Take a look at this interview with Anne Dolamor of Grub Street Publishing. (You may already know Grub Street from many of our Food Friday posts!) She talks about her early life, views on writing, views on marketing, and more in this fascinating interview from Book Blast Diary.
Anne Dolamor | Co-Publisher at Grub Street Publishing
Anne Dolamore started her career in publishing in the mid 1970s in the sales and marketing department at Faber & Faber, after reading English at Lancaster University. She moved to André Deutsch as one of the first women reps in London and in 1982 set up her own special sales consultancy, advising publishers such as Pan Macmillan, Harper Collins, Chatto, Bodley Head and Cape. At the end of the 1980s she wrote her first book, The Essential Olive Oil Companion, which was packaged by Grub Street and published by Macmillan. Her next book A Buyer’s Guide to Olive Oil, was published in 1994. In 1988 she joined forces with John Davies (the publisher of military aviation history books) to run Grub Street, which was voted International Cookbook Publisher of the Year at the World Cookbook Awards in 2000.
Anne was Chair of the Guild of Food Writers for two years; Chair of Sustain – the alliance for better food and farming; and Chair of the London Food Links working group for 10 years and served on the board of London Food, set up by the Mayor of London to deliver a London Food Strategy. She is a member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals and Les Dames des Escoffier. She has written for numerous publications, has made a number of radio and TV appearances, and recorded her lifetime food memories as a contribution to the National Sound Archive. She has just completed recording for the Women in Publishing Oral History Project.
Were your parents great readers?
My parents did both read; my mother mostly fiction but my father did love poetry and when I was a child he read to me most nights from A Book of 1000 Poems. At his funeral in 2008 my daughter, Amy, read one of his favourite poems, Alfred Lord Tennyson’s The Brook. They did instill in me a love of reading from the earliest age, and of course I am of that generation (now 63 yrs old) where weekly visits to the local library was a rite of passage. Libraries nurtured my insatiable reading habit and made me love books.
Did you want to work in the publishing industry from the start?
Not from the start. Even though I was an avid book collector from the age of about 9, I had no notion, coming from my background that you could work in publishing. I was the first of my family to go to university and it was only in my final year while studying in the university library that I found myself sitting by the very small section of books on publishing. So I read Sir Stanley Unwin’s The Truth about Publishing and a whole world of possibilities opened up as a result. I started to read The Bookseller every week and when I left university and was determined to try for publishing I wrote letters to about 12 publishers, all of whom replied but with no offers until I got a call from Faber asking me to go for an interview and as a result I was offered my first job.
Has your vision from when Grub Street started 34 years ago changed?
Grub Street was started back in 1982 by my partner John Davies and two others who had been made redundant by Robert Maxwell. They used their £50 each severance pay to start the company! Grub Street started as a book packager but the vision of the company was, even back, then to try and do the kind of projects others were not doing. When the two other partners eventually went their own way and I came on the scene book packaging was a very tough world and we wanted to publish under our own imprint so we looked to our core strengths and concentrated on those areas which were cookery, military history and cartoon humour. The cartoon humour had sadly to be ditched at the end of the 1990s as it was losing us money and the humour market had come to be dominated, like so many other areas of publishing today, by TV tie-ins. But the vision to do books that others might not take on has not really changed.
How do you balance originality and profitability publishing general-interest trade rather than educational or technical books?
I say that we look to publish the cracks between the paving stones; that is the books the big conglomerates wouldn’t touch. So we try to be left field, though it has become tougher now to do outré books and make them work financially. Though having said that our overheads are not of the magnitude of corporate publishers which does allow us to be more adventurous and make such books commercially viable.
Your views on writing?
Where would we be without it? For entertainment, for provoking thought, for allowing us to experience lives or places we would or could never know. I couldn’t exist without reading someone’s written words every day.
What makes you decide to publish one writer, and not another?
As we are a non-fiction publisher it really comes down to the strength of the project and how it will fit into the existing backlist. Even though we have an active live backlist of about 180 titles we aim not to take on projects that will compete with titles we already have. And of course it’s our gut reaction. If I can’t imagine buying a book on a subject then mostly I won’t publish it. But there are exceptions. I don’t like baking but a few years ago an unsolicited proposal came in on Cakes Regional & Traditional. It was obvious the author had a passion for and was very knowledgeable about her subject. I published it and it has been hugely successful, was even shortlisted for the Glenfiddich Award and was much praised by Nigel Slater. So I am persuaded, and look for passion in an author.
Technology and the rise of Kindle and iPads etc have revolutionised the publishing industry. How have publishers adapted to industry changes?
I think we have adapted extremely well, and go on adapting every day. Some better than others of course but we each have found our own way in this brave new world.
Do you think the physical book will die away eventually?
Never. How could it? My love of books as a child was as much about the physical object; the paper, the smell, the binding as the contents and I feel that often today with a beautifully produced book. How can reading a book from machine ever replicate that experience?
Your views on marketing and distribution?
Essential. Distribution has thank goodness now become a very sophisticated and efficient part of the publishing process. It was not always thus. I will have been in the industry 40 years this year and when I came into it in the 1970s very little attention was paid to the distribution process. It didn’t matter if books did not reach their destination in a timely fashion, hence sales were lost. Today we know just in time delivery is vital. Thanks to online communities we now have the opportunity to talk directly to our audience which makes marketing much more focused and effective. We can reach out and engage in a way that was never available in the past.
How do you deal with your colleagues – are you very involved, or do you just let them get on with it?
We have a very open door policy. We are there if we are needed but we train our staff to be self sufficient and self starting to get on with the job in hand but feel they have support when they need it. I hope that’s the case anyway!
How do you relax?
I go home almost every evening and cook a meal from scratch. The physical act of chopping, stirring and cooking is a wonderful antidote the working environment of sitting in front of a computer screen and the intense nature of running a business. I do of course read, voraciously. I read every morning in bed when I wake and every night before I sleep. At weekends I am a newspaper junkie. A Saturday and Sunday are not complete unless they start with the papers, classical music on the CD player and a pot of coffee. I love the opera, theatre and cricket and go as often as time and finances allow.
Your favourite qualities in a man?
Kindness, understanding and not being afraid to identify with their feminine side. All of which I fortunately have in spades with John.
Your favourite qualities in a woman?
Empathy with other women.
For what faults do have you most tolerance?
At my age I have to forgive forgetfulness in others or I would be in danger of being a hypocrite!
Your chief characteristic?
Full on single-minded passion.
Your chief fault?
Your bedside reading?
I have just finished A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler for my next book group meeting and just started Hemingway’s Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises because I realised I had never read it. I like to go back to the classics as well as reading contemporary literary fiction. I am dipping in to Christopher Hitchens And Yet…: Essays. His 180° political U turn fascinated me and I loved Hitch 22: A Memoir.
Your favourite prose author?
Oh that is so difficult. I guess this is that ‘cast away on a desert island’ who would you take, questions. Let me put it this way. There are two writers who the moment I know they have new books coming out I’m there money in hand for the hardback on day one of publication, and they are Jeanette Winterson and William Boyd.
Your favourite poet?
I have to confess that since my university days I have read little poetry but while there and studying the Romantics I adored Byron, the man and the poetry!
Your favourite heroes in fiction?
Toss up between Logan Mountstuart in Any Human Heart and Sherlock Holmes.
Your favourite heroines in fiction?
George in the Famous Five. I SO identified with her when I was growing up. And Amber St Clare in Forever Amber. What a survivor.
Your heroes in real life?
Firstly all the fighter pilots in World War Two, but especially those in the Battle of Britain. We have published books on many of them and they were all extraordinary and brave, but never thought they were anything out of the ordinary. And Nelson Mandela for dignity in the face of incarceration and after his release when it would have been all too easy to succumb to revenge. I know I could never have done that.
Your favourite heroines in real life?
Edith Cavell, Rosa Parks, Aung San Suu Kyi, Malala Yousafza and every woman who has stood up for their rights against oppression
Your greatest achievement?
My gorgeous, funny, talented daughter Amy.
Interview © Anne Dolamore, 2016. Questions format © BookBlast Ltd, London.