TOM JAINE: the publisher

In verbatim on June 13, 2012 at 9:09 am

Tom is one of those people you could just talk and talk and talk to. I met him at the Abergavenny Food Festival and we had a long chat about things while I leafed through some of the amazing books he sells. The one I remember most was a translation of recipes from the royal Lao court. He was utterly charming in the interview, which we did over the phone. This appeared in Fork magazine and the photo is Tom’s.

So, food and books – two of life’s greatest simple pleasures. What else is there?

Ha! Yes, quite… drinking can be quite good fun too! Sometimes growing the stuff is just as exciting as cooking it, you know. But then you have to pick it, which is terribly hard work, and then you have to store it, which is awfully difficult!

Has food always been your passion, or could it just as easily have been something else?

Oh no, it has always been food for me. I was brought up at The Hole in the Wall in Bath and haven’t left the industry since, other than to study history and work for a few years as an archivist. So the combination of food and history is perfect for me, thank you very much.

So how did you end up owning Prospect Books?

Alan Davidson founded it in 1979 when I was running The Carved Angel in Dartmouth with Joyce Molyneux. I met Alan through the Oxford Symposium on Food History. Then in 1993, I was looking for something new after writing The Good Food Guide, and Alan wanted to move on,
so I bought the business.

Has it changed much over the years?

Well, interestingly, turnover has been remarkably consistent from one year to the next. We have good and bad years, but it’s usually only plus or minus about five percent. The nature of the books has changed, however. In the 80s, there was a huge appetite for facsimiles of old cookery books, but with Google Books and the internet, the market has virtually disappeared. Now we focus on scholarly works and do lots of translations. There’s a growing market for it and it’s something I enjoy. It’s nice to take something that already exists and make it available again
to a public that no longer understands Greek or Middle French.

How do you see Prospect Books changing over the coming years?

I’m getting too old for this so I just want to carry on as we are! You could take it forward if you were intelligent, bright and energetic enough, but you’d need sophisticated marketing and to be very smart about the kind of books you publish. If you can manage to develop modern recipe books that don’t cost tens of thousands to print, then you’re onto a winner. It is do-able – I wrote a little book called Building a Wood-Fired Oven for
Bread & Pizza. It’s a simple little thing but it has been my best-seller for years! It did well initially in America where they have more space for such things, but now it’s doing well over here too. It’s incredible! If you tap into things people are passionate about, you don’t necessarily need to
compete with Quadrille’s vast photography budgets. I mean, there are hundreds of people out there who cook authentic medieval banquets just for the fun of it. It’s astonishing the things people do!

What’s the most important thing you’ve learnt over the years?

Oh, I’m hopeless, so I just say don’t over-extend yourself. One of my chief pleasures is to make a slight loss every year so I don’t have to pay thing to the Inland Revenue! Jilly Cooper’s husband was a small publisher of great skill, he said: “it’s very easy to print a book, but very hard to sell it.” I’ve learnt the truthof this the hard way. I’m hooked on the production, the type-setting and the editing, but selling is where the real skill lies. A good publisher would leave all that donkey work to printers and editors, but that’s precisely the bit that I love.

And how about Amazon?

I don’t understand Amazon… in fact, I don’t really understand the book trade. It seems to have lost its way for the small publisher. Back in ‘93, it would be 33% for everyone and you could just about make a living from it. Nowadays it’s more like 40% or 50% for most and Amazon takes 63%!  Things have to be priced so weirdly just to make any money at all! Just look at Jamie Oliver’s new book. £30! It’s really quite depressing… some people say they turn over more with Amazon but I just don’t know if I believe it. It’s the same as a food supplier having to sell produce at a loss in order to get in with the big supermarkets.

But, obviously you feel it’s important that small independent publishers like Prospect continue to exist?

It’s very important. For every red hot best-seller that captures the mind of the general public, there are a zillion scholarly books or articles out there that were the raw materials. They might not be as accessible, they might even be exceptionally boring, but they’re the building blocks.

What are you working on right now?

A bizarre Anglo-Norman poem by Walter of Bibbesworth, a 13th century Hertfordshire gentleman. He wrote it to instruct a lady friend’s children in the better use of French. This friend had married up the social ladder and the family needed to go from being monolingualEnglish-speakers, to consorting with all the French-speaking nobs. The poem describes day to day life with glosses of all the strange Anglo-Norman terminology in the margins in English. It tells us a lot about food production and service in the 1240s, which is something we don’t know much about at all.

And what work would you love to publish in the future?

I’ve always meant to write down my stepfather’s recipes from the Hole in the Wall, but I never seem to find the time to do it, and I was beaten to the Elizabeth David books by a competitor. Every lady fromthe 16th to the 18th century worked on a manuscript cookery book from before marriage right throughout her life. They do take a lot of work to make them singto the modern reader, but even so, I’m waiting for the right one to come along.

And for my last question, let’s leave books aside. Do you have a great foodmemory that really stands out?

Oh yes, and it was eating a pizza in the Camargue about 45 years ago, believe it or not. I don’t know why, but I’ll always remember it – we could smell the herbs that they were cooking with as we approached the place, and it was just so much more eloquent than anything else,before or since.

This interview is an extract from issue 20 of Fork magazine. Fork is a bi-monthly magazine beautifully designed and filled with interviews with interesting people, reviews of the best places to eat and travel to, plus a few recipes for good measure.


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