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.
I am a loud and enthusiastic fan of Slightly Foxed (the ‘companionable quarterly magazine that’s all about discovering good books and the pleasure of reading’, to quote their website) and, even more so, Slightly Foxed Editions. These beautiful hardback memoirs are an example of niche reprint publishing that fits perfectly into our Alternative Publishing Thrortnight – so I asked Jennie Paterson from Slightly Foxed to answer a few questions…
What was the genesis of Slightly Foxed?
Our editors Gail Pirkis and Hazel Wood had been friends and colleagues at John Murray, the oldest family-run publishing house in the UK, for a number of years and felt strongly committed to independent publishing and to the atmosphere that existed at Murray’s house in Mayfair ‒ where Byron had once met Walter Scott and where the ghosts of Caroline Lamb and Mary Shelley frequented the back staircase. When John Murray was sold to a publishing conglomerate in 2002, they decided to leave and set up their own venture. After a year of brainstorming around the kitchen table with Steph Allen (formerly John Murray’s Publicity Manager), they decided to launch a literary review, financed by subscription and aimed at literary-minded book-lovers. After much discussion it was named Slightly Foxed ‒ the term used to describe the spots often found on the paper of antiquarian books ‒ and subtitled The Real Reader’s Quarterly. Eleven years later SF has become a thriving small publishing outfit, with Anna, Faith, Jennie and Olivia working full-time in the Hoxton Square office and a cosy new and second-hand bookshop in Kensington run by two enthusiastic and knowledgeable booksellers, Ben and Charlotte.
How did you decide to start Slightly Foxed Editions?
Over the first 16 issues of Slightly Foxed it became apparent that, increasingly, we were featuring articles about books that have gone out of print and in particular so many wonderful memoirs and autobiographies that had slipped into oblivion, original and individual voices now lost. With Gail and Hazel’s publishing backgrounds, and the Slightly Foxed ethos of keeping forgotten voices alive, it seemed to make sense to reprint some of them. So from 2009 with each issue of Slightly Foxed we’ve published a new Slightly Foxed Edition. Cloth-bound and hand-numbered, these handsome little books are each published in a limited edition of 2,000, among them memoirs by Rosemary Sutcliff, Adrian Bell, Edward Ardizzone, James Lees-Milne, Graham Greene, Diana Holman-Hunt, Elspeth Huxley and Dodie Smith. Each of our editions comes with a new specially commissioned preface. So, for instance, Dodie Smith’s biographer Valerie Grove wrote about her for our new edition Look Back with Love; Victoria Glendinning recently introduced Michael Holroyd’s memoir Basil Street Blues and our forthcoming edition of Adrian Bell’s Silver Ley will include a new prologue by the nature writer and novelist Melissa Harrison.
The books are very high-quality, very simple and extremely beautiful. How did you develop the design?
The craftsmen printers Smith Settle in Yorkshire have been responsible for printing Slightly Foxed from the first issue and they also print and bind all our Slightly Foxed Editions and the other books we produce. Slightly Foxed itself is printed on fine cream paper and beautifully illustrated, designed to have the look and feel of an elegant slim paperback and we felt very strongly that the same production and design values should apply to our books.
For inspiration, we have to give a nod to the Jonathan Cape Travellers Library editions first published in the ’20s and the old style Everyman Modern Library of 1906-1982 which have always been great favourites of ours. In keeping with these designs, ours is deliberately old-fashioned, simple and portable. We wanted readers to be able to slip these books into a pocket or bag and enjoy them wherever, whenever. Each book has a unique cloth binding and endpaper colour combination (for the first 16 or so titles each one had a different cloth but we soon ran out of colours!) and has a coloured silk head- and tail-band and ribbon marker. The little book-reading fox colophon is blind blocked to the front, and the spine bears gold blocking. The pages inside are printed on good cream paper, hand-sewn in signatures of 16, and the prelims bear the book’s hand-written limited edition number out of the 2,000-strong run.
Could you tell us a bit about your editorial selection process?
It’s really to read, read, read! Gail and Hazel spend a great deal of time reading and re-reading memoirs and autobiographies, many of which are found on library shelves or unearthed in second-hand bookshops; others too are recommended by SF readers or suggested by SF contributors. The series deals not in full-scale autobiographies, but memoirs – a part or aspect of a writer’s life set in a distinct frame. Ultimately what makes a good SF Edition is hard to define, apart from saying that it needs to be a perfectly formed work of art, a standalone good read, but it’s something about which Gail and Hazel rarely disagree.
Any exciting stories about discovering particular books in the series?
Each book has its own story, some are much-loved favourites that one or other of us really wants to include in the series and some come to us by serendipity. But the most exciting discovery was Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School, our 15th Slightly Foxed Edition, and the only piece of original publishing in the series so far.
One Monday morning an e-mail with an attachment arrived at Slightly Foxed from Ysenda Maxtone Graham. Knowing Ysenda as the author of a delightful book on her grandmother, the author Jan Struther, creator of the idealized wartime housewife Mrs Miniver, we opened it with some interest. It contained the first two chapters of a school history – yet no ordinary school history, it was immediately clear. It made us laugh so much we begged for more, and there followed months in which we waited eagerly for each new chapter in the saga of St Philip’s. It was like waiting for vital instalments of The Archers, but much funnier and more gripping – irresistible in fact. Gail and Hazel decided we had to publish it and so we did in September 2011 with a specially commissioned preface by A. N. Wilson, an afterword by Julian Fellowes, and with original illustrations by Kath Walker. By the end of October it had sold out and, with SF readers clamouring for copies, our paperback series was launched in November with Mr Tibbits’s – just in time for Christmas!
How would you describe the place of Slightly Foxed Editions in the enormous marketplace?
I’m not sure our Editions have any place in the enormous marketplace of big publishers and chain bookstores. We’re publishing books in a completely different way to most commercial publishers. It’s small-scale, personal and traditional and we’re choosing titles that we think will appeal to Slightly Foxed readers, titles that enthusiastic independent booksellers are able to personally recommend to their customers. We have a small but growing circle of excellent independent bookshops stocking not only our SF Editions and Paperbacks but also the Slightly Foxed Cubs (a series of historical adventure novels for children by Ronald Welch) and the magazine itself. We don’t supply Amazon with our books and we don’t produce Kindle editions, except for Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School – very reluctantly and at the author’s insistence. Instead we feel it’s our place to support and encourage bookshops by producing really good books that can be hand-sold by really good booksellers to their customers.
How do you think publishing will change over the next decade?
I think our answer above illustrates how we’re not really placed to speculate on what will happen to mainstream publishing! Right now it’s exciting to see so many small and interesting publishers out there who’re not just surviving but are actually thriving and I hope we’ll continue to see sales of physical books overtaking digital. But our greatest hope is for the next decade to bring about the decline of Amazon and other online behemoths and to see a resurgence of the high street with bookshops, together with butchers, grocers, hardware stores, toyshops and the like, taking back their place at the heart of local communities.