The Blagger's Guide To...Twenty Years of Orion

Call the midwife: how a publishing house was born

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The Independent Culture

*The Orion publishing group celebrates its 20th anniversary tomorrow evening at a swish ceremony at the Natural History Museum.

The group was founded in 1991 and, soon after, acquired the venerable publisher Weidenfeld & Nicolson, founded in 1949 by the Viennese journalist and philanthropist George Weidenfeld and Nigel Nicolson, the son of Sir Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West. Since 2003, Orion has been owned by the French publishing group Hachette Livre.

*BBC1's surprise smash hit Call the Midwife, which airs its last episode tonight, is based on the Orion book of the same name by Jennifer Worth. It is now published in a TV tie-in paperback edition at £7.99.

*Orion's SF and fantasy imprint Gollancz announced this month that it has just signed a book by The Now Show's Mitch Benn (right) after an impromptu Twitter exchange between Benn and Gollancz deputy publishing director Simon Spanton. Benn had tweeted that he had time to kill in London; Spanton suggested that he drop into his office to discuss the novel "that you're going to write for Gollancz"; they met that afternoon; Benn sent the opening pages of a novel he just happened to be writing; Spanton loved it, and bought world rights for "a good five-figure sum". The result, Terra, tells the tale of a girl who spends her childhood on an alien planet and discovers that destructive humans are not trusted anywhere else in the universe. It will be published next year.

*Weidenfeld & Nicolson has published more world leaders than any other publisher, including Charles de Gaulle, Henry Kissinger, Golda Meir, Harold Wilson and Boris Yeltsin. In 2005, Lord Weidenfeld was instrumental in securing W&N the rights to publish Memory and Identity by Pope John Paul II. W&N has also published the diaries of Noël Coward, Alan Clark, Kenneth Tynan, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and John Gielgud. A more recent bestseller was Belle de Jour's The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl.

*The independent publisher Quercus was founded in 2004 by former Orion employees Mark Smith and Wayne Davies. Quercus is now experiencing unprecedented success as the publisher of Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and other novels.

*In 2008, Orion was criticised by some literary agents and authors for dropping serious biographies from its list in favour of celebrity memoirs. The suggestion that the esteemed publisher had gone from nurturing authors such as Harold Wilson and Lyndon Johnson to concentrating on the likes of Charlotte Church and Leslie Ash, was received coldly in some quarters. But that was nothing compared with the scandal in 2007 when Orion published a series of compact editions, in which classics such as Anna Karenina, David Copperfield and Vanity Fair had been "sympathetically edited to reduce each novel's overall length to under 400 pages".

*Orion's best-selling author of all time is Maeve Binchy, who has published 10 books with the company to date. Her novel The Copper Beach is on a list of 20 Orion books that define the company, and which are being reissued this month. The other titles include Horrid Henry by Francesca Simon, Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder, Black and Blue by Ian Rankin, The Reader by Bernhard Schlink, Himalaya by Michael Palin, Labyrinth by Kate Mosse, The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht and Life by Keith Richards.