Obituary: Sally Whitaker

Obituary: Sally Whitaker

Sally Whitaker, the former m.d. of J Whitaker & Sons (JW&S), died on 21st October at the age of 77. She had retired in 1997 and left the board two years later, following the sale of the firm to the Dutch publishing group VNU. Her active and happy retirement, book-trade and other charity work, and travel and arts-related pleasures with many friends, was stopped by a savage stroke within only a few years of her leaving the company.

For more than a decade after that she was wheelchair-bound. Sally’s early career was first and briefly at medical school at Barts Hospital, following her grandfather, Dr Edgar Whitaker, who had been a GP before going into the family publishing firm. She then spent a few years on the export side at Marks & Spencer, before being recruited by JW&S as advertising manager.

In 1982, following the death of her father, she was appointed m.d., and her older brother David became chairman. Her legacy, both to the company and to the trade, was as a key figure in the development of a sales-data monitoring service that started under JW&S as BookTrack: now under Nielsen, it’s known as BookScan, and has been taken up in 13 countries. The trade had recognised the need for accurate measurement of the movement of books out of the shops, just as the music industry had its bestseller lists and hit parades: credible charts, based on electronic point-of-sale data.

JW&S was in a central position to provide the service: the firm had been around for more than a century; it owned the trade paper The Bookseller; it published the trade inventory of books available, British Books in Print; it initiated and ran the book numbering system, the ISBN; and it owned and ran the electronic ordering system TeleOrdering. BookTrack was in research and development through the mid-1990s, and launched in 1996. It is now an essential management tool for publishers, and information source for booksellers, agents and journalists.

Sally practised the maxim that you should serve the trade that feeds you. She was active on numerous committees, including a long period as honorary secretary of the Society of Bookmen (now The Book Society), she enjoyed hosting company gatherings at booksellers’ conferences and the Frankfurt Book Fair and, above all, she was a long-term supporter of the Book Trade Charity (BTBS), serving on its committees and board, then later as its chairman and, finally, president. She was firm, fair, sometimes severe and often didn’t give an inch in argument. But those who knew her well understood that beneath the facade she was less than totally self-confident and could be kind, generous and witty.

Although brother and sister did not always see eye to eye, when united they were a formidable force, as media proprietor Robert Maxwell found out to his substantial cost when he sued The Bookseller for libel. A split on the Whitaker board in 1997 led to David’s departure; Sally stayed on as a non-executive director and David’s son Martin became m.d. The passing of time eased matters and latterly David and Sally shared many family celebrations. Sally’s stroke was more disabling than many realised, but she gave it her best shot, attending key gatherings when she could: she managed BTBS’ 175th birthday party, her brother’s 80th and their nephew’s wedding in Cornwall, a logistical exercise involving trains and specialist cars and portable ramps to cope with a medieval village. However in later years, as her health deteriorated, she retreated closer to her family in Surrey, near her sister and nieces and nephews.

Sally will be remembered by her friends for her sharp wit, her generosity, her warmth and, above all, for her courage.