Obituary: James Price

Obituary: James Price

James Price, who has died aged 89, was a publisher of rare imagination and conviction.

At Secker & Warburg, Allen Lane, the Penguin Press and Scolar Press he was responsible for such groundbreaking titles as John Lahr’s sensational biography of the playwright Joe Orton Prick Up Your Ears, and Montaillou, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s "total history" account of heretics in a medieval Pyrenean village. In addition, Price published a steady flow of cutting-edge volumes reflecting his lifelong passion for film.

After National Service, he went to Oxford, where his own verse was published—alongside the likes of Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, Thom Gunn and Elizabeth Jennings—in the Oxford Fantasy Poets series.

Price cut his publishing teeth in the production departments of Reader’s Digest, Pitkin and Athlone Press, before joining Secker & Warburg in 1965 as commissioning editor, a role which afforded him the opportunity to launch the groundbreaking Cinema One imprint, which published books on modern European and American film directors and genres. From Secker he moved to become managing director of Allen Lane the Penguin Press—where Prick Up Your Ears was published in 1978—and then Scolar Press.

Scolar had been founded in the 1960s to publish scholarly facsimile editions but its parent company, Bemrose Corporation, was keen to expand into trade publishing. With his wealth of experience at Secker and at Penguin, Price was the ideal hand on the tiller. Under his guidance, Scolar started publishing high-profile non-fiction titles, none more striking than Montaillou: Cathars and Catholics in a French Village 1294–1324, translated by Barbara Bray.

The daily business of the 250 inhabitants of a village remote both in terms of geography and of time sounds unlikely material for a bestseller, but Le Roy Ladurie’s alchemy produced a compelling text, and the book was soon being hailed as a classic of modern historical research. Two more volumes by Le Roy Ladurie followed in the wake of MontaillouCarnival in 1980 and Love, Death and Money in the Pays d’Oc in 1982—while another notable French proponent of "new history" joined the Scolar list when Jacques Le Goff’s The Birth of Purgatory was published in 1984.

Bemrose divested itself of its publishing interests in the early 1980s, and Price founded his own imprint to carry on the Scolar list. He was blessed with a highly optimistic demeanour and sailed on valiantly through swirling commercial storms, adding to the Scolar mix the bookseller University Press Books, modelled on the original UPB store in Berkeley, California. But Price was a publisher of the old school, and even in cash-strapped times would send a congratulatory telegram to every author on publication day. Life continued to be hard for a company of Scolar’s diminutive size, and in 1986 he bowed to the inevitable and sold the imprint to Gower.

But once a publisher, always a publisher, and Price then started, in collaboration with critic Jonathan Wordsworth, Woodstock Books, which published facsimiles, a cottage industry run from the Price family home in Oxfordshire.

James is survived by his wife Belinda, daughters Alyson, Harriet and Jo, and son Humphrey, himself a publisher and author.