Robin Hyman, who has died at the age of 85, was a leading independent book publisher whose greatest successes were in educational publishing. He was president of the Publishers Association and the author of many children’s books with his wife Inge, and compiled a quotations dictionary and a children’s dictionary which sold more than three million copies and was the standard school dictionary across much of Africa for a time.
Hyman’s love of books began with his father, Leonard, an antiquarian bookseller, and continued after National Service when he worked in a Bloomsbury bookshop for Ivan Chambers: Hyman said he learned more about bookselling from Chambers than he did from anyone else.
He studied English at Birmingham University, where he was editor of student magazine Mermaid, before beginning his publishing career at Evans Brothers. Hyman learned about every aspect of the book trade at Evans Brothers, working his way up, over 22 years, through roles in production, design, publicity and editorial, and finally becoming managing director, a post he held from 1972–1977.
Hyman’s love of words and theatre soon drove him to complete a very personal project: compiling a Dictionary of Famous Quotations, first published in 1962 and still in print today. It was a mammoth task, putting together 25,000 entries, and Hyman used to get up at four or five in the morning to work on the dictionary before beginning his day job. His interest in dictionaries, which he collected, developed further when he created a series of bestselling children’s dictionaries for the UK and many African countries.
In 1977, Hyman wanted to branch out on his own. He took a major gamble, securing investment from financial backers to buy the well-regarded but ailing publisher G Bell & Sons to forge a new publishing force of his own. The new company, Bell & Hyman, thrived. One of his proudest achievements was the publication of the definitive, 11-volume edition of Samuel Pepys’ diaries; a separate volume, solely for the Index, went on to win an award.
Bell & Hyman expanded rapidly through acquisitions such as Mills & Boon (non-fiction), Evans and University Tutorial Press. In 1986, in a coup that surprised the publishing world, Bell & Hyman combined with the celebrated publisher Allen & Unwin, famous for having J R R Tolkien and Bertrand Russell on its list, in a merger that gave Hyman the control of the resulting company, Unwin Hyman. It went on to buy feminist imprint Pandora. Following a life-threatening illness in 1988, Hyman sold Unwin Hyman to HarperCollins.
He been involved with the Publishers Association for some time, and became its president in 1989, serving until ‘91. It was a turbulent time, requiring him to deal with big issues such as the Net Book Agreement, into which the director general of fair trading had just launched an investigation; the fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie after publication of his Satanic Verses; and the ongoing threat of VAT being imposed on books.
He returned to a publishing role between 1991 and 2004, chairing art book publisher Laurence King, playing an important role in guiding it through its initial years. He was an innately modest man of great integrity, who concealed great concern for the individual behind a slightly headmasterly persona. He was able to combine a considerable understanding of the business of publishing with an appreciation of the potential of the people working for him, which contributed greatly to his success.
He was on the General Advisory Council of the BBC and was an active member of the Pepys Society, helping to set up the biennial Samuel Pepys Award for the best book written on the period in which Pepys lived.
Hyman’s faith was important to him and he contributed to the founding of Jewish Book Week. He married clinical psychologist Inge Neufeld in 1966, with whom he had three children: James, Peter and Philippa. He was immensely proud of his eight grandchildren.
Laurence King is founder and managing director of Laurence King Publishing.