington Station where the railway authorities had provided a stylish steam engine and three luxurious Pullman carriages for us. They must all have been at least seventy years old. We had invited a large press contingent and an even larger number of our most supportive booksellers and their wives. The moment they sat down, champagne and smoked salmon sandwiches were served. The press corps drank harder stuff at the bar in the first carriage in quantities which made Patricia and me wonder whether they would ever get to our destination upright, but obviously they were used to it. We had no casualties.
The train took us to the Cotswolds where Clement Freud had booked two complete hotels for our party, and laid on the most fabulous feast à la Mrs Beeton in a third. It was a hugely successful party. The food was beyond compare. The wines wonderful. I remember there were two sorts of salad dressing, one consisted of almost neat, chilled gin. Clement Freud entertained us with the speech of the century. When the train steamed back to Paddington next morning, after a memorable, substantial breakfast, straight out of Mrs Beeton, most people carried on sleeping. But there had been a brief excitement after breakfast involving Terry Maher’s departure back to London. A number of large sheets appeared on the lawn in the garden. At precisely 9.30 a.m. a helicopter landed, took him on board and departed. This was not a method of travel the book trade normally adopted.
And the result? The press coverage consisted of one short tribute to Isabella in a remote journal. Probably no one could remember what had passed. But all the luminaries of the trade who had attended the party bought the new edition in very respectable quantities, so everyone was happy.
Such marketing efforts brought Martin and Ruth together, eventually in more senses than one. But I seem to remember that the path of true love did not always run smoothly and, because it seemed so right to combine such outstanding talents, many of us helped discreetly to bring it back onto an even course. The result was a riotous Jewish wedding, which Patricia and I enjoyed as much as any wedding we had ever attended. Later on, soon after I left the firm, Martin set up his own publishing firm specialising, surprisingly, in popular medical books, but after a while he moved to very specialist medical text books and did exceedingly well.
Ward Lock had been essentially a family firm. I felt it was important to keep this atmosphere as far as possible. Once the initial changes had been brought about and the staff knew exactly where we were going, there was a lively spirit about the place which resulted in superb team work: a startling contrast to the lugubrious atmosphere at Nelson’s in Park Street.
Financially, progress was also helped by selling and distributing books for other companies as well as for ourselves. Ward Lock already had a strong link with an American publisher called Sterling, who specialised in craft books, shipped over to us under the imprint of ‘Oak Tree Books’. This sort of agency helped to spread our selling overheads. Then we had a stroke of luck through a contact I had made at Nelson’s. The Times asked us to sell and distribute the new edition of their magnificent World Atlas which had recently been totally revised, as well as the other atlases and books they published. This generated a great deal of turnover and gave our representatives two bites at the cherry and entry to a lot of outlets on which they had not previously called. Even more surprising, both The Times and The Sunday Times asked us to put forward ideas for joint venture projects. This, of course, is what should have happened at Nelson’s but never did.
Ward Lock’s past kept helping us too. I found that we still had rights in one Conan Doyle title, probably one of the most popular, A Study in Scarlet. John Murray published all his other works. They were happy to buy the rights in A Study in Scarlet from us for £5,000.
Mrs Beeton kept coming to our rescue. A food manufacturer asked whether, for a substantial fee, they could use the name for a series of sauces and pickles. We thought that seeing the name around would help to remind people of the book. We said yes.
The net result of all this effort was that in my first year at Baker Street we eliminated the ‘negative surplus’ and made a profit of £40,000. In the second year this went up by 50 per cent, any by the fifth year – despite the world financial débâcle of 1974 – our budgeted profit was £130,000. Such progress enabled me to find a really good editorial director for Ward Lock, Michael Raeburn, so that I could begin concentrating on the other parts of the briefing from Pat Matthews.