Lord Hamlyn

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The Independent Online

When the history of British publishing in the second half of the 20th century comes to be written, two figures will emerge as the most potent and influential, Allen Lane and Paul Hamlyn.

Lane's genius was to create an alternative form, the Penguin, that put every kind of conventional book within the reach of everyone: blue for academic texts, green for crime fiction, with an orange ocean of general books in between. Hamlyn (who much admired Lane) discovered new and unconventional ways of bringing different books to new markets that only he could have realised. Like Lane, he began by exploiting big chains, rather than the normal book trade; like Lane too he understood the importance of visual appeal, though it was in a different mould from the classic typography of Jan Tschichold and Hans Schmoller.

But there the resemblance stopped. Lane was born into a publishing family, and measured his success by old-fashioned publishing standards; even at the height of his success, he had a touching desire to be accepted by those who sold in hundreds what he sold by the thousand. Hamlyn, looking in from the outside, had no such inhibitions. He saw an old-fashioned set-up, hamstrung by convention, introspective and hidebound by rules, from the Net Book Agreement to union restrictive practices.

It was dominated by memories of the Second World War that had brought it almost to a standstill; those publishers whose stocks had not been destroyed when Paternoster Row was blitzed in May 1941 set a high value on the dusty survivors. New books were made like the old. As paper was rationed, they were in short supply. Printers and booksellers were expected to be grateful for what was doled out to them.

Hamlyn had drifted into the trade almost by accident, but selling books off a barrow not only gave him an instinct for what would sell, to whom and for how much, but also awoke a real passion for delivering something more attractive and at a cheaper price to a mass market. That instinctive feel and passion never left him. Constrained at first by the remainder market (but thinking how to shift what other publishers had failed to sell sharpened his wits), his real genius emerged when he started publishing himself.

The grind of taking a suitcase of sample remainders to sell to Boots at Nottingham, bought for pence and sold on at prices that still enabled Boots to sell books at prices well below conventional booksellers (often with a bright band emphasising "5/-, worth 30/-"), paid off. But real publishing released a new talent. I well remember the day his shop window blazed with copies of his reprint of The Yellow Book, one of the first "Books for Pleasure".

The recipe was simple. The subject of the books had to be familiar, but hitherto out of reach. They had to be a bargain, exceptional value for money. Every book had to have immediate visual appeal, with a short sharp title that was itself a poster for the book. The apparent value had to be real, not window-dressing. And the books had to sell anywhere, not just in bookshops.

Cookery books, then a luxury trade, were not only a quarter the normal price, but illustrated in colour throughout and – "500 Recipes for 2/11" – unbeatably cheap. It was the same with books on natural history and art books: informative texts, copiously illustrated, long before television made furry animals and pictures popular. Quite heavyweight texts on history and geography were enlivened by pictures on every page, extended captions, colour patches, and other devices now familiar.

Practically no one, not even his own small staff, believed that this would work in the beginning, though Bobbie, Hamlyn's lively first wife, charmed the sourest sceptics. There were three special factors that guaranteed success. First, there was printing in Czechoslovakia. Hamlyn was the first to realise the potential of an artificially low exchange rate, and of a strong graphic tradition that still existed despite the Iron Curtain. It was quite a risk: the gap was larger than simply one of language. But it came off.

Marguerite Patten's Cookery in Colour – she wrote the text, wangled the transparencies out of food manufacturers and sold the whole package to Hamlyn outright for £600 – sold in millions. No one knew that every page was in full colour to cover up the depressing grey Czech paper underneath. This and many other original illustrated books were underwritten by Artia, the Czech book export agency, which had had no idea how to reach the market in the West till Hamlyn showed them.

The second factor was Larousse. Hamlyn discovered that the translation rights in Larousse Gastronomique, the culinary bible, were unsold. He offered £800 for the English and Scandinavian rights, and got Larousse Mythologique, Histoire and Geographie into the bargain. Sales of the series again ran into millions.

Lastly, an exclusive deal with Golden Books in the United States provided an inexhaustible supply of well-designed children's picture-books, with Richard Scarry the mainstay. The joint company "Golden Pleasure Books" was another important factor in Hamlyn's rapid success. Underlying it all was reliability, both in product and cash. The wholesalers, W.H.Smith and Boots, paid on the nail because they never had a failure. The £300,000 turnover in 1959 grew to £3m in 1964.

The sale of the business to Cecil King and chairmanship of IPC brought Hamlyn wealth and wider horizons, including printing in Hong Kong, another educational challenge. He loved Australia, where he was met on his own terms – towers of books on display, not a single copy on the shelf. But Hamlyn always preferred to be directly involved in making and selling books.

When he started Octopus in 1971, it was deliberately with a staff of only 12. Again, the Hamlyn magic made it grow. A series of popular books on different aspects of the arts was bought from Weidenfeld, re-dressed, and went on to sell vastly. Another series on the great film studios, illustrated with stills from every film they made, again far exceeded expectation. Classic car marques had an equal success. The link with Conran made "life-style" a new genre.

As before, acquisitions added to success. In 1981, he bought the mass-market rights to the Cambridge Shakespeare and Bible, and made a success of both. He bought whole businesses, among them Heinemann's, where he made Charles Pick's dream of a "Twentieth Century Library" of one- volume classics – Kafka, Greene, Steinbeck, C.S. Forester, Orwell, Galsworthy, Erle Stanley Gardner too, and many others – come true. In 1986 he bought back his own name and all that went with it from Reed, who had bought it from IPC, only to sell it and all his business interests back to Reed.

His wealth made him a generous and discriminating benefactor, but books are his true memorial – and not just his own, because the Hamlyn pattern has spread all over the world. As his old friend Alain Gründ said, "Octopus is publishing a dream." He made it come true.

By Nicolas Barker