Souvenir Press is 65 years young this year. Founder Ernest Hecht reflects on its story and how independent publishing has changed
The days of legendary publishing lunches have regrettably long gone, but happily celebrating independent publishing remains with us, and we are delighted to be marking the 65th anniversary of starting Souvenir Press. Where have all the years gone since I started out from my bedroom?
1951 was a time when immigrants—a less pejorative term then—and refugees from the Second World War were still moving into publishing. We were among them, but this was not a calculated invasion of the body-snatchers. Immigrants’ personal histories before settling in Britain gave us a different mindset.
The ‘colonies’ were still a huge market back then, and educational publishers were almost as powerful as the governments in many countries. In the UK, WH Smith bookstalls were found at most railway stations and could sell an extraordinary number of books. Sale or return was virtually unknown, ‘see-safe’ being the only whispered term of reassurance for the nervous buyer.
Soon massive changes came with the growth of mass market paperbacks. Book clubs rose and rose, selling hundreds of thousands of copies, and then ended in a free fall. Supermarkets invaded, demanding huge discounts for selling a limited range of titles, and a hasty and ill-advised conglomerate-driven abandonment of the Net Book Agreement led to a destabilisation of retail prices and authors’ royalties.
And now here we are again in uncharted territory with the digital revolution. The rapid growth of new technology is not a problem but an opportunity. Content is still king, and cost control and the targeting of profitable markets remain fundamental. Technology will not solve problems of what to publish, but it does provide us with easy access to a huge demographic base and opportunities to deliver content in multiple ways, sculpting different versions of products from one source. Independence will become even stronger in this new digital age.
No matter what the landscape, the verities of publishing remain the same. I have always subscribed to Stanley Unwin’s dictum that a publisher’s first duty to his authors is to remain solvent, so our lists have always been a very eclectic mixture of commercial bestsellers and books intended for more limited audiences. We have punched above our weight on the bestseller lists in our 65 years, but while that has been lovely, the greatest joy of being an independent is that you have the freedom to publish without having to concern yourself with questions of market share or shareholders’ expectations. You have the chance—I’d be inclined to say duty—to publish books of minority interest, titles whose time may not yet have arrived, and ideas that challenge received wisdom.
The need for independent publishers who can respond quickly to readers’ needs will continue to be vital. If they didn’t exist, we would have to invent them. I am often asked if I would again go into publishing if I were starting out now, and the answer is a resounding yes. Publishing is a highly addictive and on the whole friendly profession, populated by some convincing hucksters. And it is fun—otherwise I would not have been doing it for so long.
This is an edited version of a history of Souvenir Press written for its 65th anniversary brochure.