The recent screening of Mark Gatiss’ Dracula – an enterprise that started well enough but fell away into nonsense like many of the BBC adaptations – reminded me of an enterprise that I initiated some 23 years ago which, if I had not been already starting a BA degree as a mature student I might have found more time to expand. I had decided in a moment of rashness that I could add publishing to my already established bookselling business. It was designed to bring back into print those relatively modern titles that had quickly gone out of print and for which I was constantly being asked by customers. Prices for the out of print first editions had sky-rocketed beyond most collectors reach and to supply the demand I saw an opportunity to bring them back to market in a specially bound limited edition and have the author sign each copy. The plan was definitely cunning and, for the most part, a success. Firstly I had to choose which titles to bring back.
Paul Doherty may not be a name that will appear on many GP reader’s shelves but he was (and still is) a highly prolific writer having 100+ novels published to date. In addition to his writing he was headmaster of Trinity Catholic High School, Woodford Green which has consistently gained an Ofsted “Outstanding” mark. And to top it all he has six children. I first met him in the early 90’s when I approached him to sign copies of one of his new books and for which I had garnered enough orders to make it worth his and my while driving up to Woodford Green with a boot full. As he was knocking out at least two books a year at this time I got to know him quite well and found him very approachable as well as being a highly educated historian with the ability to translate real medieval historical events into entertaining fictions. On one of my trips I spotted two books on his shelves that I had never seen before – “The Prince Drakulya” and “The Lord Count Drakulya”. Both had been published by the publishing house, Robert Hale, in 1986. Here we must digress a little.
Robert Hale Publishing (now defunct) was founded in 1936 and despite having one or two recognisable authors on their list – Wyndham Lewis, Jean Plaidy and Berthold Brecht (about as bizarre a mixed bunch as you could imagine) – it was primarily a genre fiction publisher. This meant that very few, if any, of their books ever found their way onto bookshop shelves as the trade saw them as library fodder titles. Print runs were tight and for the most part no reprint was ever called for as the number required to supply the public library system was fairly static. It is not known what the actual figures were for the print runs but to judge by the scarcity of all Hale titles on the secondhand market these days we can estimate a figure of not more than 1000 for each title published – possibly a lot less. Despite having early Elmore Leonard westerns and a long run of John D. MacDonald titles (now fetching very high prices as they are the only hardback editions in existence having being paperback originals in the States), the authors that found themselves on the Hale list tended to be first-timers having been turned down by the major publishers or sadly, at the end of their writing careers when their imaginative juices were viewed as not up to scratch. Paul Doherty was one of the former and by the time I met him he had already been snapped up by a mainstream publisher, Headline, who promised him a better deal and, more importantly, paperback editions of all his titles- a path that Robert Hale never pursued.
Doherty had written the Drakulya novel – a fictionalised account of Vlad the Impaler – as one book but Hale had objected to the length, it being some 360 pages. As 180 pages was the standard size for a Hale library edition they simply chopped the manuscript in half and published the text in two separate volumes. Being a young author and unlikely to see the book published elsewhere Doherty was persuaded to go along with this butchery and the two books were brought out in 1986, some 6 months apart, priced at £8.95 and £9.25 respectively. The author probably netted less than £1500 in royalties for the two books together. So, when I suggested to the author that I could reissue the two books as they had originally been intended to be presented, i.e. as one volume, limit it to 350 signed copies, retailing at £25 with Doherty receiving 50% of the net income after expenses he rather jumped at the idea.
We were fast approaching 1997 and I suddenly had the bright idea of commemorating the anniversary of the first appearance of the Bram Stoker classic vampire novel, Dracula, by reproducing the colour of the binding and lettering of the Archibald Constable first edition as close as I could. Armed with a rather beat-up copy of Dracula and the text of Paul Doherty’s two Drakulya books I approached The Ipswich Book Company to see what they could do. The finished item when it turned up a few weeks later was – and remains – a delight to the eye. Having acquired an ISBN – a legal requirement – I was then told that I had to hand over 6 free copies to the various major libraries in the UK as “legal deposit” – a law that had been in existence since the mid 17th century. I chose those copies that had flaws or were bumped on the corners and duly sent them off. The other 344 I packed into the back of the car and set off for Woodford Green where the author and I had agreed to meet at the local Chinese restaurant. I was greeted in the car park by the author, his wife and all six of his children. You may have visions of author signing sessions where an author sits at a desk, perhaps with a glass of wine to hand, greeting the readers as they queue up to have their new books signed. As my business was mail order only I had to accommodate authors as best I could. Colin Dexter, Jasper Fforde and Minette Walters have all done a stint in the back of my estate. So it was that Paul Doherty sat in the passenger seat signing each copy while a train of little Dohertys handed them from the back of the car through the driver’s side and then out and back to the boot to be stowed away carefully by yours truly. We had done the lot in 30 minutes and then it was into the Chinese for a slap-up nosh (paid for by the author, thankfully).
I sold out the whole run within 4 weeks and the author received royalties which probably amounted to three times what he had received for the original editions. Copies can now be found on the net for prices varying from £90 up to £200. I only have one copy left, numbered No.1 and dedicated to me by the author “to the publisher for revivifying a cherished child”. I went on to reissue three other books by other authors, Rodney Wingfield (the Frost series), Michael Pearce (the Mamur Zapt series) and Ellis Peters (an obscure 30’s crime novel written under a pseudonym). Apart from the last, all sold out within weeks. If I had more time and a bit more steam I might have carried on with this venture but as we all know life has a habit of, on occasion, holing one below the waterline. Still, I look at the four books on the shelf and think “well, you did a pretty good job there old chap. Smile and move on”.
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file