For anyone under 40, Gollancz is merely a science fiction imprint—“the oldest specialist sci-fi and fantasy (SFF) publisher in the UK.” Gollancz indeed published many award-winning and successful SFF authors, J G Ballard and Terry Pratchett among them, but Gollancz is far more important than that, which makes the story of its last two decades a tragedy.
Victor Gollancz, a classics graduate from Oxford, was just 30 when he set up his eponymous company in 1927. He published George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, and Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim, as well as books by Ford Madox Ford, Daphne du Maurier, Franz Kafka and Vera Brittain. On his daughter Livia’s watch, Julia Hales’ The Green Consumer Guide and Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch were trendsetting bestsellers.
A self-described Christian democrat, VG (as he was known) published books that supported pacifist and socialist causes, and he founded the Left Book Club, which makes the company part of a wider 20th century British history and culture. Better than any of his contemporaries, VG understood typography, design and even marketing.
A natural home
The publisher VG’s formidable eldest daughter took over on his death in 1967 was a force to be reckoned with. Livia had joined in 1953—learning the ropes in marketing and design, co-founding its distinguished children’s list—after trouble with her teeth (the brass player’s perennial nightmare) put an end to her career as a French horn player. She had worked with a number of distinguished orchestras, including the London Symphony Orchestra and Covent Garden, before Sir John Barbirolli offered her the position of principal horn with The Hallé Orchestra. As a result, Livia built up a music list at Gollancz that was the foundation of every student’s library.
“VG trained me in all aspects of the business, except accounts,” she reflected as she prepared to hand over the reins in 1989. “He was a wonderful teacher,” though not such a good editor, at which his daughter turned out to be skilled—the musician’s attention to detail. Nevertheless, VG did not expect the company to long outlive him and would surely have been delighted by its continued flowering. Livia was a good spotter of new authors (Sara Paretsky was among her discoveries) who also had a keen eye for emerging editorial talent. Staff (mostly female) were encouraged to follow their passions, and while there were books of which she didn’t approve, she was never censorious. A devout vegetarian, she was more upset by a colleague’s fishing titles than she was by prostitute Dolores French’s memoir Working, which she thought “a very interesting social document”.
Like VG, she ran the company democratically, expecting everyone to do their own donkey work. The Covent Garden offices were spartan—what you’d imagine a publisher’s office should be—and pay and conditions fair but never lavish. A keen gardener, she would bring to work the abundant fruit (and vegetables) of her labours to share among colleagues. More often than not she wore T-shirt, jeans and stout shoes (Highgate Hill, the Downs or the Dolomites; she was a keen walker) and she would have found today’s designer publishers absurd.
When she sold the company to Houghton Mifflin in 1989, Livia shared the proceeds with staff, hoping she had found them a good home. But in 1992 Houghton Mifflin sold to the Cassell Group, which overextended itself and, in turn, sold Gollancz to Orion. By then she had moved on, devoting her retirement to gardening, playing in string quartets (the viola was her second instrument), walking and the Highgate Literary & Scientific Institution.
Livia Gollancz, born 1920, died 2018.
Jon Wood, group publisher at Orion, has responded to the comments in this obituary in a letter, published here. Liz Thomson, writer of the obituary, replies below:
My comments on the diminution of Victor Gollancz should not be interpreted as a slight on the proud history of SF publishing itself, at Gollancz or anywhere else. Rather it is a reminder, to readers and publishers too young to remember the “old” Gollancz, that Victor Gollancz Ltd was a leader in so many ways and an independent powerhouse that set standards and trends in both adult and children’s publishing.
Victor and Livia—and their many colleagues who got their start at Gollancz and went on to make distinguished contributions across the trade, among them—Giles Gordon, Hilary Rubinstein, Liz Calder and Joanna Goldsworthy— discovered and fostered a wide range of writing talent. Throughout it all, Victor Gollancz Ltd held fast to core political, social and moral beliefs.
Long before “corporate social responsibility” became a buzz term, Gollancz conducted its business in a socially responsible way. The Left Book Club was an extremely important initiative that played a key role in the shaping of post-war Britain.
That is what has been forgotten as Gollancz was bought and sold and slotted into the corporate environment. Gollancz itself, and publishing in general, is a key part of Britain’s history and heritage.
Every day in the news, we see how history is casually rewritten—publishing should not proceed down that path.
Robert Simons, nephew of Livia Gollancz writes
As one of Livia Gollancz's nephews, I hesitate to enter the spat about your obituary of her. But given the final sentence of Liz Thomson's reply about how history is casually rewritten, I should like to point out the following:
1. Victor Gollancz was born in 1893, so was 34 in 1927, not 30. By then he had already demonstrated his abilities, having joined Benn Brothers in 1921 and been Managing Director of Ernest Benn Ltd from its creation in 1923.
2. Although VG undoubtedly understood the value of typography and marketing, the distinctive typography and yellow jackets were not his work but that of Stanley Morison, who was a director.
3. Neither Victor nor Livia Gollancz ever owned the firm. The majority of the capital to establish the firm came from the family and friends of Victor's wife Ruth (whom he described as its "only begetter"). Victor controlled the firm through his ownership of 100,000 1 shilling Founder's shares, which outvoted the 50,000 £1 Ordinary shares.
The Bookseller regrets the tone set by the original obituary, and for these errors — Philip Jones