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The Life and Survival of an Avant-Garde publisher
Rosy Barnes interviews Catheryn Kilgarriff, Managing Director of the publisher Marion Boyars.
Rustling through a box of books in my parents’ house, I came across an old friend, a small slim volume with a distinctive modernist black and white cover. I remember how I found it in a sale at university and opening it up in the middle and the text jumping out at me: for it was so familiar and yet I had never read it before. It was Beckett, it was Python, it was modern, it was FUNNY. And yet it was written before all these things and I’d never heard of it before.
The book was Princess Ivona by Polish writer, Witold Gombrowicz, acknowledged as one of the masters of European literature. The publisher was “Calder and Boyars.”
When I spoke to Catheryn Kilgarriff, Marion Boyars’ daughter, I asked her more about the incredible history of her publishing house and she talked candidly about her flamboyant mother, the struggle she faced from the mountain of debt left after her mother’s death and why she spent most of this year’s Frankfurt Book Festival hiding in the toilets!
HISTORY OF THE COMPANY
I wonder if you could tell me a bit about the extraordinary history of Marion Boyars publishers in terms of its avant-garde roots, what lead it to be publishing obscure Eastern European drama and that extraordinary backlist including the works of Gombrowicz, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, “Last Exit to Brooklyn” and all sorts of other classics.
Catheryn: I can remember seeing a production of Princess Ivona when I was in my early twenties, but going further back I can remember being taken to Genet’s The Flowers, and even seeing Billie Whitelaw in Happy Days, and Max Wall in Krapp’s Last Tape. And yes, I grew up in a house full of really strange books which I was able to help myself to all the time.
I can recall the Oz trial, and the campaign for The Little Red School Book (I was a school girl in London at the time).
Marion Boyars moved to London when I was three years old, and bought half of John Calder Publications. He already had Beckett and Genet, and Pirandello. She brought in American authors as she had lived in New York before marriage to my father. She enjoyed the avant garde and the shocking, and wore Mary Quant mini skirts and strong mascara. She was nothing like a normal mother, and I have to now admit to my children that I have pretty much failed at being the normal mother I craved, having brought people like Elif Shafak, Maureen Freely, Riverbend and Hong Ying into their lives as well as those of the publishing house.
I recall seeing the premier of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest at 11am in Leicester Square when I was thirteen – it felt wonderful to be in a cinema with adults on a school day, and The Doors playing at the launch of one of Hubert Selby’s novels in a club on the King’s Road, which was five minutes from our home, and my step-father complaining about the din they made.
Reading about the company and interviews with your mother, Marion Boyars, she sounds like an exceptional woman – especially for the time she was living in. Can you tell me a little more about her and her view of publishing and books?
I’m not sure I dare! She had her own taste and did not care a fig about making money. She was generous and her saying was always, ‘It’s only money’. Unfortunately, this meant me picking up all her debts in 1999, but more of that later.
She spoke German as her first language, then French and then English – first American English and then English English. So, really, English was her fourth language. She had a huge dislike of the establishment, and people who thought they were better than others – the American ideal of treating everyone as equal was her preferred ideology. Her idea of hell would have been to live in Hampstead – upper class and hills to boot. She smoked, spent a lot on the fashion shops on the Fulham Road every Saturday, and liked to entertain.
She loved book fairs and socialising, and she could talk to foreign editors in fluent German and French. It is still the case that few editors can speak foreign languages with any fluency. I think this why she was able to buy the plays of Peter Weiss, which are still best sellers today. She published Sleuth and Murderer – by Anthony Shaffer. Much of her list is still incredibly current.
So, from the past to the present day. Reading interviews with your mother, she describes a world dominated by gentlemen and gentlemen’s clubs. Whereas now, books are big industry dominated by huge chains like Waterstones, WH Smith and the supermarkets. How has the changing industry affected the company over the years, and did you consciously make changes when you took over?
I only took over for two reasons.
The first was that there was a lot of debt, and the family would have lost firstly, a kind of respect, and the building we are still in.
Secondly, my own career was a peculiar hybrid. I had studied literature, worked in publishing for seven years, and then in commercial design. So, I can do both editorial and design. A good deal of my work in design had been strategy – and I still use every ounce of this kind of thinking when designing covers.
As I had worked in retail design, I can understand how the chains operate, and I know that original and surprising books will attract a huge amount of interest. I’m always looking to provide that excitement for both the buyers in the chains, and the buyers of books.
I have no interest in copying what the large houses are doing – they do their task supremely well and there is little point my mimicking them. I do want to surprise people with the beauty of a cover like Banquet of Lies, and content like Feather Man.
Sounds quite a challenge.
It was quite a motivator!
A huge amount of people wanted me to do this – our writers of course, foreign editors, even cultural attaches. People came up to me and said “Do it!”
So how did you set about turning things around?
Design knowledge. If you want to attract people you have to look good. The retailers move books around every 3 days. The window of opportunity is incredibly short.
We redesigned and released the backlist as modern classics. Any time I need I put all my effort into the backlist and that supports us.
One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, our biggest seller, was on a new license with Picador with six or seven years to run. I had to keep the company going for that long before I could negotiate a license renewal, which I did with Penguin.
Marion Boyars of the past was a highly literary publishing house. Whilst you still publish very literary works, you also seem to have successfully branched out into other areas – including historical detective fiction and a prize-winning cookery book – how do you negotiate the commercial/literary divide?
Ah, those debts. They do focus the mind. We were debt laden (six figures) from 1999 to 2002, when we published K:The Art of Love by Hong Ying, and Waiting Period by Hubert Selby Jr. Both were books that Bloomsbury chose not to publish, a decision I will be eternally grateful for.
The only novel I have ever found with as much commercial potential as K: The Art of Love (which has now sold over 120,000 copies worldwide, and luckily we had world rights) is Feather Man by Rhyll McMaster. I practically skipped into the office after Frankfurt this year with it, having hidden it and read it in the toilet at the Fair, hoping no other publisher had seen it (they had not noticed it, thank goodness). We publish in March next year.
What jumped out at you about Feather Man?
It’s unique, poetic, funny, sad and has a very twisted but diabolical plot. I will find out next year if I am right – but just read the Australian reviews (which I did NOT have when I bought the rights – I just used my instinct).
I think poverty makes your senses acute, and your instinct for what is good has to be sharp. I always think success would dampen my ability to find books which are both commercial and literary.
Did you know that ‘literary’ is practically a dirty word? We have quite a few discussions along those lines in this office – instances of when we have asked people to describe us, and they say with almost undisguised disdain of our list, very literary.
So, what would you say is the ethos and style of Marion Boyars 2007?
Originality and excellence, as far as we can manage it with a small team. Books that you would not find elsewhere.
You seem to publish quite a lot of work with a political aspect. Even your new release “Banquet of Lies” is described as an erotic novel with political content. Is this an important strand to you as a publisher?
If you travel anywhere in the world, you cannot but be affected by politics. The sheer size of the trains, bridges, highways and buildings in the Boston (USA) area, where I have just returned from, made me shudder. It’s materialism gone rife.
I have dual-nationality and could have chosen to live in the States but I reacted against the whole ethos there. You still see so many people on the streets. It’s depressing and there’s nothing you can do.
Literature crosses divides. I know this is a personal passion, and it drives my children crazy (not another political novel, they say). But I read their chick lit also and enjoy it. But those authors have the big houses, while the political authors do not necessarily.
I have noticed that the company now produces books with a distinctively modern flavour such as A Book Blogger’s Guide 2006 and several books based on blogs. I love blogs myself, although I can imagine some purist literature buffs being horrified by this. How do you see blogs and the web fitting with the book industry and what is your relationship, as a company, with the internet?
It makes me feel I am part of a community. It’s as simple as that. It’s a broad church. And there is no hierarchy, of course.
THE PUBLISHING PROCESS
What advantages and disadvantages would you say you have over the bigger publishing houses?
Speed. And a certain ability to be one step ahead of them. Long may I be able to keep this up. If I am in a meeting with large houses, anywhere in the world, I tend to either be very quiet or express enthusiasm for some book I have no interest in. Sorry guys – I’ve done this a lot to you…..
Hehe. So would you say that bigger houses use you as a barometre…?
Not a barometre. They are confident in their taste. But they might think they’ve missed something.
You said in another interview “we work harder for our authors, achieve better sales, publicity and tour our authors around major literary festivals”. Can you expand on this? How do you achieve this?
With very hard work and contacts. I watched Book TV in New York and saw Asne Seierstad appearing at the Los Angeles Book festival with two other Iraqi authors. I then arranged an event at the Hay Festival with Asne, Elif Shafak, and a link to the writings of Riverbend (Baghdad Burning). This packed event (over 500 people) put Elf Shafak on the map as far as the UK and Europe were concerned. So, yes. I watched Asne and saw she had a generous personality, and would appear with unknown authors, which is what Elif was at the time. And it worked. I do things like this all the time.
I was reading with interest that you “provide a great deal of editorial help and structural assistance.” This seems to be something that, in general, we hear is being cut back on in the mainstream publishing houses – leading to a rise in literary agencies that writers have to pay for. What is your view on the rise of the literary editing agency and could you tell us why you believe in-house editing is so important?
We are the people who know what the key buyers are looking for. We often commission, and that means we have to provide help to our authors. It only all comes together if we are fully engaged. I do not know how you achieve that with freelance people. Editing is a creative process.
You are quoted as saying “We are seen as groundbreakers by many of our fellow editors in the mainstream, commercial publishing houses, who often buy mass market rights from us.” Would you see yourselves as risk-takers?
That is why our blog is called Riskingit. Yes, we take risks all the time. What idiots.
Distribution – are you competitive in the bookselling chain and how do you cope with the discounting trend?
Acres have been written about this in the trade. So I won’t add to it, but I will say that in order to achieve visibility, some discounting is inevitable.
And are there advantages in terms of selling?
Some editors in big houses are jealous of us because I can pick up a phone or email direct to the bookseller, whereas they have to go through a sales department.
So, you would say your editors are closer to the selling process?
I was reading with interest about your new book “Streets of Babylon”. It obviously has element of many genres but does not sound easily pigeon-holed. What is your attitude to genre in this time of increasingly streamlined marketing?
It bores me to tears. I can’t do it with any enthusiasm. So we are hard to pigeon hole as a result.
There has been a lot of debate lately about branding authors after the recent Danuta Kean article. Emma Barnes at Snowbooks said people care about genre, not the publisher. My bookfox colleague (a bookseller in Belgium) added the interesting comment that in Belgium books are actually stacked by publisher name! I wonder what your views are about this and where you put your emphasis: on book, genre, author or publisher recognition.
I would only hope for author recognition. But I do get annoyed if another publishing house has not heard of Marion Boyars, and I think it is my fault if they have not so that means more work for me. Catalogue sending, links to web sites, ads in the book press etc etc. I don’t want to miss meeting an editor just because they have not heard of this company.
So: is there such a thing as a “Marion Boyars Book”? What would it be?
A translation or from another culture, for sure. A book like The Willow Tree by Hubert Selby Jnr epitomises what the company stands for.
Where do you see Marion Boyars, as a company, in the future?
We discussed this in the office today and we could only see three alternatives –
1) We stay as we are, choosing our front list with a huge amount of care and doing all we can to bring the book to the attention of as many people as possible. This means staying small.
2) We grow, and start doing a lot of mediocre books. No one wanted to do that.
3) We are asset stripped by a large company. Ditto. But if someone wants to buy us and then give us back our creative freedom, we’d be open to discussion. Lunch, anyone? Only kidding.
Other links of interest:
Interview with Catheryn Kilgarriff on Conversations on the Book Trade.
Quick overview of Marion Boyars publishers.