After years of languishing in a dusty backwater, Everyman is back on the bookshelves, reinvented by a publisher who has no qualms about using the words 'brand' and 'publicity' in the hallowed context of classic books.
Anyone setting out to interview David Campbell, owner and publisher of the Everyman's Library, should know that the numbering system in London's raffish Berwick Street runs contiguously rather than (as is customary in streets) nipping smartly back and forth across the road.
When - several minutes late as a result of this aberration - you happen upon number 79 and discover a Georgian shop-front bearing the name, Berwick Street Books, you assume it to be part of Everyman's bibliocentric empire and barge breathlessly in. To your surprise, you find its shelves covered not, as you had imagined, with editions of Montaigne's Essays or Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire but with magazines apparently dedicated to the cultivation of root vegetables and wrapped, for some unknown reason, in cling-film. When closer inspection reveals these to have titles such as Californian Big Boys and Grunt, a dreadful thought passes through your mind: could Campbell possibly be exploiting a hitherto unsuspected resonance in the word 'Everyman' to move into a quite different area of British publishing?
Seated in an office upstairs from his egregious (and entirely coincidental) confreres in the book trade, Campbell ponders the suggestion with the air of one weighing up its commercial possibilities and smiles a publisher's smile. 'I don't think it's quite in our line at the moment,' says the man who bought the Everyman title from Weidenfeld's J M Dent division in 1990 and relaunched it the following year. 'I must say that it does teach one an interesting lesson in the dynamics of the free market, though. We pay £18,000 for our three floors whereas the people downstairs pay £18,000 for one and then sublet it for £40,000. It makes you think.' Those of you who grew up with the comfortingly Fabian presence of Everyman's pilgrim logo should stay calm: Campbell is only joking (I think).
Founded in 1906 by the eponymous Mr Dent, the Everyman title was created with the jejune ambition of putting together - in its founder's modest words - 'the most complete library for the common man the world had ever seen'. The guiding principle in this undertaking was to be affordability: 'All Everyman books were originally sixpence a volume, so that - as Joseph Dent said, with typical Victorian orotundity - with a couple of quid, a man could be rich for life,' remarks Campbell, wryly.
For the next 40 years, suitably grateful figures from the pages of D H Lawrence novels were to raise their cloth caps to the high-minded shade of J M Dent with one horny hand while clutching cheap editions of Eckermann's Conversations with Goethe or Marcus Aurelius Antoninus's Meditations in the other. This uplifting state of affairs was not to last, however. 'Unfortunately,' says Dent's titular heir, 'the company never really recovered from the invention of the paperback and the subsequent domination of the market by a certain Penguin Books.' Thus it was that Campbell found Everyman's wistful pilgrim languishing - several acquisitions and a bit of publishing arbitrage later - in a dusty backwater of the Weidenfeld empire. 'I'd been stalking the title for more than a decade, while working for Gallimard and Hachette in Paris,' recalls Campbell, a glint in his eye. 'George Weidenfeld needed to sell, and I saw my chance to buy.' And why? 'Let's face it,' says Campbell, with a steely air. 'Everyman didn't just have a great history: it also had a great brand name. That's very rare in publishing. When people go into a bookshop, they, by and large, look for a book by its author. It is probably only in the case of Everyman and - (a faint rictus of distaste) - Penguin that they will actually look for something by brand. I had to borrow a certain amount of money to set up this company. With respect, if I'd called it, say, Campbell & Darwent, I would have been ignored. As it was, I could write to people like Seamus Heaney, Isaiah Berlin, Frank Kermode, asking them to be on the advisory board of a re-launched Everyman and they all said, "Yes, great". If I had written as Campbell & Darwent, they'd have binned my letter.' Now behold: here is a mystery. In spite of the fact that British publishers are known to be among the world's most entrepreneurial (some, indeed, might say cutthroat), a myth persists at The Bookseller and the bar of the Groucho Club that bits of the industry are run on charmingly raffine lines by a race of gentleman amateurs. That Campbell can use words like 'brand' and 'publicity' in the hallowed context of classic book publishing has thus led certain observers in the above institutions to suggest that what is going on on the ground floor of 79 Berwick Street is not entirely dissimilar to what is going on on the three floors above it. The fact that Everyman recorded a pre-tax profit of £446,000 on sales of £3.7 million in the year to end-June 1995 - a figure that gave it the highest sales-per-employee ratio of any publishing company in Britain - merely adds fuel to this humbug-scented fire.
The argument goes something like this. First, Campbell's undertaking is the publishing equivalent of falling off a log: concentrating on classic titles also conveniently means not having to pay authors' rights - a handy fillip that at a stroke cuts 10-17% off margin-prone publishing costs. Second, mutter detractors, his annexation of the Everyman title is the bibliophilic equivalent of British Leyland sticking MG badges on souped-up Montegos. The highly-designed, chicly monochrome covers of new Everymans - and their average price tag of £7.99 to £13.99 - suggests that the title's target market is no longer J M Dent's worthily autodidactic Lawrentian son of toil. Last, and perhaps most heinous, Campbell stands accused of having co-published a series called Birthday Books: a project of toe-curling winsomeness that would have the late Mr Dent whirling in his grave.
Campbell himself handles these brickbats with the dismissive air of a Francophile faced once more with the undying nature of British Philistinism. 'Actually,' notes a mordant publisher, 'those dreadful Everymans we had at university were the aberration. The originals were inspired by William Morris and were objects of great beauty. What we did in making a huge capital investment in re-setting and design - £500,000 in all - was to get back to J M Dent's initial vision.' As to the back-list gibe, Campbell evenly points out that 'of the 210 titles we currently publish, at least a third are still in copyright. We have actually just launched a new modern classics series, with books by people like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Salman Rushdie, V S Naipaul. But if what you are setting out to do is create a library of classic books, then you follow Johnson's dictum that a classic is a work that is re-read by several generations. It would be inappropriate for us to publish a nice piece of Will Self, circa 1993.' And the Birthday Books? 'Of course they're drivel,' observes Campbell, airily, 'but they make you feel good' - a sensation that in his own case may have much to do with the fact that they have sold two-and-a-half million lucrative copies in Britain and another three million in Japan. 'They are a substantial cash cow,' he notes. 'But then high-brow publishers have always published lowbrow stuff to subsidise their real work.' Whatever the moral issues of Everyman's reinvention, the fact of the title's new-found commercial success in a market notoriously un-prone to reading - the Dutch, infamously, spend more on English language books each year than do the English - warrants investigation.
That there should be gold in children's classics, for example, suggests that Campbell's nose for a market niche is, to say the least, a finely tuned one. Dismissing contemporary children's books as 'televisual', Everyman's supremo took the apparently insane decision in 1993 to 'publish children's books that actually had words in them - sometimes 400 pages of words'. Two years later, and Everyman's Children's Classics have sold 600,000 copies of Frances Hodgson Burnett and Louisa May Alcott to bewildered square-eyed infants in Britain and the US at £9.99 a throw. What makes this more remarkable is that Campbell and his teeny team of three-and-a-half colleagues have also had to face a particularly pernicious problem over the same period. 'Paper costs have risen by 60% in the past 18 months,' notes Everyman's publisher. 'This has hit us particularly hard because we spend more on paper - acid-free, creamwove - than most hardback publishers do. Book pricing is extremely sensitive. You can't just pass your costs on to the consumer by upping your cover to 20 quid.' That Campbell's voice betrays not the slightest tremor in relating these travails may be due to a temperament also untypical of British publishing: the willingness to take a long view. 'The point is that - provided we can pay our print bill - our stock is actually a capital asset,' he observes. 'That's not so if you're in the front-list business. If a title doesn't sell within a season there, then you start to think about pulping it. We know that a French 18th century novel will always sell in the end.' This bizarrely heterodox world view has a secondary advantage: other publishers are unlikely to try to emulate it. 'We do compete in terms of shelf space, but not really in terms of market,' notes Campbell placidly. 'Of course, you can buy a paperback for a quid - 60p now, in fact - but it'll fall apart before you've got to the end of it. A 20-year old paperback is as unsexy an object as a new one is sexy. We're really catering for people who think they might want to read Moby Dick more than once in their lives.' If the very thought makes you feel faint, then Everyman's newly robust bottom line nonetheless suggests that sufficient whale-minded punters exist to prove Campbell right. The only problem with this cosy state of affairs is that cosiness, in commercial terms, may in the end become boring: a tendency that is notable for having less salutary effects on corporate year-end figures than heterodoxy.
With this realisation in mind, Campbell recently took the already wide-eyed world of British publishing by surprise when he announced a £4.5 million alliance with Cadogan Books - another niche player, but one with an altogether less rarefied provenance than his own. Once part of the ominously named Metal Bulletin group, Cadogan is headed by Bill Colegrave, an ex-merchant banker who has concentrated his own list on chess and bridge manuals and non-illustrated travel guides.
Campbell claims that these last will fit in nicely with Everyman's own illustrated guides - 'that awful word "synergy"' - and notes that the ensuing capital injection will also help to pay off undesirable bank debts. There is talk, too, of an Alternative Investment Market listing in 1997. How all of this will fit in with Campbell's own small-but-clever ideology - 'It's important to know that one is never going to grow into a £100 million conglomerate,' says the man who rescued Everyman - is quite another matter.