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Outfoxing the Digital Revolution

‘Almost a decade ago, when one of the last family publishing firms was taken over by the international conglomerate Hachette, two of its editors decided they’d like to try something smaller. The publisher was John Murray, established in 1768 and responsible, over time, for the likes of Jane Austen, Lord Byron and John Betjeman. So many generations of Murrays had worked there that the family had become compelled to name its children by numbers (Octavius being the eighth). The editors were Hazel Wood and Gail Pirkis, who recall, with the vague weariness of people long recovered, the distant days of large advances and glitz. Celebrities were beginning to colonise the publishing calendar, and everything was driven by marketing. “We didn’t much care for the change,” Pirkis tells me, with some understatement.

We are sitting in Pirkis’s flat in Clerkenwell, the homely headquarters of Slightly Foxed, the company they went on to found. Chudleigh, her cocker spaniel, is livening up proceedings. Looking back now on the moment when those aspects of publishing were new feels almost quaint, given the far more significant sea change new technology has since ushered in. Yet arguably, what Pirkis and Wood did next has led them to be more effectively insulated against the rise of ebooks than a much larger company can be. Indeed, whether or not this was their intention, the tactile, painstakingly produced books they have gone on to publish are so entirely distinct from ebooks as to be perfect companions for them: restricted in number yet affordable, and likely to be preserved and cared for.

As we’ve argued in these pages before, though the middle ground may eventually disappear – paperback fiction, for example – the ongoing rise of ebooks should actually encourage the making of beautiful physical books. Readers want the volumes they keep on their shelves to be as striking and as sensory as possible. And so, while most publishers are racing to keep up with the conquest of the screen, the true mavericks may well be people who are doing something very old-fashioned very well. In that context, Pirkis and Wood’s venture makes an intriguing case history, and is one of the most inspiring stories around. By keeping things small-scale, personal, traditional, local and literary… they are actually making a profit.

At first, all those years ago, the pair wondered whether they should open a bookshop or start a new publishing house. Eventually they decided to produce a quarterly magazine, Slightly Foxed, for which they raised £100,000 from prospective subscribers. The maximum individual investment was £9,000, the minimum £1,000. There were 24 shareholders, all of them voracious readers, and the quarterly’s principle was to run personal pieces about books their contributors had loved. The editors wavered, of course (“Why would anyone want to read about a not-new book?” Wood worried), but decided that this was the kind of thing that existed nowhere else – a heartfelt celebration of writing that had stood the test of time. It was, and is, committedly eclectic: Penelope Lively recommends a biography of the Romantics published in 1965; Victoria Neumark confesses to wanting to marry Lord Peter Wimsey; Ben Hopkinson reviews the instruction manual for a British Seagull outboard motor. The quarterly has a circulation of 7,500 and operates out of Pirkis’s kitchen.

But, in this market, it’s the books that seem the most daring proposition. Beginning in 2008, Pirkis and Wood decided to publish one book a quarter, all of them memoirs that were out of print but not out of copyright, and all with new prefaces that would be reproduced in the magazine. So, for instance, Dodie Smith’s biographer Valerie Grove has written about the author for the new edition of her memoir, Look Back with Love; they have published Graham Greene and Edward Ardizzone, and are now on their 17th book.

The editions are limited to 2,000 and numbered by hand by the traditional bookbinders, Smith Settle, near Leeds. (Much printing these days is done overseas.) They sell for £12.50, but their early publications, such as Rosemary Sutcliff’s Blue Remembered Hills, can now be found on second-hand book website Abebooks for £80.

The books are so remarkable to look at they seem as though they might already be precious antiques – both because of the unearthed gems within the pages and the external format, a replica of the clothbound pocket hardbacks Jonathan Cape used to make in the Twenties. The creamy paper is the same as that used in the quarterly, the Slightly Foxed colophon is blind blocked on the front, and the title and author gold blocked on the spine. Each edition has a specially chosen cloth binding, contrasting endpaper, head and tail band and ribbon marker. The whole thing seems so handmade – indeed, as the film we’ve made shows, much of it is handmade – you can’t imagine how Slightly Foxed doesn’t make a huge loss. There aren’t even any dustjackets with which to sell the books or explain them, nor quotes of recommendation, nor blurbs. The books are, Wood suggests, like “portable sculptures”.

“I take the view that if you do your homework really thoroughly, it’s a calculated gamble rather than a wild leap in the dark,” says Pirkis. “We must be the only publisher of our kind that doesn’t receive any funding,” adds Wood. “Gail is like Leonard Woolf – she keeps a very close eye on the finances.” Pirkis laughs. “Not on the loo paper!” She explains: in one of the memoirs they have published, A Boy at the Hogarth Press, Woolf is remembered as helping himself to petty cash and then querying “toilet requisites”.

Essentially, they make a tiny profit, they have very few staff, the books are stored here in Clerkenwell or at Pirkis’s home in Devon, and sent out by the few women involved. “We’ll never be rich,” she says, “but I don’t see why you can’t make a commercial venture out of quality.”

Since they expanded into book publishing, they have also taken over a bookshop, on Gloucester Road in Fulham, which was originally owned by Graham Greene’s nephew and sold to them as a going concern. Eighty per cent of its sales are second-hand and antiquarian books.

And this is where things get circular: through the quarterly via the bookshop and beyond, Slightly Foxed engages with its readers, loyal and new, in a way that effectively mirrors new social media. Except it’s as old as the idea of community itself. They produce beautiful catalogues of recommended reads (all of which can be ordered by post), and they’ve staged a “readers’ day”, a one-day literary festival, for which one of their subscribers made cakes. In fact, subscribers are so happy they exist that they occasionally drop in to the kitchen headquarters – sometimes they bring marmalade; at Christmas, they send cash so the staff can all go out for a drink. And once in a while, a contented reader will write to the dog.’

A  filmmaker from the Telegraph also travelled up to our printers in Yorkshire to document the making of our new Slightly Foxed Edition. Here’s the delightful short film he created.

Birth of a Book from GLEN MILNER on Vimeo.

Comments & Reviews

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  1. Charlotte says:

    This is a wonderful short film showing the birth of a book. In this age of instant everything it is a lift to an old heart to see how the old skills are still in evidence. Long may you continue. Kind regards, a grateful reader.

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