By Robert Davies
The British Library is younger than you might think for such an august institution – it was only established with a split from the British Museum in 1973. Since the early 1980s the Library has been home to a small publishing operation, whose aim is to increase public knowledge of the Library’s incredible collections, as well as providing a great deal of enjoyment, inspiration and information to many thousands of readers across the world.
For a long time the focus of the publishing programme was on high scholarship – specialised catalogues, bibliographies and monographs on book history, for example. In recent years the Library has been encouraged to become more entrepreneurial and resourceful in the way it generates its own revenues. For the publishing team, this means creative commissioning of books that appeal to a catholic range of tastes, and carefully ensuring that they reach the broadest possible readership. We like to think of ourselves as a classic independent publisher in spirit – energetic, innovative, and adaptable – but we are, of course, uniquely fortunate in having the world’s greatest library collection at our fingertips. This is a huge content resource that we are constantly learning more about: we’re lucky to work closely with curators who allow us access to hidden treasures so that we can bring them to wider public attention in our books.
We publish about 40 titles per year. Some of them are high-quality hardbacks of the coffee-table kind, lavishly illustrated with maps, medieval illuminations, literary manuscripts and the like. Others are quirky and amusing gift books – The Philosophy of Beards being a recent on-trend success. You might also be familiar with the books that accompany the Library’s exhibitions. Last year we reached new audiences with books on Comics Unmasked and the Gothic tradition; this year the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta is a central focus of our attention, and we are experiencing high demand for the catalogue.
Increasingly, the engine of our success is our Crime Classics series, which was launched in 2012 with a new edition of the first ever detective novel (The Notting Hill Mystery from 1865) and is now flourishing as we resurrect forgotten classics from the golden age of British crime fiction between the two world wars. The Library’s bestselling book of all time is Mystery in White, [our Shiny review here] a Christmas crime novel that was republished to great acclaim in autumn 2014.
We give careful thought to ways of building on this success: plans are afoot for other genre-fiction series, such as the Classic Thrillers which launched with two novels by E. Phillips Oppenheim last year; and we are also negotiating exciting deals with literary agents who have dusted off a number of unduly neglected crime authors for us to consider. One of the most enjoyable parts of my job is receiving suggestions and recommendations from passionate devotees of the genre, and reading rare first editions of the books they champion.
Our books are, of course, sold in the Library’s own shop, a haven for book-lovers in the heart of busy King’s Cross; but we also benefit from strong support among booksellers in chain and independent stores in the UK and further afield. We are especially encouraged that so many of our books are translated into foreign languages; recently, for example, our book Propaganda appeared in Korean and our edition of Arthur Conan Doyle’s diary of an Arctic voyage was published in Russia.
For the next few years we have ambitious plans to ramp up the speed of publishing the Crime Classics, without neglecting other aspects of the collection, which means a steady stream of literary anthologies, illustrated books, and exhibition catalogues. We continue to find new ways of promoting our books to different audiences: we finally joined Twitter in late 2014 and we’ve recently seen an increase in review coverage in the national press and on radio. Most excitingly, a major broadcaster has commissioned a pilot script based on one of our crime titles – watch this space…