The Simple Things


Nicola Beauman founded Persephone Books, which reprints neglected works by 20th-century women*


The name Persephone was chosen as a symbol of female creativity.

In the 1980s, I wrote a book about mid-20th-century women writers and I’d suggest titles for publishers to reprint… and they didn’t want to. So I thought I’d do it myself. I bought six ‘How to Publish’ books and went from there. There were no grand plans, other than getting the first 12 Persephone books out.

A lot is down to luck.

At the time, none of those titles were very well received. I’d see piles of Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s The Home-Maker and think, “How are we ever going to sell it?” Funny, as it’s since reprinted twice. But Winifred Watson’s Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day was a bestseller and that changed a lot of things, including allowing us to move to London’s Lamb’s Conduit Street.

Focus and specialise.

It’s a tiny area, but the 1920s and ’30s is such a rich seam. The quality of the writing is phenomenal – the quick explanatio­n is that there were more unmarried, better-educated women after the War. We do publish men too, if they fit our focus. ‘Domestic feminism’ would be our strapline, if we had one.

Be true to what you like.

The design of our books wasn’t a sophistica­ted thought-out thing. I like grey, I like the simplicity of the label and I like endpapers. I wanted good quality paper and dispersion binding so the books

lie flat. It’s simpler that every book looks the same, rather than re-jigging each time. Of course, while I’m proud of their look, the content interests me more.

Know what you’re looking for.

We’ve various things that we care about when considerin­g republishi­ng books, such as it being page-turning and that it has to be about something. Most of all, it has to be a good read. We find books in all sorts of ways. Three or four books were recommende­d by people who came in off the streets.

It’s about balance.

Any admirable publisher won’t be producing books for only profit. It’s balancing what will be popular against what won’t. Into the Whirlwind by Eugenia Ginzburg, about a Siberian labour camp, for example, doesn’t sell because it’s so un-jolly. We’ll sell about a hundred Eugenias versus a thousand of one of our bestseller­s. But they all deserve to be available.

Tech isn't at the expense of print.

We launched in 1999, the year the iMac came onto the market and I think that’s quite a coincidenc­e. Primarily we’re a mail order company, with online a huge part of that.

Your workspace should reflect you.

Our office is at the back of our shop. Most offices are horrible – bad carpets, no windows – and I couldn’t work somewhere like that! Persephone readers can practicall­y walk into the office. You can’t really do that with many other businesses. The majority of our interactio­ns are “Oh, I loved this!” or “Why haven’t I read this before?”

Talking to people is market research.

It’s the homespun version. From chatting to customers, I know we’ve a good range of readers. Generation­s of women come through our door. Often husbands come in and we suggest they try something like Marghanita Laski’s

Little Boy Lost. They’ll go away and be converted.

Be prepared to do things differentl­y.

I’d publish all books in a high quality paperback. The system of hardback first, then the paperback nine months later is nuts, but no one has the courage to change it. We put a sticker on the hardbacks we sell that reads, “£5 off, we think hardbacks are too expensive”. It’s our little stand.

We're a tiny corner of literary history but we’re here.

I’m proud of all the women who have worked for Persephone. And of our authors, such as Hilda Bernstein, whose book, The World that was Ours, is about her experience in apartheid South Africa. On Christmas morning, I love that thousands of people unwrap Persephone books – we know they’ll have a good read.

Bigger isn’t always better.

If we wanted a larger turnover, we’d think about a new look or doing PR. But actually, we’re in the right place. We publish six books a year, I have lovely weekends and slope off at 5 o’clock. The fact is that we’d rather be at home reading a book.

 ??  ?? Nicola in the Persephone Books shop- cum- HQ, where you can be guaranteed a good read and a good discussion, should you want one
Nicola in the Persephone Books shop- cum- HQ, where you can be guaranteed a good read and a good discussion, should you want one

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