BBC Radio 4, the nation’s well-meaning uncle, is this week broadcasting a five part series, Publishing Lives, whose title encompasses its dual purpose of providing capsule biographies of significant figures in the development of publishing and its seeming reassurance that the current state of flux in which the industry finds itself is merely the latest iteration of several crises already endured over the past 200 years, and that it too shall pass. In each of its five 15 minute episodes, Robert McCrum (previously literary editor of the Observer, and before that editorial director of Faber & Faber for close to two decades) and his producer Melissa Fitzgerald look at the stories behind a different publishing imprint – Murray, Macmillan, Penguin, Weidenfeld, Faber – and consider how their findings illuminate the present.
The first episode – broadcast yesterday lunchtime but available on iPlayer for the rest of the week – saw McCrum focus on the work of John Murray, who set up his publishing house in 1768 and has passed his name and trade through seven generations, which have seen the family publish work by Jane Austen, Charles Darwin, Walter Scott, Arthur Conan Doyle, John Betjeman and, perhaps most notoriously, Lord Byron, whose memoirs were burned in manuscript form by Murray the first after he deemed them too scandalous for the times.
Subsequent episodes look at Allen Lane, founder of Penguin, whose drive to make high quality books cheap and accessible to all revolutionised literary culture in 20th century Britain; Harold Macmillan, who combined his tenure as Prime Minister with worldwide expansion for his family business, the Scottish publishers Macmillan, founded in the 19th century; George Weidenfeld, the Austrian ex-pat who fled his homeland on the eve of World War II to set up shop in Britain and defied contemporary censors with his publication of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita; and Geoffrey Faber, founder of the great indie Faber & Faber, responsible for the publication of an enviable number of major Modernist poets and often champion of the uncommercial.
McCrum has also written a blog post to accompany the series, in which he avers that, even though ‘publishers are living through the biggest paradigm shift since William Caxton set up shop in Westminster some 500 years ago[…] Nothing that’s happening today has not already been anticipated, usually on a smaller scale, in the past. No crisis we face today has not recurred, several times over, during the 19th or 20th centuries. Moreover, not one of these publishing giants, from John Murray the second to the great George Weidenfeld, to Allen Lane of Penguin, would have been fazed by the state of play in 2013. On the contrary, I suspect they would have reveled in the opportunities available through the digital revolution.’