A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Dr Catherine Pope is the founder of Victorian Secrets, an independent publishing house dedicated to producing high-quality books from and about the nineteenth century. We asked her to speak to us about how Victorian Secrets came about and how it operates in comparison to large, traditional publishers.
Hello, Catherine, and welcome to Vulpes Libris. Firstly, can you tell us a bit about Victorian Secrets and how you came to start it?
I had the idea for Victorian Secrets around 7 years ago. I’d just started my MA in Victorian Studies at Birkbeck and was frustrated that only canonical novels were available in print. Having spent quite a bit of time reading obscure (but intriguing) material at the British Library, I realised there were some novels that really ought to be resurrected and discussed. Then it was a case of learning the various aspects of publishing: typesetting, editing, cover design, and marketing, which took me around a year. Being excitable by nature, I then decided to pack in my job as an IT manager to devote some time to Victorian Secrets and starting a PhD. Please note, if there’s ever a good time to begin a PhD, it’s not when you’re also embarking upon a new publishing business. Anyway, I finished my thesis and have now published almost 40 titles. Initially it was a case of persuading friends to edit critical editions, but now we receive proposals for more books than we can possibly publish.
What impact has the rise of ebooks had on your publishing?
Over the last 18 months, ebook downloads have overtaken print sales. Although it’s cheaper to produce an ebook, the margin tends to be smaller – people generally won’t spend more than a few quid on a digital file. On the bright side, we have been able to publish a few ebook-only editions and make them available cheaply. Our biggest selling ebook is Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, with an introduction from his most recent biographer, Carolyn Oulton. The publishing process for an ebook is so much quicker and we’re hoping to publish lots more over the next couple of years. I’m still committed to print, of course, but we do have to achieve a balance between production costs and likely sales.
Have you found that authors (prospective and otherwise) are open to alternative routes to publication? What do you think draws them to publish with you over a larger traditional publisher?
Happily, some of our authors are evangelical about working with Victorian Secrets and have encouraged their friends and colleagues to submit proposals. We tend to get books published much more quickly than some of the larger presses, too. One major advantage we can offer is a willingness to publish a book because we love it, rather than because it has good sales potential. We need to cover our costs, but profit isn’t the main motive. Having said that, we do still have to be very selective, as a run of disappointing sales impacts upon our ability to take on new projects.
In the last couple of years you have both branched out into narrative non-fiction connected with the Victorian era, and started a second imprint Twentieth Century Vox. Can you talk us through how both of these developments came about? Are there any more plans to branch out further?
Well, the foray into narrative non-fiction came about after I spotted that David Waller was seeking a publisher for his biography of Victorian strongman Eugen Sandow. The large publishers thought it was too niche as Sandow wasn’t a household name. I asked if I could read the first chapter and was then begging David for the rest of the manuscript. The Perfect Man has been our biggest seller, and there was even a tie-in gift pack sold through Asda. It was terrifying taking on such a completely different project, but I’m so pleased to have done it. We’ve since published biographies of Jerome K. Jerome, Thomas Bish, and Dame Clara Butt. In May 2015 we publish The Cockney Who Sold the Alps, the story of how the impresario Albert Smith popularised mountaineering as a holiday activity through his extraordinary dioramas.
Twentieth Century Vox came about after I finally conceded that there were at least some decent books published after 1901. So far we’ve published Elizabeth Robins’s suffragette novel The Convert and Una L. Silberrad’s adventure story The Good Comrade, and a few others are currently under consideration.
Last year we published Carolyn Lambert’s The Meanings of Home in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Fiction. This was our first academic monograph and it’s an area we’d like to develop. I’ve discovered that many non-academic readers want to read literary criticism, but are put off by unnecessarily convoluted writing. I’d like to champion elegant and accessible academic writing and make it available at reasonable prices.
You run Victorian Secrets while also teaching at the Universities of Sussex and Brighton. How on earth do you find the time?
Fortunately, I really enjoy working! Sometimes it’s hard to keep everything going, but I’m slightly obsessive about time management and productivity techniques. I’ve also become remarkably effective at getting stuff done on the bus. Publishing on this scale is very much a labour of love and it’s almost impossible to earn a living from it. I absolutely love teaching, too, and it’s very satisfying to hear the students’ responses to lesser-known authors.
Lastly, we always ask our guests to tell us their five favourite books. What are yours?
Hmm, it’s difficult narrowing it down to five, but here goes:
The Diary of a Nobody by George & Weedon Grossmith
The Beth Book by Sarah Grand
New Grub Street by George Gissing
Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
Wise Children by Angela Carter
The latest title from Victorian Secrets is Eliza Lynn Linton’s Sowing the Wind. First published in 1867, Linton’s sensational novel features a positive portrayal of women in the workplace, lesbian undertones, and female solidarity. Indeed, the Saturday Review was terrified by the “dark hints of what would happen if women, instead of men, had the making of laws”.