The Mail on Sunday
The Everyman revolutionary
After Oxford he was asked to become a spy...now he sells hardback books (and wine online)
The only thing any of us should be worrying about is whether there are enough bookshops
I voted Remain but much of Brussels is quite ghastly – and they needed a bloody nose
DAVID Campbell’s publishing venture all began above a sex shop in Soho. That business, The Everyman’s Library, is now widely regarded as the definitive library of classic literature with 600 titles and 18million copies sold. It has not only survived the e-book revolution, it has thrived.
Campbell, 68, is a picture book publisher with tousled grey hair, a knitted tie and a lifetime of anecdotes. He recalls the times when he bought and relaunched the ailing Everyman business in 1990.
‘I rented three floors of a little Georgian house above a sex shop in a side street in Soho. It did not occur to me to ask if there was electricity in every room and there wasn’t, so we were sending out notes by a guttering candle,’ he says.
The business was eventually bought by Random House and, after a series of wider takeovers in publishing, is now part of the vast German publishing empire of Bertelsmann. But Campbell is still in charge of his corner of the empire, pursuing his belief in quality hardback books, with stitched binding and paper that lasts.
Campbell has since graduated from the offices above a sex shop. He now works from a small office on the top floor of a Mayfair townhouse shared by a number of publishing-related businesses. The house was once home of John Murray, publisher of Jane Austen and Lord Byron.
‘We are up 6 per cent in the last 12 months in the UK and US. A lot of publishers are flatlining but we have definitely increased in turnover,’ he says, adding that the business is profitable.
Campbell claims never to have doubted that books would last.
‘There was a dodgy time five or six years ago when our turnover went down, but I never thought the e-book was going to replace what we were doing. In fact, our sales are now up and the e-book has helped us. People are buying less mass market paperbacks. They buy e-books and they buy decently printed books.
‘Television did not replace radio. Cinema did not replace theatre. The e-book is wonderful, but there are a whole raft of books where even if you have read it on your iPad, it does not replace the book itself. If you love F. Scott Fitzgerald, you probably want a nice edition to revisit.
‘I think we are through the worst. I always thought the book would continue. The only thing any of us should be worrying about is whether there are enough bookshops.’
Waterstones, of course, is one of his biggest customers though Amazon may just be slightly larger, he says. Perhaps surprisingly, Campbell is ‘pro-Amazon’, with some qualification. ‘I don’t want to see them take over everything. I think it is incredibly important that independent bookshops exist. You can’t browse Amazon in the same way you can browse in a bookshop.’
Campbell’s conversation is unpretentiously littered with famous names he has known – from Isaiah Berlin to Salman Rushdie and Mick Jagger. He is impeccably part of the literary establishment.
Educated at Oxford, he then spent a year travelling in Asia and Europe in the febrile atmosphere of 1968 – and then went back to his university to seek career advice.
‘I went to the Oxford appointments board and because I spoke a few languages and I had been in Prague in 1968 when the Russians invaded, they wanted to make me a spy. I said, “But I want to be a publisher!”
‘They told me not to tell anybody that they had approached me to be a spy, so I went straight out to the Kings Arms and told everybody.’
Campbell’s early career was in French publishing and he rose to become a board member at publish- ing group Hachette. ‘I’ve been a corporate boardroom honcho,’ he says.
But while in France he developed an attachment to Pleiade – the French series of classics, cloth bound with beautiful typeface. He conceived the idea of a similar venture in English and decided the Everyman’s Library – by then a tired and unfashionable name – was the perfect vehicle. An initial attempt to buy the company was rejected.
The next chance came years later when Everyman was bought by one of publishing’s biggest names, George Weidenfeld. ‘I thought that was the death of my dream, and that George would do something amazing with it. Then I heard on the grapevine that George had a bit of a cashflow hiccup. We had coffee and he said to me, “When can you let me have the money?” Of course, at that moment I did not have any money. I had to borrow well over £1million.’
Incredibly, Campbell was also able to secure the hardback rights to a vast array of classic authors.
‘Everyone thought I was bonkers because all the action was in paperbacks. I was able to buy everything from Marquez to Orwell, relatively affordably. A lot of business is about timing and I was extremely lucky to be doing this in the early 90s before anybody even thought of the e-book or the hardback revival.’
‘On price I had to be within spitting distance of paperback prices and I think our first books were between £6.99 and £10.99, so we were 10 or 15 per cent more than a paperback. But with beautiful typography, copious notes, the definitive edition.’
American publisher Knopf and its European parent Random House were early partners, providing warehousing and sales and eventually Random House bought Everyman in 2003. ‘I can’t remember the exact figure, but we sold for a few million,’ says Campbell coyly.
With such Gallic professional links and an international parent group, what does Campbell makes of Brexit? ‘I voted Remain, though I am reasonably agnostic. Much of Brussels is quite ghastly and they needed a bloody nose, though not necessarily Brexit. We should return to the concept of a Common market.’
Campbell, married with t wo grown-up children, divides his time between a Pimlico flat and a house in the Highlands.
It would be easy to dismiss Campbell as a technology refusenik, were it not for the success of Everyman’s Library and for his other small private business – the online wine seller fromvineyardsdirect.com, which he set up in 2006 with Esme Johnstone, the co-founder of Majestic Wine.
‘I thought the internet was a way of informing people more about wine and being like Amazon, a bit cheaper than a wine merchant.’
Wine merchants, who perhaps think browsing the cellar is an essential part of wine buying, may see some irony.