Patrician Hauteur

Article excerpt

Baret Magarian investigates the success of the pioneering Harvill Press

If there were a competition to find the most interesting publishing house in Britain, the maverick independent Harvill Press would be a prime contender. The Harvill list comprises three elements: translations of European fiction and poetry, English and American writing, and large-format illustrated books. What, one wonders, is the secret of its commercial success, given the rarefied appeal of much of its output?

Christopher MacLehose, chairman and co-owner, is a tall, patrician Scot, an old-fashioned maker of fine books. He is famously elliptical in speech; there is a sense that even if the earth were to explode, he's going to take his time answering questions. He is also a shrewd judge of the literary market, maximising the accessibility of his list without compromising it. He joined Harvill, then owned by HarperCollins, in 1984, having previously been editorial director of Chatto and Windus.

Harvill was founded in 1946 by Manya Harari and Marjorie Villiers, former BBC broadcasters who wished to build cultural bridges in Europe after the war. It regained independence, in April 1995, following a management buyout led by MacLehose. "Many senior executives at HarperCollins had decided that Harvill was not essential," MacLehose says of the period. "They asked, 'Are we are genuinely interested in, say, Ismail Kadare?' They decided they weren't and to make life simple they'd stop publishing him. The powers that be proposed that Harvill only be allowed to publish eight or nine books a year. I said that I wouldn't stand back and let that happen. It made me angry to think of the stupidity of what was being suggested. To crush something that had taken almost 50 years to build seemed seriously to misjudge what it was."

Harvill has been successful because "we left HarperCollins with a substantial part of our backlist intact. So the fuel was there to keep the motor running, as it were. There was also a broad acceptance among young booksellers - and among the public that bought our books- that Harvill stood for something: first-class works in whatever language in the world translated into English." The Harvill backlist includes Boris Pasternak's Dr Zhivago, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's The Leopard and Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita. Today, Harvill issues books from 22 languages; its leading authors include Peter Hoeg, whose Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow was an international bestseller, W G Sebald, Cees Noteboom, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Richard Ford and Raymond Carver. …