The Directors of Eland Books Interview

barnaby rogerson rose baring eland books bookblast diary

John Hatt’s Eland Books was the first of a wave of travel lists that emerged in the early 1980s, quickly joined by Century Travellers, the Penguin Classic Travel Library, Picador and Virago. Fifteen years ago, former travel guidebook authors Barnaby Rogerson and his wife Rose Baring, took over and although its list has diversified into biography and fiction, the majority of the titles remain tales of travel.

Rose & Barnaby tell us a bit about yourselves. Are (were) your parents great readers?
ROSE: No, but there were books around. I was quite a lonely child and books were travel marvellous escape and provided adventure, friends and role models – Noel Streatfield, E. Nesbit, Johanna Spyri, L. L. Montgomery, Louisa M. Alcott and Lucy M. Boston. Just remembering makes me want to get back under the sheets and counterpane with a pile of them.
BARNABY: No, I can remember them both being rather concerned that I was reading “yet another book” instead of riding a pony, or playing with the dogs.  There were many books in the tiny, dark Tudor cottage in which I was brought up, but they were mostly all inherited.  They included a vast shelf of bound Punch magazines and a full set of Jorrocks. At a young age I used my pocket money to acquire the Ladybird history books but before the age of seven I had graduated to Jackdaws – fascinating folders of facsimile historic documents and maps.

Did you want to work in the publishing industry from the start?
ROSE: No. I was in the film business at first, but I married a bookaholic, and books took over our lives.
BARNABY: No, I had imagined I would either be a Naval Officer like my father and grandfather, or in the cavalry like my other grandfather, which would be combined in old age by brewing beer, or becoming a clergyman like my ancestors.

Has your vision from when you bought Eland 15 years ago changed?
ROSE: No, not really. We do what we do out of the belief that fear is born of ignorance, something so very visible in world politics today. My current fantasy is to drop Donald Trump in the middle of that magnificent Naqsh-e Jahan Square in Isfahan, built at around the time of the Mayflower, without telling him where he is, get him talking to some of the locals and then see if he can call Iran evil. Or get him to read a book about the place, though I think that might be even more fantastical. Eland offers an armchair way of getting to know our fellow earthlings.
BARNABY: No, I adored the Eland approach to publishing years before we acquired the business. The role model set by the founder of Eland, John Hatt, remains our absolute guiding example.  Though as the years progress I have learned to combine every more scrupulous financial caution to the passion necessary for publishing with conviction.

How do you balance originality and profitability?
ROSE: Our lives are only made profitable by doing other things as well as publishing.
BARNABY: We imagine our market (made of individual readers) to be just as interested in the world and passionate about fine writing as ourselves. We have never yet patronized our readership by publishing anything that we do not also cherish.

What was the book that made you fall in love with reading?
ROSE: I can’t remember exactly – but one of the above authors.
BARNABY: One of my happiest memories as a child is being read The Water Babies by my mother when I was very ill, supported by my father’s habit of reading to use from Kipling, or Stevenson on the family holidays that we took in a very isolated cottage in the mountains of North Wales, where sheep used to graze the grass on the thatched roof. 

What makes you decide to publish one writer, and not another?
ROSE: Readability, truthfulness, extent to which it conveys the essence of a culture.
BARNABY: We look for books that have been written with inner conviction and truth about the world.  We want them to observant of others, capable of summing up a spirit of place and catching the moment on the wings – aside from such everyday literate skills as being funny, wry, intelligent, human, universal, self-deprecating and idiosyncratic – plus the whole book has to be held together by a page-turning gift for storytelling.

Technology and the rise of Kindle and iPads etc. have revolutionised the publishing industry. How well have publishers adapted to industry changes?
ROSE: I don’t know how to answer that – some better than others I suspect. There are some who still set things in hot metal, and others who inhabit “paperless” offices. Digitisation hasn’t been a dramatic in its effect as in the music industry, so we’ve had a bit of breather in a way. There was terrible fear for a while.
BARNABY: I am a technophobe who loves the ways books were made in the 18th century, but in order to protect our company and expand our readership we have (due to my wife and business partner’s energy and ability) speedily embraced every new medium of story-telling.  E-books are an especially valid way to read if you wish to pack light, and through Instagram, twitter and Facebook we can talk and communicate with our readers as well as with our traditional bookshop outlets.

Do you enjoy reading ebooks? Will the physical book die away eventually?
ROSE: No. I check our ebook proofs on a Kindle. But I rarely read on it otherwise. I much prefer not to use a screen when I can, and I love a well-made paperback.
BARNABY: I have never read an ebook, and if the physical book is to die away I would like to be buried with them or burned on a pyre of books.

Your views on marketing and distribution? And on social media?
ROSE: Crucial to have your books as available as possible, but not at an unsustainable discount. Social media – I’m glad I don’t have to do it, but I recognize its value as a way of getting news out there. It’s here to stay and I think I’m going to have to grow up.
BARNABY: I have spent decades looking for outlets outside the traditional trade, as I get older I realise that book-lovers (like me) not only love books, they love bookshops.  When we work best it is when we integrate and partner with a traditional book shop.

How important is funding for independent publishers?
ROSE: We are very lucky to have a few consistent sellers which support the whole list. We like to be debt-free and have managed to stay that way.
BARNABY: We have never applied for any government money, but have often received grants for translations, which have been vital. If I was in charge of a grant-giving body I would concentrate on supporting bookshops.

Your favourite literary journals?
ROSE: The London Review of Books.
BARNABY: I love the Times Literary Supplement, London Review of Books, Slightly Foxed, Granta and the Critical Muslim, but never manage to stay on top of the piles of back numbers, except when I take a bale of back issues on a long railway journey.

What do you think the future holds for publishing now that the US has entered the A.T. (after Trump) era? Turmoil, opportunity, growth, or downhill all the way?
ROSE: The U.S. has never been very important for our turnover. I think (hope!) Trump will be seen as a minor blip, but I don’t believe the capitalist system is out of the woods, nor that it should be. I perceive a greater sense that value is not all about money – that sharing, talking, making, creating and storytelling are crucial to our sense of happiness.
BARNABY: Trump is probably no worse than Andrew Jackson and the American Constitution was devised by some very clever and far-sighted lawyers and politicians.  He, like Brexit, is also a necessary corrective to the casual assumptions of superiority by the mandarin-university educated metropolitan intellectual elite – like me.

 Nearly 80% of the UK’s publishing industry wanted to remain in the EU. In the wake of Brexit, what are the implications for book publishing and translation in your view?
ROSE: I’m really not sure – we don’t do enough business with Europe, apart from printing which has become more expensive.
BARNABY: I voted for Brexit, and feel passionately opposed to the pseudo democracy of the evolving United States of Europe.

Your favourite qualities in a person?
ROSE: Someone who’ll roll their sleeves up, be curious and be honest.
BARNABY: Humour and Compassion.

For what faults do have you most tolerance?
ROSE: Workaholism.
BARNABY: Bravery.

Your chief characteristic?
ROSE: Interested.
BARNABY: An enthusiasm for picnics, outdoor swimming and bonfires.

Your chief fault?
ROSE: Controlling.
BARNABY: Complete inability to master any musical instrument, ball game or machine.

Your bedside reading?
ROSE: Nawal el Sadawi: Woman at Point Zero; Sigmund Freud: The Interpretation of Dreams; Artemis Cooper: Elizabeth Jane Howard.
BARNABY: I have two tottering piles of must-reads, which was diminished by only twelve volumes this summer.

Your favourite prose authors?
ROSE: Nicolas Bouvier; George Eliot; Jane Austen.
BARNABY: George Elliot, Jane Austen, Thackeray, Salinger, Martha Gellhorn, Dervla Murphy, Norman Lewis, Gavin Maxwell, R.L.Stevenson, Evelyn Waugh, Tolstoy, Dickens, Stendhal, Amin Maalouf would begin a very, very long list.

Your heroes and heroines in fiction?
ROSE: Anne of Green Gables, Max from Where the Wild Things Are, Emma, Tintin, Tom Ripley.
BARNABY: Tintin and Captain Haddock every time against Asterix and Obelix.

Your heroes and heroines in real life?
ROSE: My children – who never cease to amaze me with their engagement and interest.
BARNABY: Heroes, like tribes, tend to disappear into thin air the closer you look at them. But despite knowing them in London for many years, I remain inspired and impressed by Ziauddin Sardar, Britain’s very own Muslim polymath and founder-editor of The Critical Muslim and Mohammed Ben Madani who established and still runs The Maghreb Review and bookshop. Despite years of conversation I have never yet talked to Robert Irwin or Malise Ruthven without learning something new. When I garden, I find myself inspired by the example of my father and my father-in-law’s Hampshire-loving gardener and under-keeper, Herbie. I live with three heroines.

Who would be in your dream book club?
ROSE: I don’t seem to be able to answer that one. I’ve never been one for hero-worship from a distance. I only like people I know.
BARNABY: My two grandmothers who I never met as they died when both my parents were ten years old.

Your motto?
ROSE: Kindness wins.
BARNABY: Another glass?

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About Georgia de Chamberet 377 Articles
Bilingual editor, rewriter, anthologist, French-to-English translator. Has written for 3am magazine, words without borders, The Independent, The Lady, Banipal, Prospect Magazine, Times Literary Supplement. Currently writes for The BookBlast Diary. Founder (1997) of London-based writing agency BookBlast.