From Two Stories to Jo Nesbo's Macbeth: Hogarth Press at 100

Clara Farmer
Opinion - Publishing Monday, 06 November 2017

Clara Farmer reports on how Penguin Random House has celebrated the centenary of Leonard and Virginia Woolf's publishing company


When Virginia and Leonard Woolf began the Hogarth Press in 1917 with the aim of supporting books that "the commercial publisher would not look at", they might have been surprised to find it thriving in its centenary year as part of the world's largest publisher, Penguin Random House (PRH).

It was an amateurish beginning: Virginia setting the lead type and Leonard operating the hand press, to produce 134 copies of Two Stories, which they wrote themselves and posted out from their dining room at Hogarth House, Richmond, London.

Through their network of friends, and Virginia's own work, the publishing projects kept on coming. They published TS Eliot and Christopher Isherwood, and were the first English-language publishers of Sigmund Freud and Rainer Maria Rilke, but they relied on their bestsellers as much as the rest of us: Vita Sackville-West's The Edwardians (1930) and Virginia Woolf's Flush (1933) - told from the perspective of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's dog - both received prominent endorsement from the Book Society, the leading book club of the day. In 1946, after Virginia's death, Chatto & Windus took Leonard and his Press under their wing, where they continued to thrive.

The prospect of this year's centenary allowed us to explore the archives and libraries across England, tracking the story of the Hogarth Press. We uncovered heavy volumes of large maroon "order books" painstakingly documenting every book sale, in violet ink; Leonard's meticulous accounts, proudly delivering profit year on year; book reports by EM Forster; and original book cover artwork by Vanessa Bell. We also uncovered publishing documents that spoke to the common experience of publishers everywhere: the challenges of budgets and overstocks, reprint corrections (albeit correcting typos in The Waste Land), evidence of hard work and of equally vigorous networking, and always with a healthy dose of luck.

The Woolfs began by knowing all their buyers personally - which is something 21st-century publishing echoes with online presence and data capture. Instagram felt the natural home to document the centenary activity, and create a space for conversation. Posting from @chattobooks with the hashtag #hogarthpress100, we connected with a community of booklovers and practitioners eager to help spread the news of the centenary.

We produced a new edition of Two Stories, bound in red thread as was the original, with a short history of the press; the original version of "The Mark on the Wall"; plus a new story, "St Brides Bay", by Woolf fan Mark Haddon. Mark also engraved a portrait of Virginia, which became the face of the centenary.

The centenary also afforded us the opportunity to get out of the office. We travelled to Oxford and typeset an early Hogarth text (Paris by Hope Mirrlees). We visited Sissinghurst, where Juliet Nicolson, Chatto author and Vita's descendant, not only let us see one of the original Hogarth press machines, but showed us the books in Vita's study, her wedding veil and cigarette case (the most popular IG post to date).

We celebrated the publication of Two Stories by taking a Woolfian walk (or #dallowdawdle) in the footsteps of Clarissa Dalloway from Dean's Yard, Westminster to a florist in Bond Street, via Hatchards bookshop, which bedecked its windows and front tables with the book, and live tweeted to more than 100,000 Waterstones customers. I spoke at the International Virginia Woolf Conference - and hosted a birthday party for the Press, at which Leonard's great nephew Cecil Woolf and I got to cut a centenary cake designed by Virginia's great niece, Cressida Bell.

But perhaps the most moving moment of the year was stepping into Virginia Woolf's bedroom at Monk's House, Sussex, where her precious copies of Shakespeare's plays, hand-bound in coloured paper, sit on a modest shelf. Coming face to face with Woolf's love of the physical book, and the Bard, it spoke to our own enthusiasms in creating the Hogarth Shakespeare project, and asking today's bestselling authors - from Anne Tyler to Margaret Atwood - to interpret their favourite plays in novel form.

Hogarth is now one of 250 imprints that comprise PRH, where, happily, an imprint model allows the culture of literary acquisition to persist. In 2012, we went transatlantic as a fiction imprint, in collaboration with the Crown division at PRH USA. The Hogarth Shakespeare project has sold in 24 languages and 30 countries, with Edward St Aubyn's Dunbar just out and Jo Nesbo's Macbeth next on the stocks. Our editors continue to read and commission new writing, and to serve its established authors and heritage. The Woolfs understood that publishing is where gut feeling meets good business; we aim to continue that tradition today.

Pictures: (top) Cressida Bell's centenary cake; (above) Clara Farmer and Mark Haddon on the Dallowday Walk.

Clara Farmer is publishing director at Hogarth and Chatto & Windus.

This article first appeared in the Publishers Weekly/BookBrunch Frankfurt Show Daily.

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