A little over a year ago, Prelude Books publisher Pete Duncan and Abbie Headon, who heads the firm's humorous fiction imprint Farrago, came to The Bookseller's office to chat about the indie publisher’s list. At the end of the meeting, Duncan coyly mentioned there might be a company announcement in the offing.
It was pretty big news: in August last year Prelude acquired Duckworth a few months after owner Peter Mayer’s death (Duckworth’s US-based The Overlook Press was sold to Abrams at the same time). Duncan says: "I had a few connections with Duckworth and I met [Mayer] a few times. In a sense we were the only natural buyer for it. We weren’t so big that it was too small a fish; and we weren’t so small that we didn’t have enough working capital."
In the intervening year, Duncan and the team (Headon, head of trade sales Matt Casbourne and publishing assistant Fanny Emily Lewis) have worked to integrate the businesses, bringing Duckworth and its 121 years of publishing history into the fold, ramping up its digital marketing and creating a more focused offer.
One consequence of the acquisition was the retiring of the Prelude name—the firm Duncan founded in 2016 after he had previously headed up Constable & Robinson for six years—in favour of the Duckworth Book Group (its rebooted logo officially launches this week). Duncan says: "We were a bit sad about it, but we’ve kept Farrago as it has really built its own identity. But I was a realist that Duckworth has better name recognition [than Prelude]. And that’s a real starting point that you can quite quickly build on. We’re trying to shape the story of Duckworth that it is one half traditional publisher, but also this amazing new company."
L-R Matt Casbourne, Fanny Emily Lewis, Abbie Headon and Pete Duncan (The Duckworth Book Group team)
Ducks in a row
That Duckworth is such a venerable house, Duncan concedes, can have its pluses and minuses. There is the enviable history: founded by Gerald Duckworth (the half- brother of Virginia Woolf) in 1898, it has since published luminaries including Woolf, D H Lawrence, Anthony Powell and Edith Sitwell—and a hefty backlist comes with that. Yet it is fair to say that the later, pre-Mayer incarnation might have had a reputation for being overstuffed with musty, moth-nibbled industry grandees. Plus, it had published widely in its 13 decades, which probably made more than a few people fuzzy about its mission. Headon says: "When I meet acquaintances and say I work for Duckworth, some say things like, ‘Oh, don’t they do textbooks, or children’s books?’ I say, ‘Yes, in the past.’"
Job one, then, was to "reappraise Duckworth’s history and think how to bring it forward to give it a new focus", says Duncan. The list is now more streamlined, with the bulk of the output zeroed in on four non-fiction categories—biography/memoir, history, popular science and psychology—along with historical fiction.
Duncan says: "The whole area of biography and memoir is really interesting, as there is more scope now for what you can publish. We really want to colonise that space because we can do that traditional, well-written biography—such as Eleanor Fitzsimons’ upcoming The Life and Loves of E Nesbit—or edgy memoirs such as Jeannie Vanasco’s Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl, which deals with childhood rape."
Casbourne, who came over from Duckworth after the sale, adds: "It can be pretty tough being a general publisher as a small indie. Whittling our list down to those specific streams communicates to the trade that we are a destination for these kinds of books. And today you have to take as much guesswork out for the buyers. They can now say, ‘OK, it’s a Duckworth so biography, history, popular science... We know they do good stuff, so we’ll take a look at it.’"
The company is not forgetting about that extensive backlist. Next year, for example, Duckworth is bringing out of a single edition of John Bayley’s three memoirs of life with his wife Iris Murdoch, one of which was the basis for the Judy Dench and Jim Broadbent-starring Oscar-winning biopic. But the idea, Duncan says, is to shine a light on some underplayed parts of its heritage, like the cutting-edge women’s literary fiction it published in the 1970s and ’80s, including titles by Beryl Bainbridge and Penelope Fitzgerald, mostly under editor Anna Haycraft (better known to the public as novelist Alice Thomas Ellis; pictured right).
Sitting aside the main Duckworth list are two less traditional sides. The firm is the trade representative for The School of Life, Alain de Botton’s conferences/publishing/therapy organisation. De Botton initially approached Duncan for help because he wanted to have School of Life titles sold in bookshops, but the firm needed a flexible partner, as it also sells books directly to its members and at its events.
Then there is Headon’s Farrago, which encompasses all manner of fiction genres, from cosy crime to fantasy, as long as the books are funny. The list has re-released classic series, such as Victor Canning’s comic travelogues and Heron Carvic’s Miss Seeton mysteries, the latter of which has sold more than 300,000 units across all formats for Farrago. Its new authors include former Midas PR executive Chris McCrudden, whose second Battlestar Suburbia title, Battle Beyond the Dolestars, is out on 19th September.
Headon believes that, with the stresses and strains of modern life and politics, it is a ripe time for humorous fiction: "A lot of our books tackle really serious subjects, but with humour. Many of them have someone who doesn’t feel like a hero who ends up accidently becoming one. Without getting too soapboxy—actually, getting soapboxy—we need to have books that have hope. I think comic fiction is the perfect vehicle for that. You make people laugh, but also think there is a possibility of making life better."
Part of Farrago’s success is a savvy and sophisticated digital marketing programme that keeps it constantly in touch with its fans. This is in part aided by the imprint’s
ethos of focusing on authors, not individual books. Headon says: "It’s continual series marketing—not for a short window, for one book. We never think frontlist, we think whole-list."
Melding the traditional and non-traditional sides of the business will make the overall group stronger, argues Duncan. He says: "There are synergies. For our Farrago fiction authors, they value their books being available in print—properly in print, not print on demand. That’s what Duckworth can add to Farrago in the long-term. The marketing techniques we are developing to try to own that reader relationship at Farrago is going to become really important for our non-fiction. And that’s probably the biggest challenge all publishers face at the moment: how to gain control of that relationship with your customers."