For Christmas 1972, I was given a present that changed the way I viewed the world. It was a folder of facsimile documents called Tutankhamun & the Discovery of the Tomb. My family didn’t manage to visit the ‘Treasures of Tutankhamun’ exhibition at the British Museum that year, so my Jackdaw Folder was the next best thing. I learned how to write in hieroglyphics, pored over the grisly details of mummification and read newspaper reports of Howard Carter’s amazing discovery. I also became aware of the source of this magical cornucopia: Jonathan Cape, 30 Bedford Square, London.
That name had also become charged with significance for the young Dan Franklin, who would scour the shelves of the Bishops Stortford public library for the contemporary American novels that the same company had become known for publishing in the mid 1960s. Dan would eventually spend 27 years there as publishing director and I, by chance, married a former Cape publicity director, inculcating at second hand the magical possibilities of great publishing. For me, the Cape list, which celebrates its centenary this year, represents all that is admirable in the book industry.
It is a list of astonishing quality, from the early years, which featured E.M Forster, H.G. Wells, Edith Wharton, Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce through the 60S and 70s (Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Doris Lessing, Gabriel García Márquez), the 80s (Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, Anita Brookner) to today when the all-female editorial team led by Michal Shavit are publishing a new generation of stars including Ocean Vuong, Yuval Noah Harari, Ottessa Moshfegh, Maggie Nelson and David Szalay. Cape has won the Booker Prize a record eight times.
I started with the Jackdaws rather than fiction because that particular piece of Cape’s publishing captures something essential. As Michal Shavit describes it: "it’s about being open and curious. We have a tradition of breaking down categories." The Jackdaw story began in 1962 when Cape’s head of publicity, Tony Colwell, created a dossier of facsimile materials for booksellers to promote The Cato Street Conspiracy, a book of popular history by Peter Langdon-Davies. Langdon-Davies saw the educational potential and set to work drawing up a forty-strong launch list; the Cape production team came up with a way of producing it economically, and Tom Maschler conjured a launch at the Tower of London, where the Minister for Education gave an enthusiastic speech.
This combination of creativity, chutzpah and courage was the Cape way from the beginning. Jonathan Cape had joined the trade as a sixteen year-old errand boy at Hatchard’s and became a rep for the American publisher Harper and Brothers, where he first developed his love for modern American literature. His first foray into publishing was cheap paperback editions of Elinor Glyn’s racy novels which he released and sold under his own one-man imprint, Jonathan Page & Co. This helped him raise the capital needed to set up Jonathan Cape, which launched on New Year’s Day, 1921.
The lead title was a deluxe edition of Arabia Deserta by the legendary Arabist, C.M. Doughty with an introduction by T.E. Lawrence. It retailed at nine guineas (about £400 in today’s money). As Cape commented, "To start publishing is mad enough, but to publish Doughty at nine guineas as a commencement some would think madder." This wasn’t "a speculation", he added, but "an investment". So it would prove: the book reprinted twice that year and the subsequent books by T.E. Lawrence would underwrite Cape’s rapid expansion.
Cape’s early innovations still seem audacious: neon advertisements for Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis in Piccadilly Circus in 1922; the launch of the Travellers Library in 1926, which was to reach 226 titles by 1955 and made Cape a byword for innovative production. Even The Bookseller remarked on ‘"he clever idea of printing the price on the perforated corner of the wrapper – a little bit of thoughtfulness that makes a Cape book particularly suitable as a gift". The launch of Florin Books in 1932, a reprint list of new and classic books in uniform clothbound editions for the keen price of two shillings (about £5.99 today) anticipated the launch of Penguin in 1935. Six of the first ten Penguins were Jonathan Cape titles, although Cape would later write to Allen Lane: "You’re the bastard who has ruined the trade with your ruddy Penguins".
When Michal Shavit tells me: "I’m of the firm belief that you start with quality and the sales will follow", she locates herself in a publishing tradition, both pragmatic and entrepreneurial, that runs back through Dan Franklin and Tom Maschler to the list’s founder. As he put it in 1926: "Books should be to hand all the time. They should be no longer than necessary, they should be fresh and new, and the prices should be as moderate as possible".
John Mitchinson is the publisher of Unbound and the co-host of the books podcast Backlisted. You can find him on Twitter at @johnmitchinson, @unbounders and @BacklsitedPod.