Inside Story

Fabber & Fabber

The Russell Square twins, Fabberdum and Fabberdee, Fabber & Fabber — whatever the nickname, the story of the famed London publisher reveals a lot about how creative enterprises work

Jock Given 16 August 2019 2307 words

Very much at home: a 1960 photo of Faber poets (from left) Louis MacNeice, Ted Hughes, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden and Stephen Spender. National Portrait Gallery

Faber & Faber: The Untold Story
By Toby Faber | Faber & Faber | $39.99 | 426 pages

I once took a guided walk through “George Orwell’s London.” It started at Oxford Circus tube station, meandered through Soho, stopped at the Newman Arms where Orwell drank beer — never spirits, we were told — and finished across the road from Senate House at the University of London. After St Paul’s Cathedral, the university building was the second tallest in Orwell’s London, and had been requisitioned by the Ministry of Information during the second world war. Orwell’s wife Eileen worked there early in the war, Orwell could see it from the flat they shared near St John’s Wood, and it became part of the inspiration for the Ministry of Truth in 1984.

The walk finished at 24 Russell Square, where the publisher Faber & Faber had its offices in Orwell’s time. Established in 1929, the firm was immediately notable for the fact that its founding director and editor was T.S. Eliot, whose 1922 poem The Waste Land came to be considered a founding work of literary modernism. The firm quickly became a leader, publishing emerging poets, playwrights and novelists like W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Siegfried Sassoon, Samuel Beckett and James Joyce.

George Orwell, though, was never published by Faber. That was the reason we were at 24 Russell Square. “TSE” rejected Down and Out in Paris and London in 1932: “decidedly too short… and too loosely constructed.” Then, in July 1944, he turned down the manuscript for Animal Farm in one of publishing’s most famous rejection letters.

“We agree it is a distinguished piece of writing,” wrote Eliot. “The fable is very skilfully handled… the narrative keeps one’s interest on its own plane — and that is something very few authors have achieved since Gulliver. On the other hand, we have no conviction… that this is the right point of view from which to criticise the political situation at the present time.”

This was just over a month after D-Day. There was a war to be won and Britain’s allies included the target of Orwell’s “fairy story,” the Soviet Union. Eliot was “very sorry, because whoever publishes this, will naturally have the opportunity of publishing your future work: and I have a regard for your work, because it is good writing of fundamental integrity.”

Animal Farm was eventually published by Secker & Warburg in Britain and Harcourt, Brace in the United States in 1946. By then the war was over but a new one had begun, a cold war, where the Soviet Union occupied the other side of an Iron Curtain. Orwell’s future work turned out to be 1984, published in 1949 shortly before he died from tuberculosis. TSE was right: Secker & Warburg and Harcourt, Brace got that one too.

Faber & Faber: The Untold Story is written by a grandson of Geoffrey Faber, the firm’s founder. Toby Faber, a former managing director of the firm and still a director, has curated and edited an archive of extracts from letters, internal memos, board minutes, diary entries, promotional materials, and newspaper and magazine articles, covering the period from the firm’s founding until 1990. He annotates many of the extracts to provide context and explain details. Chapters are organised chronologically and each is introduced with an overview of the main incidents and trends in the period. Together with an introduction and afterword, it adds up to an absorbing account of the creation, evolution, near death and survival of an important enterprise in what some would now call the “creative industries.”

At the heart of that enterprise are the authors who wrote the manuscripts, the staff who accepted some and rejected many, and the books Faber & Faber published. Readers looking for delicious publishing industry gossip will find a feast. Within a month of starting work as a junior editor in 1953, Charles Monteith pulled a few manuscripts off the slush pile to occupy a train journey to Oxford. He thought more of one titled Strangers from Within than the reader who had already annotated it with “Absurd and uninteresting fantasy… Rubbish and dull. Pointless. Reject.” The author, William Golding, submitted a revised version of this, his first novel, with a new title, A Cry of Children. Faber published it in 1954 as Lord of the Flies. About thirty years later, Golding won the Nobel Prize in literature.

Monteith was not so impressed by Ted Hughes’s first book of verse, The Hawk in the Rain, even though it had won a prize in the United States. “The quality seems to me very uneven… [H]e might perhaps have a letter of encouragement.” T.S. Eliot was more enthusiastic: “I’m inclined to think we ought to take this man now. Let’s discuss him.” Faber made an offer, Hughes accepted it, and they published him for the rest of his life. Artful correspondence followed about work from Hughes’s wife, Sylvia Plath: her early poems and initially pseudonymous novel The Bell Jar went to Heinemann; Faber published her posthumous collection Ariel and, later, a paperback edition of The Bell Jar, licensed from Heinemann.

The archives of a publisher whose authors won four Nobel prizes in the 1990s alone (Derek Walcott, Seamus Heaney, Wislawa Szymborska, Günter Grass) and another four since (Harold Pinter, Orhan Pamuk, Mario Vargas Llosa, Kazuo Ishiguro) hold many such stories of wooing, signing, editing and sometimes rejecting or losing famous authors. The signings often express the power imbalance between awestruck young authors and a prestigious publishing house; the losses show creators pressing the value of their work, increasingly via the agents that unsettled the dominance of haughty publishers. Spencer Curtis Brown thought books by his author C.P. Snow should be selling 35,000–45,000 copies “and I am sure that you believe that too and that you will be full of exciting and enthusiastic ideas towards that end.” Snow moved to Macmillan.

Alongside the Nobel and Booker prize winners, Faber published a lot of books that did not have such high literary aspirations. Asked to spell out the kinds of books she liked and those she didn’t, the editor of the gardening and farming list, Eileen Brooksbank, wrote in 1976, “I can’t help remembering that on many an occasion when I have asked the travellers what is selling they simply reply ‘the usual things, bridge books, cookery and gardening.’ So we must try to keep them supplied.” Commenting on an internal memo criticising the humorous NOT 1982 calendar that sold massively, Toby Faber observes that “many Faber employees never quite understood that the firm could only publish great literature if it also made a profit.”

In different hands, the “untold story” of Faber & Faber might have given less space to the business side. As a former managing director and a member of the family that still controls half the publisher’s shares, Toby Faber reveals a great deal about the enduringly private Faber & Faber. He includes a table of sales, pre-tax profits and gross dividends paid each year, showing the big swings between struggle and fortune. He also shows sales revenues predicted by “Dr Morley’s Parabolic Prediction or Futurity Revealed,” a formula one of the early directors derived from the pattern of sales between 1926 and 1931. By the late 1930s it was wildly out, but the figures in the late 1980s were eerily close to Morley’s ancient model.

Like the founder of any start-up, Geoffrey Faber had to work out what his business would do, where it would get the money to do it, and who would do the work and where. Initially, it wasn’t even his business. He had published two volumes of poetry and had a little experience in publishing with Oxford University Press before the first world war, enough to encourage the inheritors of a business called the Scientific Press to appoint him chairman and managing director in 1924.

The new owners wanted to diversify away from medical titles. Someone suggested Faber talk to T.S. Eliot, who was working at Lloyds Bank and editing the literary magazine The Criterion as well as writing his own poetry. Eliot, of course, was not yet the Nobel Prize winner he would become in 1948, but The Waste Land was already famous and Faber was told he was “the best and most learned [critic] of his generation and is respected (and a little feared) by the young.”

Faber bought into the business through a complicated family transaction — a loan from the “relatively large” trust estate left by his father’s cousin — that needed both the widow’s and Faber’s mother’s approval. The partners in the business then fell out, separating their interests by selling the profitable Nursing Mirror for a sum that enabled Faber to pay back his loan from the estate and emerge as the sole owner of a new company that acquired the marginal books business. Choosing “Faber & Faber Limited” from four possible names, he inspired ageless speculation and jokes — the Russell Square twins, Fabber & Fabber, Fabberdum and Fabberdee — about the second Faber.

The business of becoming what Toby Faber calls “the literary publisher… for most of the period since it was founded” needed various forms of cross-subsidy from the start. For most of the three decades he was in charge, Geoffrey Faber also drew a salary as an “estates bursar” at All Souls College in Oxford. Among the college’s investments during this time was a country property in Sussex that was leased to Faber, who spent weekends there with his wife Enid.

Most spectacularly, Faber & Faber earned immense profits from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, which turned T.S. Eliot’s collection of children’s verse, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, into a blockbuster musical theatre show. In the financial year to March 1986, net revenue from Cats was just over £1 million while pre-tax profit for the company as a whole was £246,000, implying the rest of the business lost around £750,000.

In the especially difficult 1970s, a similar role was played by John Seymour’s The Complete Guide to Self-Sufficiency and its sequel. It sold over a million copies in different formats, “riding a wave generated by the TV sitcom The Good Life.” The money was real, but the book was “essentially conceived and produced by [book packager] Dorling Kindersley.” Faber & Faber was “very lucky” that Seymour insisted it should be the publisher.

On the other hand, once established, the books business could cross-subsidise new businesses. A music publishing arm was created in the 1960s, initially for Benjamin Britten’s works. He was delighted to bring his music to “such a splendid publisher,” and Geoffrey Faber’s wife Enid wrote that “frankly I would sooner lose my money over this, than over something duller.” It turned out to be a very handy business indeed, which T.S. Eliot’s widow Valerie (nee Fletcher) insisted should handle the music rights for Cats.

At several points, Toby Faber describes the sometimes excruciating male-ness of the enterprise and the industry — in evidence in the remarkable photo, reproduced above, of Louis MacNeice, Ted Hughes, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden and Stephen Spender at a Faber party in 1960, which Sylvia Plath described in a letter to her mother: “Ted looked very much at home among the great.”

But huge roles at the company were played by women. Geoffrey’s wife Enid was deeply involved in the business: she “largely ran” the Faber stand at the first Sunday Times Book Exhibition in 1933, which later became a national book fair at Earl’s Court. Perhaps she was the other Faber? The cover blurb for Derek Llewellyn’s 1971 Faber bestseller Everywoman: A Gynaecological Guide for Life, calls it “the most compassionate, pleasing, authoritative and informative treatise on the business of being a woman that I have so far seen,” reproducing the verdict of Dr Donald Gould in the New Statesman. In 1989, as part of a restructure to preserve the company’s independence, it was Valerie Eliot who set up a trust to acquire the other half of Faber & Faber, alongside and equal to the Faber family interests.

Toby Faber identifies luck, a publishing philosophy “focused on excellence and the long term,” good editorial taste, regular editorial renewal, and the “crucial business decision” to publish both hardbacks and paperbacks as major factors that helped the business founded by his grandfather to survive not just to 1990, when this book ends, but to the present.

In July, Faber & Faber announced that it will publish twenty-seven-year-old Australian author Gabriel Bergmoser’s “full-blooded” debut. The title has not been settled — it will be Sunburnt Country or The Hunted — but it will be “a short, sharp shock of a novel” and the manuscript has been optioned for a movie by “a major film company in LA.” It feels some way from the mid 1930s, when the hot front-list competitors were The Faber Book of Modern Verse, The Oxford Book of Modern Verse edited by W.B. Yeats, and I.M. Parsons’s The Progress of Poetry.

Yet Toby Faber’s rich account of the history of “the literary publisher” also reminds us that talk of literature’s demise is always in fashion. In 1965, when Charles Monteith was unenthusiastic about a novel by Barbara Pym, Philip Larkin lamented:

Personally… I feel it is a great shame if ordinary sane novels about ordinary sane people doing ordinary sane things can’t find a publisher these days. This is the tradition of Jane Austen and Trollope, and I refuse to believe that no one wants its successors today… I like to read about people who have done nothing spectacular, who aren’t beautiful or lucky, who try to behave well in the limited field they command, but who can see, in little autumnal moments of vision, that the so-called “big” experiences of life are going to miss them. •