Slightly Foxed Editors Gail and Hazel talk to Miranda Mills on the Tea & Tattle podcast
‘This week, I’m joined by Gail Pirkis and Hazel Wood, the founders and editors of the literary journal and publishing company, Slightly Foxed. I’m such a huge fan of both the books and the magazine, and longtime listeners of Tea & Tattle may remember my interview with Ysenda Maxtone Graham, whose fantastic book, Terms & Conditions, was published by Slightly Foxed.
In today’s interview, Gail and Hazel share how they first came up with the idea of starting Slightly Foxed, and they give fascinating insights into the nitty-gritty of running a small, but very successful business.
Highly rated by authors such as Hilary Mantel, Gretchen Rubin and Penelope Lively, the Slightly Foxed quarterly is described as ‘the literary magazine for nonconformists, for people who don’t want to read only what the big publishers are hyping and the newspapers are reviewing.’ I always come away with brilliant book suggestions whenever I read the latest issue, and the carefully selected memoirs published by Slightly Foxed are also unfailingly fantastic.
It was such an honour to get to chat with Hazel and Gail from their London office, and I know this episode will be a real joy for book lovers. Listen to learn more about the story behind Slightly Foxed.’
Read a transcript of the full interview below
Miranda Mills: Thank you so much for being on Tea and Tattle podcast today Gail and Hazel. It’s such a pleasure to have you on the show.
Gail Pirkis: It’s a pleasure, and very good of you to ask us.
Hazel Wood: Yes, it’s a great pleasure for us and we’re fascinated because we’ve never done this before.
MM: I know, I’m so happy that you’re being brave and doing a podcast episode with me. I’m such a fan of the Slightly Foxed quarterly magazine, as well as your beautiful books, so it really is a pleasure to have you on the show. But I’m really curious about how it all began, so would you mind telling me a bit about how you both met, and what led you to start Slightly Foxed together?
GP: Yes, of course. I used to work at an independent publisher called John Murray, who go right back to the days of Byron. I was an editor there and I had an office which was partitioned off to create an internal office and an external office, and I came into work one day to find this person sitting in the office outside mine. She introduced herself as Hazel Wood, and ‘I’m the new reader of the slush pile’ – every publisher has a pile of typescripts which they look at, and it’s known as the slush pile. So Hazel and I shared office space for quite a long time – three or four years at least – and gradually got to know each other. Hazel’s incredibly modest and didn’t let on that she actually had extensive experience as a literary journalist, but she had, and we became friends. And then one May, in 2002 I think it was, we got a terrible shock. The company was being sold. It had been owned by the same family for over 200 years and they had decided to sell to a corporation, and we were not terribly happy about this. We felt that the culture was going to change, and I left a few months later. It wasn’t long after that before Hazel was made to go as well, and we obviously kept in touch, and started to have meetings round my kitchen table about what we might do next. It was a very informal gathering, just having a glass of wine in the evening and talking about possibilities. And that’s where Slightly Foxed was born, really.
MM: So what came first then, the idea of starting a literary journal together? Or the wish to set up your own publishing company?
GP: Well, we talked about three different ideas. One was certainly a literary journal, but we also talked about a publishing company because naturally that’s what we’d been doing at John Murray, and we discussed the idea of running a bookshop. But in the end, it was the literary journal that won out. I had a very clear idea of the kind of thing I wanted in my head, and Hazel and I spent a long time discussing what sort of form it might take, and what format it might appear in, so that’s what started us – the quarterly itself rather than books. Although, of course, books were to come later, so after we’d been doing the quarterly for about four years, we decided to go into a proper publishing programme, and that’s what we’ve continued to do, so we now do the journal and books as well. But Hazel in particular has a passion for memoirs, and that’s what we started to do, so perhaps she ought to talk about that a little bit.
HW: Yes, I’ve always loved memoirs. I think it’s the feeling of being right inside someone’s head and life and so on. It’s a very different thing from biography. And the journal sort of took shape and it gradually emerged that what we wanted to do was have a much more personal view of books, really – we like our contributors to write personally – because it seemed as if all the other review pages were doing sort of ‘stand back and make a judgement’ kind of pieces, and I think we wanted to convey people’s personal enthusiasm about the books they wrote about. So naturally out of that, somehow, grew the idea of publishing memoirs. And I think what we’re always looking for is the individual voice, which just tells you that this is something rather different.
MM: Yes, I love how personal the quarterly journal is, and reading your books has actually made me love memoirs! I hadn’t read very many, I think I never thought I’d like memoirs or biographies very much. But getting into Slightly Foxed and reading several of your books has completely changed my perspective, and now I absolutely adore memoirs. But for those who are new to Slightly Foxed, which of your books would you most recommend as a good starting kit?
HW: I think I love all our books, so it’s quite difficult to make a choice! I suppose it depends in a way what your area of interest is in, or what you look for in a book, but I think some of our most individual ones – and also perhaps most accessible ones – are, I think, perhaps the very first book that we published by Rosemary Sutcliff – the very well-known children’s writer who’s now dead – which is called Blue Remembered Hills.
MM: Yes, I’ve read that one and love it.
HW: Have you read it and did you feel – it’s very accessible isn’t it? And I think very well written. And another of my favourites actually is a book by Priscilla Napier called A Late Beginner which is about the author’s childhood in Egypt, and it’s a really charming and outstanding book. Her father was in the Civil Service in Egypt, and the book gives such a vivid picture of this period just before the First World War. And then she goes home to meet her mother’s family, who, of course, were all going off to the First World War. I think it was Penelope Lively who said it was one of the outstanding books about what it feels like to be a child. So I think those two for a very accessible, individual voice. If you’re looking for laughs, of course, we have our great bestseller Terms & Conditions by Ysenda Maxtone Graham. Ysenda interviewed a whole generation of girls who were sent off to these boarding schools – some of them quite extraordinary with no interest whatsoever in giving you what we would call an education – and often chosen by the parents for the weirdest reasons. One of the fathers said he liked the school because none of the girls had spots, and another said her parents chose the school because it was near Cheltenham racecourse. So it’s a big laugh!
MM: Yes, I have read that and Ysenda actually interviewed on Tea and Tattle when the book first came out, and I know many of our listeners bought it afterwards and absolutely loved it. It’s wonderful that it’s gone on to be such a success and bestseller.
HW: I must say we laughed each time we had to do editorial work on it, really. Ysenda used to send it through chapter by chapter and it just made us roar with laughter. Another lovely and very funny book is A Boy at the Hogarth Press by Richard Kennedy.
MM: Oh yes, I’ve just got that one from you but I haven’t read it yet. I’m very excited to.
HW: That’s the story of a young boy who went to work for Leonard and Virginia Woolf. He did actually write it later in life so it’s a rather sort of faux naïve book, but he wrote it as if it was his diary of when he was there and illustrated it himself and it is hilariously funny. There’s Leonard keeping a check on all the expenses, things like loo paper, and it’s written in a very deadpan but very funny way, so I’d highly recommend that. And we’ve done quite a lot of books about the wars. There’s a wonderful book called I Was a Stranger by John Hackett, who was hidden by some maiden ladies after the battle of Arnhem when he was wounded. He was spirited away by the Dutch resistance and cared for by this family of Dutch sisters and brothers who looked after him under the very noses of the occupying Nazis, and eventually helped him to escape. It’s a beautiful, rather serene book, rather like a Dutch painting.
MM: Oh, thank you, those sound like some brilliant recommendations that I’m sure Tea and Tattle listeners will appreciate. I’m really interested in learning how you select books that you publish as well. Do you readers ever offer suggestions?
GP: Our readers certainly do send in suggestions and some of them have appealed to us a lot, and some less so. We have an enormous list of books that we should be reading, and we have a firm rule that if one of us likes a book and the other doesn’t then we won’t do it. We have to both agree, which I think is probably a good thing as it weeds out the less strong candidates. But we’ve certainly got the next couple of years already planned, and a long list of books to read in the future. Equally, we have a very long list of books that haven’t quite passed the test, and it’s one of those strange things that a book that you might have enjoyed reading twenty or thirty years ago, when you come back to it doesn’t always live up to expectations. We’ve found that’s happened with a few books. We basically spend an awful lot of time reading, in fact so much so that I don’t get a lot of time to read new books, but one can’t do everything.
MM: Well you choose all of them so well. Every book that I’ve read published by Slightly Foxed has always been exceptional, so you’re clearly very discerning in your choices.
GP: That’s nice to know.
MM: But not only are both the books and the journals exceptionally well written, they’re also extremely beautiful. How did you settle on an aesthetic that you both appreciated, and would you tell me a little about how your books are designed and the process of publishing them?
GP: Yes of course. When we started the quarterly, we actually started with a physical object. I don’t know whether any of your listeners will have heard of a magazine called The Cornhill Magazine, but it was extremely popular in the 1920s and ’30s and was actually published by John Murray, and it was a sewn hardback, almost exactly the same format as Slightly Foxed. So, when Hazel and I had the idea for the quarterly, the first thing I did was to ring up a friend who produces a gardening quarterly called Hortus and asked if I could pick his brains. He gave me an awful lot of advice and a lot of contacts, including, crucially, the printers that we’ve used ever since who are based up in Yorkshire and are called Smith Settle, and they are traditional craftsman printers. So I rang them up and I explained what we had in mind and I said could you please make us up a dummy – literally blank pages put together as if it was a real magazine – and I said this is the size that we want, and we want really good quality cream paper, and I think we want 96 pages in each issue. The following week a jiffy bag turned up with this dummy inside it, with some quotes as to how much it would cost to print ‘x’ number of copies. So that was the starting point, and once we had that in our hands and could feel it and could turn its pages, it began to make the whole thing seem more real. We then got in touch with a designer, in fact the son of John Murray, who is a typographer, and asked him to come up with the first page design. I think Hazel and I both had quite strong feelings about using fairly classical typography, not going for anything fancy and overly designed, because really the point of good typography is to make you able to read easily without actually noticing that the page is designed in such a way. So Octavius Murray did the first design for us and chose Garamond typeface which we still use. And then we began to commission illustrators to illustrate some of the articles, and we’ve been particularly keen on wood engravers, so there’s been quite a wide range of people whose work appears in the pages. Obviously the content has to suit the article that it accompanies, but they’re a real joy, and I think they give us a really distinct look. It’s been a pleasure for us to bring quite a lot of wood engravers’ work to a wider audience, because on the whole they’re quite quiet craftsman who work away but aren’t much publicised.
MM: Yes, I love the artwork and the illustrations that you use, and I also really appreciate the beauty of your hardbacks and their size – they will fit into a pocket – and they’re hardbacks but they’re still amazingly light; they’re very easy to carry, on the tube for instance, when I’m travelling around London. I really love that, that they’re beautiful but also so easy to read.
GP: Well the original design for those came from a collection of books at home which were published, I suppose, just before and after the First World War by people like Oxford University Press and Jonathan Cape. There were a whole series of libraries produced then for not very much money, and they included a lot of the classics, a lot of literature. Cape did a travellers’ series and OUP obviously did all the great classics. And they were literally pocket-sized, so we took them as a sort of model and went to see Smith Settle in Yorkshire, and they do hand-binding up there. The books are printed on old Heidelberg machines, but the binding is done literally by three or four very skilled craftsmen and women who’ve been doing it for years. In fact, on our website there’s a little film called The Birth of a Book which was made by the Daily Telegraph, and it gives a wonderful picture of somebody actually making one of our books. They’re bound in real cloth and real gold foil is used on the spines, and they’re very tactile. They’re a thing of joy.
MM: They are, they’re real works of art, and I think Slightly Foxed is such a brilliant example of an independent publishing company that is flourishing today, even in today’s world where it’s all about kindles and e-books. But I think to really succeed in the publishing industry you have to understand that there is still a market for people who appreciate beautiful books, gorgeous physical books, and you really cater to that, which is wonderful.
GP: Good, well that’s nice to know! In addition to the Slightly Foxed Editions – the memoirs that Hazel was talking about – a couple of years ago we started a series called Slightly Foxed Cubs –
MM: Oh yes! The children’s ones?
GP: Yes, which are just glorious, and produced with their original illustrations. The first ones that we did were a set of 12 historical novels that followed the fortunes of a family all the way from the Crusades through to the First World War, and a different member of the family features in each book. They’re very much boys’ books but they’re terrifically good reads. And then last autumn, having finished that series, we then started publishing books by a man who called himself BB – it was a pseudonym, he was actually called Denis Watkins-Pitchford – and they’re delightful children’s story books. The first two are about gnomes, as it happens. If you didn’t believe in gnomes, you certainly will once you’ve read them! And we’ve got a lovely boys’ adventure book coming the autumn from him as well. And that series is also produced by Smith Settle, also hand-bound on really good quality paper with cloth binding, and they’re lovey too as they’re books that will endure for generations.
MM: Yes, that’s really wonderful, and I’ll be sure to put a link to the books and the authors that we’re mentioning in the show notes for this episode, so people will be able to find them easily. You’ve both built such a successful business with Slightly Foxed, but what were some of the early challenges that you faced at the beginning and how did you overcome those?
GP: I think the biggest challenge really was learning how to run a company. I mean, we knew perfectly well how to commission writing, and how to edit it, and knew a bit about design and printing. But actually running a company, right down to opening a bank account and getting a website and all of that, setting up a database, was a real challenge, because neither of us are technically-minded. Fortunately, after the very early days, Jennie Harrison Bunning joined us, and she’s an absolutely whiz on technology, so she dragged us kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Our glorious website is entirely down to her, and we have a very sophisticated database here which she has been designing. And we’re about to do some more interesting technological things in the future. It’s a real marriage – we have a young staff are very au fait with all of this stuff, and Hazel and I can remember the days when you checked books in the form of galley proofs that fell onto the floor, and there was no technology involved at all. So I’d say that’s been the biggest challenge. That and marketing, which is a never-ending task. One of the original founders of the company was Stephanie Allen, who was a publicity manager at John Murray, and ever since we began she has done all our PR and marketing for us, so we have a lot of contacts with like-minded magazines. And, fortunately, our subscribers spread the word as well, which is wonderful.
MM: What I have always admired about Slightly Foxed as well is that you have a real presence on social media too. I know on Instagram you’re very active in connecting with others in the book community, which I think is really wonderful, and I know that Jennie has been playing a big role in that too.
GP: Yes, and Anna and Olivia as well, who also do all of that because, I must admit, if Hazel and I are completely honest we’re totally clueless about all of that, and we leave it to the experts. Which is as it should be!
MM: I know you have an all-female team at Slightly Foxed. Would you tell me a little bit more about your office and your staff? I know you’re both at the office together today.
HW: Yes, well, I suppose gradually, the way we work, as we’ve grown, has changed over the years. We started off in the playroom of Gail’s house in Canonbury, and we then moved to a flat in Clerkenwell where Gail and her husband Dave were living, but gradually I’m afraid we took over, and the spare room became our post room and it all got quite uncomfortable. So now we actually have an office devoted to us, where Gail and Dave also have a place to stay when they come up from Devon, because they spend quite a lot of their time down in Devon. So basically the office is, a lot of the time, manned by our wonderful younger staff. Anna and Hattie and Olivia all do quite a lot of the nitty gritty of subscriptions and so on, but everybody does have their special thing that they do, so that they’re not all doing quite boring things at the same time. Although, of course, dealing with the subscribers is terribly important, and they’re all very brilliant at that. I think that is really one of the secrets of our success you might say, because we do have very personal connections with our subscribers, and the girls really do go out of their way to be helpful to them.
And as Gail has already mentioned, Jennie is brilliantly in charge of all the website work that goes on, and all of our technical and digital side, where Gail and I are more or less completely at sea! I mean fixing this up, for example, we wouldn’t have known where to begin. So Jennie is in charge. They’re working a lot on their own because naturally space is at a premium in London, so it makes more sense for me to work at home on editing and writing – I do some writing for the magazine. Our new office is in Hoxton, which is very cutting edge, so we’re lucky to have it. Gail and I are really only in the office when we meet up. And Steph lives out of London and comes in for meetings, and we also have some part-time people – Katy, who helps with subscriptions, and we have some editorial advice from other people as well, so we’re a mixture of people working in the office and us out of the office, coming in from time to time. But we do feel it’s important for us all to meet up, which we do about once a month, so that we do all get together and don’t lose contact. And, of course, there are many dogs, as you may have gathered. So that’s the office.
And I think one of our strengths, perhaps, is that we do all have different things that we’re good at, and we somehow meld together as a team without confrontation really. We’re very harmonious here, and we do enjoy each other’s company and enjoy working together.
GP: Yes, I mean the fact that we’re all female is really not a conscious decision, it’s simply by chance. But I think where we are certainly unusual compared to traditional publishing is that we’re very democratic. Everybody knows how much money we’re making, or not making, as the case may be. Everybody’s involved in the important decisions, and there’s no hierarchy. We don’t do endless voicemail and we’re not forever in meetings, and we basically try and run the company along the principle of doing as you would be done by, so we pay our bills promptly – we don’t behave as supermarkets do with their big suppliers. We’re doing our very best to recycle as much as possible and use little plastic. Last year I banned plastic bottles from the office quite some time before David Attenborough was on Blue Planet. We behave in a way that – I suppose ethical sounds a bit grand – but in a way that makes it a nice place to work in.
MM: Well it sounds absolutely wonderful, and you clearly are a very harmonious team. I think also what comes through so much from those of you that I have met is the real passion that you have for the books and for what you’re doing, and I think that comes through to your readers as well, which is what is so important. But I was interested to ask you as well if, with hindsight, you could look back and think of anything that you would do differently from when you launched Slightly Foxed?
GP: Not in the essentials. I mean we’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way, particularly in marketing, because you’re never quite sure what’s going to work and what’s not going to work. And actually I think you need to make mistakes because otherwise you don’t learn. It’s impossible to learn if you don’t make mistakes because then you’re never taking risks. So I would say there are plenty of things that we could have done differently but we wouldn’t have evolved in the way that we have. All the things that we did wrong have helped us to be a much better organisation.
HW: Yes, what seems to have happened is that, somehow, we’ve evolved organically. We haven’t made an enormous decision to do anything, but somehow one thing has grown out of another, which does seem to have worked for us. And I think one thing we’ve learnt is that – as you’ve probably gathered, Gail is the business brain here, she’s brilliant on figures in a way that I’m not – and I think that perhaps in setting up a business you should trust your instinct. If you’re doing something that you love, you probably do know much more about it than you think you do, and on the occasions when we have thought perhaps we should consult an expert we realised that we were doing it already, really. And also customer service, actually, is vital, which seems to have gone slightly gone by the board in many departments in life, we feel. So all of those things, I think, are important in the way that we’ve grown.
MM: Yes, absolutely. And besides trusting your instincts and making sure you have very good customer service, is there any other piece of advice that you would give to anybody who was wishing to start their own publishing company today?
GP: Yes, I think do what gives you joy, basically. Don’t do things because you think they might make money, or because you think there might be a market. Publish things that you believe in passionately.
MM: I think that’s really wonderful advice. And so finally, may I ask what’s next for Slightly Foxed, are there any books or events coming up that you’re able to share at the moment?
GP: Yes certainly, there’s lots coming up. In the autumn we’re publishing A Country Doctor’s Commonplace Book. A subscriber – who lives in Suffolk and is now a retired GP – over the years has been collecting things and has been producing his own commonplace book for friends. Last year he sent us the last 15 years’ worth and asked if we were interested in making a book out of them. And they made us roar with laughter, so we’re going to be doing that. We’ve got a lovely memoir by the travel writer Eric Newby, about his early days in the rag trade, which is extremely entertaining. And then we’ve got a new venture. We’ve been approached by people that produce podcasts, and it seems quite possible that we will be starting a monthly podcast of our own.
MM: Oh, how exciting!
GP: Yes, we hope it will reflect the style and content of the magazine itself. And we’re appearing in North Norfolk in Wells, at a festival in the middle of May called Sea Fever, so we’ll be talking about Slightly Foxed there. And we’re getting on with all the issues for this year. Oh yes, Jennie’s just reminded me that in December is our 60th issue, which is quite a landmark, so we’re going to have a stonking great party – we’re very fond of having parties at Slightly Foxed – to celebrate it.
MM: Fantastic, and I know you’ve been running an Instagram competition based on that too, and I can share more information about that in the show notes because there is a lovely prize. But if people would like to keep up with Slightly Foxed news, where can they find you online?
GP: You can sign up for our newsletter and our blog and find our online shop on our website, which is www.foxedquarterly.com. And you can follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook by searching for @foxedquarterly, or by looking up the hashtag #slightlyfoxed.
MM: Brilliant. Well, thank you so much Gail and Hazel for coming on Tea and Tattle today, it’s been such a pleasure speaking to you both.
GP: Well thank you very much indeed and thank you for introducing you to a whole new way of doing interviews.
HW: Yes. Thank you, you’ve emboldened us in the digital world.
MM: Well I can’t wait for the slightly Foxed podcast now!
GP and HW: Thanks Miranda.