Retired publisher John Skelton pays tribute to Nick Esson, who co-founded UCL Press before its sale to Taylor & Francis and who created Combined Academic Publishers
Nick Esson was larger than life; well known for his bonhomie and booming laughter. But his success in the trade stemmed from shrewd knowledge of the small details of both books and clients, from his sustaining an architecture of excellent business relationships and from the fact that he treated everyone as equally important.
He began with Van Nostrand Reinhold in 1972, and became a sales representative with the Donald Reinders sales agency from 1975. He joined Allen & Unwin in 1977 and, during the next 14 years, established himself as a highly successful export sales manager with book trade friends on six continents. He then co-founded University College London Press which brought together City finance, private investors and a top university to create an ambitious academic press.
Nick’s sales and marketing expertise was fundamental to taking UCL from a standing start to more than £1m in turnover in the five years before it was sold to Taylor & Francis. He then consulted and taught publishing in Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan before founding Combined Academic Publishers (CAP) in 1998. CAP provides a boutique marketing, sales and distribution operation, serving major North American university presses in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Nick built a portfolio of prestigious clients and the business flourished.
At the time of his death, Nick was still providing the company with his wisdom and experience as chair, having sold the business to Julia Monk and David Pickering in 2012. He had also embarked on an MA in Classical Civilisation at Birkbeck College, which he enjoyed hugely, achieving firsts for his essays (and establishing a post-seminar discussion group in the bar).
Career details cannot capture Nick’s vivacity, love of the trade and capacity to inspire and maintain friendships with people from many different backgrounds. Younger publishers had the good fortune to be taught by Nick at the courses he delivered with great enthusiasm at Book House (now PTC). Booksellers encountered Nick at what used to be the CUBS conference (now the APS). Nick was a hearty contributor to the meetings and an even heartier participant in the bar discussions into the early hours. He had a huge sense of fun and brought great energy to everything he did.
"We both travelled to Kyrgyzstan in 1999 on behalf of the Soros Foundation. Nick, as ever, made many friends during our 10-day trip and we spent many evenings with a fascinating group of publishers who were struggling out of the 'wreckage' of the Soviet Union. I remember Nick very carefully explaining the rules of cricket to some perplexed publishers from Tajikistan,” recalls David Taylor of the Ingram Content Group. Nick’s sporting passions were rugby and his own hiking expeditions, as well as cricket.
Mike Cox, CAP’s accountant, recalls that “at a recent outing to the Oval I had to tell him to pipe down when a sustained monologue on the evils of the Tory-led coalition nearly led to us being kicked out of the members’ enclosure”. Once Nick’s contempt for something was aroused it was difficult to stop him, but it was always directed at institutions and policies (most recently the HS2 train line) rather than individuals.
Nick was in his element at the Frankfurt Book Fair, where he could do business very effectively and socialise with the contacts he had made over many years. Typically, he founded a small group of publishers (L’Equipe de Cheval Blanc) with nine members from six countries which, for 24 years, travelled for two days overland from Calais to the fair, feasting on the way. Nick was also an active member of the Society of Academic Publishers and of Old Export Lags.
Publisher Jessica Kingsley reflects: “Nick was brave (always prepared to go for it), generous (especially with help and information), loyal (never seemed to give up on people), intelligent (always interesting about publishing, and many other things too) and knowledgeable—especially (memorably) about South African wine!” He was also fair: Mike Cox recalls his determination to be fair to clients, staff, suppliers and even the taxman.
Loyal and generous
According to Peter Milroy, director emeritus of the University of British Columbia Press: “The word that best describes Nick is tumultuous. It was impossible to be in the same room as him and not be immediately aware he was there. We shared a love of books and book people, food, wine, progressive politics and fierce but friendly arguing. He was the most loyal and generous of friends.”
Taylor adds: “Nick had a fine wit and possibly the loudest laugh in the trade on either side of the Atlantic. The book trade has lost a real character, a fine publisher and a damn fine bloke. Nick will be much missed.”
Nick died peacefully on 20th February in the company of the family to which he was devoted: his wife Clare, and children Elizabeth and Patrick.