What an interesting new chapter for you—indie publisher—after a 47 year career at some the world’s major houses. Surely you’ve had plenty of opportunities over that time to strike out on your own, so why now?
Okay, so, I often have views, right? I've been misquoted from time to time on my views on general book publishing, trade publishing, that I'm entirely negative about it, and that I love academic publishing.
Well, I do love academic publishing, that’s true. And I do have reservations about some of the developments in trade publishing. But I've also thought, wouldn't it be good to try and do it the way I think it should be done? And the only way to do that was to do it myself, and to spend my own money rather than other people's money, which I am doing. I’m genuinely taking the risk here myself. I thought setting up my own thing would keep me going and the juices working. And the final trigger came in the latter stages of Peter Mayer's life. I saw him quite a bit, and I was very, very fond of Peter. And I thought: what would Peter Mayer do? And I think he would have set up Mensch Publishing.
Why not, right? It certainly seems like indie publishing is having a moment. In this era of conglomerates, what is enabling small publishers, including you, to get into the book business?
Look, I think the modern trade book publisher is doing an amazing job. However, size isn't everything. And the idea of having an utterly bespoke service for an author, on terms that are sensible, is appealing.
I suppose there are three aspects to why more people are doing it. One, production is no longer such a problem. Technology has made that feasible. Secondly, the Internet enables marketing. That's an expense that in the past was impossible. And thirdly, there are the big companies that are very happy to gain extra income by representing smaller independent publishers, so you don't need a warehouse any more, and you don't need a sales force in the field. I mean, I basically I have no overhead whatsoever. None. That allows me, and this is true of many independents, to spend my money on the books.
On your website, you proudly state that you have no mission statement, and no stated editorial strategy—but can we wing it and put something together here that resembles a potential mission statement or editorial strategy for Mensch?
Well, everyone has mission statements, like "do no evil." Or, "be the best." Mission statements are fatuous. That's my mission statement. And as for strategy, people have immense spreadsheets showing growth and how many books they're going to publish, 20 or 30 a year, or whatever. And once you put 30 in the spreadsheet, you've got to publish 30, irrespective of how good they are.
So, what am I going to do? Well, first of all, I'm very limited in what I can publish because my terms are not attractive to literary agents: I will not pay advances. I will not acquire anything less than world rights, in all languages. I won't pay a royalty based on published price. So that limits me. But what isn't limited is what I will publish. It could be anything: kids' books, quasi-academic, nonfiction. It might even be literary fiction. I do not think I'm going to come out with a list—you know, like "this is the Mensch list." I mean, it's just me. And the joy of not going to meetings and being told a load of nonsense by people, it's great. I can recommend it.
What do you expect will be the talk at this year’s London Book Fair?
I hate to be political about it, but I think the sort of nationalist stuff going on in various countries, including the U.K. and the USA, is unhelpful to global publishing. And I think that's going to appear again this year. I think the threat to copyright is still there, and has to be taken seriously. And I think the threats to freedom of expression continue to be an issue. And of course, here in the U.K., Brexit is absurd and irritating and unhelpful.