An Interview with John Seaton, editor of Faber Finds

Serendipity has always played a large role in my experiences with neglected books, and serendipity today led me to pass a very interesting and enjoyable hour with John Seaton, editor of the new Faber Finds series. When I learned of Faber’s new venture into republishing a large and diverse list of out-of-print titles, I took up their public invitation and sent them an email offering my perennial nominee, W. V. Tilsley’s Other Ranks. A few days later, I got a reply from John himself, expressing interest and asking for help in locating a copy.

As it happened, I was scheduled to come to London for a project management conference a few weeks later, so I offered to drop off a copy of my own photocopy while in the city. John invited me to stop by for a chat. So after a day full of project management methods and practices, I headed to Faber and Faber’s offices on Queens Square. Along with discussing Tilsley’s book, I took the opportunity to interview John about the series in general.

Faber Finds is both bucking a trend and setting one. Most mainstream British publishers, John explained, have become focused on their front list (the new releases) and near backlist–the recent releases–and allowed much of their deep backlist–the titles that sell a few copies a year for a decade or more–to evaporate. In the same way, most major booksellers devote their shelf space to these titles, leading to something of a tunnel vision effect.

At the same time, however, print-on-demand technology has matured to the point where new models of production and distribution become possible. Faber Finds is among the most innovative applications of print-on-demand to emerge to date. The idea came from Stephen Page, CEO of Faber and Faber, who brought John into the firm specifically to launch the venture. Faber’s target is not the High Street retail customer, but what Chris Anderson referred to as “the long tail.” Publishers with extensive backlists have long been challenged to balance the steady, if undramatic revenue from sales of older titles with the expensive of storing and managing the physical stock. With print-on-demand, publishers now have the opportunity to continue offering their backlists while limiting their costs to the initial “capture” and as-ordered printing of the books.

Part of the “long tail” argument is based on the diminishing unit costs of involved in digital production. Although it costs Faber roughly £4 pounds to print a book of some 300 pages, this is considerably less than that of printing and holding a physical stock of several hundred or several thousand copies for years or decades. And the print-on-demand unit cost is, if anything, bound to go down, while the warehousing costs can only go up.

At the same time, the Internet has opened up a sales channel that makes it far easier for customers to locate and buy lesser-known titles. I can remember, for example, looking up the publishing information about Michael Frayn’s slim book of philosophy, Constructions; going information in hand to my local bookstore and submitting the special order; then waiting months for my copy to arrive. If Constructions were available through print-on-demand, on the other hand, I could find it, order it like any in-print title, and have a copy delivered to me in about the same time as any in-print title. The availability of a new discovery and ordering capability courtesy of the Internet, combined with print-on-demand, is a perfect example of the “long tail” effect.

Print-on-demand has been around for years. Companies such as Kesslinger offer a rich catalog of out-of-copyright titles on this basis. But most of these companies merely scan in and reprint images taken from old editions. Faber and Faber has always been a press known for its high standards of culture and style, and Faber Finds is very much in keeping with this tradition. They scan to text, proofread the result, and then integrate any black-and-white images into the text. Then they print the text on good-quality stock in an attractive typeface, and bind it into a sturdy trade paperback format featuring a unique computer-generated graphic for each title. John was somewhat apologetic for the design of the books, but I think he should be proud. There is a big difference between minimalist and generic. And there is nothing generic about the look of Faber Finds titles.

In keeping with the “long tail” model, Faber Finds is not starting out with a modest list, gingerly testing the waters. Instead, the series debuted with 100 titles and John has managed to clear the rights to another 300 titles. Faber plans to announce 20 to 30 new titles each month. If the business case proves sound, the list could grow into a thousand or more, which would easily surpass any other venture into republication of neglected books to date.

John and I discussed some of the potential effects of this new approach to publishing titles well in the margins from the standard canon of great books. I’ve long felt that the tendency to view literature as the exclusive domain of a few great authors and books rather than a broad, varied, and wonderfully unpredictable melange of the great, the good, the respectable, the near-misses and glancing hits, and even the occasional utter failure is reinforced by the tendency of non-“great book” titles to go out of print. A professor can hardly teach a lesser-known book if a student can’t buy a copy in the college bookstore or check out copy 23 of 37 from the library. With the Faber Finds model, Angus Wilson has a chance of keeping a spot on a modern English novelists syllabus alongside William Golding and Doris Lessing

Angus Wilson, in fact, is one of the authors John takes some personal satisfaction in having rescued. John came to Faber after spending three decades at Penguin. Penguin had stood by Wilson, keeping many of his novels in print through the 1970s and 1980s, when realistic novels were languishing in the critical doldrums, but they finally tossed in the towel over a decade along. Ever since, Wilson, inarguably one of the most significant English writers since World War Two, has been essentially out of print and out of circulation. Faber Finds will bring all of Wilson’s novels back in print–as it will those of P.H. Newby and, if negotiations go well, Joyce Cary.

At the far end of the spectrum from Angus Wilson and Joyce Cary stands another writer Faber Finds will bring back to print in August 2008. Roy Horniman’s novel Israel Rank has kept a small place in history for being the inspiration for one of the finest of all British comedies, the 1949 film, “Kind Hearts and Coronets.” Even though the novel sold a respectable number of copies when first published in 1907 and was republished in 1948 while Graham Greene was working for Eyre and Spotiswoode, printed copies have become as hard to find as skeletons of the dodo. John was finally able to locate a copy though a distant relative of Horniman’s, and this sly satire of Edwardian mores and anti-Semitism will finally be available for a price quite a bit less than that of a mid-sized car.

Not that Israel Rank is a lost masterpiece. The point of Faber Finds is not to rescue a few great books that have become forgotten, but to make available–at a reasonable price for both consumer and publisher–a large number of fine books that merely fell victim of a bad business case for a few decades. Children’s books are coming as well, says John, as well as color images in a year or two. Altogether, Faber’s expedition into the “long tail” of the publishing business is one of the most exciting “mash-ups” I’ve heard of, and it was a genuine pleasure to get a chance to get an insider’s view of what I hope will be history in the making.

1 thought on “An Interview with John Seaton, editor of Faber Finds

  1. I was very interested to read this item, as W V Tilsley, the author of Other Ranks, was my great uncle. My mother has a very well-thumbed copy of the book, with a handwritten dedication to her father, and it was once my privilege to be able to read a very appropriate extract from it at the Menin Gate in Ypres to a party of school students whom I was accompanying. It has long been my mother’s wish that the book be republished. In trawling the internet, I have formed the impression that little is now known about my mother’s ‘Uncle Vin’; for example, one enthusiast for the book was unable to discover what his initials stood for.

    I assume that, thus far, your endeavours to have the book republished have been unsuccessful – but the imminent centenary of the War would seem to provide an ideal opportunity. I should be very interested to know if you are keen to make another attempt, in which the provision of some biographical detail may be of some help.

    Best wishes

    Tim Boardman

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