The old joke goes that if you want to make a small fortune out of publishing, start off with a larger one.
Why? Because publishing is regarded as a notoriously uncertain business, constantly facing new threats to the vitality of the printed word. But one of the world's most illustrious independent publishing houses, London's Faber & Faber, has just turned 90 and to celebrate a long and vibrant history of highs, lows and literary triumphs, author Toby Faber (grandson of Faber's founder Geoffrey Faber) has written Faber & Faber: The Untold History of a Great Publishing House.
Home to literary heavyweights including poet TS Eliot (who was the publisher's first editor), Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and Seamus Heaney, the first book Faber published was Spain in a Two-Seater by C Halford Ross (1925): "A light-hearted record of a motor tour through Spain." More recently, Faber is home to viral sensation Sally Rooney and Anna Burns, who won the 2018 Man Booker Prize for her novel Milkman.
In its 90 years, Faber has survived the Great Depression, wartime paper shortages and a critical financial crisis to publish some of the most iconic names in literature. It means there was no shortage of material for Toby Faber to draw upon in telling its own story.
He spent two years trawling Faber's extensive archives and sorting through decades of memoranda, letters, board minutes, diaries and other ephemera. He's artfully pieced hundreds of these short extracts together to tell Faber's history through the voices of the authors, editors and management from the firm.
The result is an entertaining backstage pass about how great works of literature have been made and the people behind them. The oral history format lends a compelling energy and immediacy to the book and reveals a personal side to the participants.
"We've been thinking about doing a history of Faber for a long time but have been very wary of those deadly dull corporate histories that are produced as puff pieces given to every supplier but destined to remain unread," laughs Faber. "I realised that the Faber archive contained these wonderful voices - some of the greatest writers of the 20th century - and if I could tell the story in their words it would have a sense of connection that could be very readable."
Faber says his research unearthed a couple of surprises.
"It should have been obvious, I suppose, but I hadn't expected to end up an even bigger fan of TS Eliot than I was before. He was clearly the kind of genius who could have been brilliant at almost anything he did.
"I think it was what my grandfather saw in him right at the beginning; the combination of a deep appreciation of what makes great literature with a clear-headed business brain. Then as his own reputation grew, he became a wonderful magnet, attracting great writers and great poets, in particular."
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Faber says that even though his grandfather died four years before he was born, he was able to gain a vivid insight into the kind of man he was.
"I've become aware of what a good writer he was. His letters and diary entries really bring out the problems he was facing and portray scenes with a remarkable vividity - his wartime vignettes, for example. He comes through as a very human man with foibles and weaknesses - he could certainly lose his temper, for example - but with a remarkable tenacity and business vision."
Not only does Faber explore the ways the publisher embraced social and cultural innovation through risk-taking publishing, he also shares many jaw-dropping and juicy tales from the slush pile: when Faber turned down James Joyce's epic Ulysses, Joyce dubbed the publisher "Feebler and Fumbler". It didn't stop him from approaching Faber again with his novel Finnegans Wake, mind.
A rare lapse of judgement from Eliot saw him turn down George Orwell's Animal Farm. His rejection letter to Orwell says, "We have no conviction (and I am sure none of the other directors would have) that this is the right point of view from which to criticise the political situation at the present time."
He continues, "I am very sorry, because whoever publishes this, will naturally have the opportunity of publishing your future work and I have a regard for your work, because it is good writing of fundamental integrity."
As Toby Faber writes, in turning down Animal Farm, essentially because it was being rude about Britain's Soviet allies, Eliot was also turning down the unwritten Nineteen Eighty-Four.
And then there's the correspondence that takes your breath away. Lord of the Flies by William Golding being rescued from the slush pile; Faber Jnr's aunt thinking Ted Hughes was American and the future Man Booker Prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro enclosing postage in case the publisher wanted to return his manuscript.
"Some of the little stories are just great. The jokes! Like the firecrackers under the boardroom table and Eliot's long spoof letter about 'Eliot's Club', the one where he's pretending to be a Scottish temperance lecturer, and poet Thom Gunn contravening the dress code at the Travellers' Club."
Faber remembers as a child, the thrill of boxes of books arriving at his family's Cambridge home and of feeling proud to see the Faber name. It inspired a lifelong love of books but, with a career in investment banking, he never expected to work at Faber, saying: "No member of the family has ever been allowed to just walk into a job there."
As it happened though, he joined the firm in 1996, approached on the back of his strong business background, becoming managing director, non-executive director and, subsequently, chairman of sister company Faber Music.
Like many avid readers, Faber says he always wanted to write. He has previously written two notable works of narrative nonfiction. Stradivari's Genius: Five Violins, One Cello and Three Centuries of Enduring Perfection (2004) looks at the life and work of violin maker Antonio Stradivari, and Faberge's Eggs: The Extraordinary Story of the Masterpieces that Outlived an Empire (2008) explores the legendary Imperial Easter Eggs crafted by Carl Faberge.
"I struggled to come up with a third non-fiction book that interested publishers," he confesses. "The Faber history is the only one of my books published by Faber! Fundamentally, I am a writer who wants to write things that people want to read and Faber is a publisher that wants to publish books that people want to buy."
Remarkably, he also has a new thriller novel, Close to the Edge, out. In a peculiar coincidence, both of his new books feature a death on the London Underground. While Close to the Edge is about a young woman who witnesses an elderly gentleman fall from the platform and onto the tracks below where he is fatally injured, early Faber co-director Charles Stewart died tragically on the underground in 1945.
A 1945 memo from Geoffrey Faber to editorial director Frank Morley explains that Stewart had poor eyesight and was wearing new spectacles for the first time and had a habit of leaning forward to peer at incoming trains. The platform at Belsize Park Tube Station, where the accident occurred, had been narrowed by a wartime construction ("I think, a urinal for tube-shelterers", he writes) and Stewart must have failed to see the edge, toppling over as the train came in. He was killed instantly.
"I first had the idea for a novel that began with a death on the underground in 1993," says Toby Faber. "I started writing it in earnest in 2009. As far as I can remember, I only first heard the awful story of Charles Stewart's death about three years ago from his son.
"Since then though, I've wondered if perhaps I knew the story in my childhood. It's the kind of thing I could imagine my mother repeating, as an object lesson to remind us to be careful on tube platforms! My older sister doesn't remember hearing the Charles Stewart story before, so it probably is just coincidence."
Faber says that the world of books and publishing is great fun.
"Every two weeks you have a new product to talk about and get excited about. Every now and then one of them really breaks through and the excitement ramps up. And you get to meet authors who are generally lovely.
"Almost everyone you are working with, across the entire trade, also loves books. That's likely to mean they are fun and interesting people too. And it's important. Books are one of the mainstays of our cultural life and civilisation. We are immensely lucky."
Faber and Faber: The Untold History of a Great Publishing House (Faber & Faber, $45)
Toby Faber in conversation:
Auckland – 6pm Tuesday, July 30, TimeOut Books, Mt Eden
Wellington – 12pm Monday, August 5, Unity Books Wellington