The View From The British Library

For a publisher there is nothing more heartening than catching sight of a reader, deeply immersed in one of your books, on the train to work in the morning. In the last couple of years this has become a pleasingly regular occurrence for my colleagues and me. Of course, people staring blankly at a smartphone is a more common sight, but a healthy number of London’s commuters have the good taste to start their day with a copy of Death on the Cherwell or Antidote to Venom.

When the British Library launched the Crime Classics series back in 2012, our expectations were rather modest. The Library’s small publishing business was known mostly for its beautiful illustrated non-fiction, and its specialist studies in book history – not for big commercial bestsellers. But our sales and ambitions grew very rapidly, from the moment we launched our rebranded series (now focusing on the golden age) with John Bude’s Cornish Coast Murder.

Bude earned himself thousands of fans, who write to us regularly pleading for more books to be republished (a couple are in the pipeline), and we’ve also found a broad readership for the work of J. Jefferson Farjeon. Mystery in White reaching no.1 on a bestsellers chart last Christmas was certainly the highlight of my career as an editor. (As with Bude, we know people are hungry to read more of his work, and I’m especially excited about publishing his country-house novel Thirteen Guests.

Publishing Mystery in White was a game-changer for us. It gave everyone at the Library the confidence to increase our print runs from 2,000 to 15,000 – a real luxury in these days of constant nervousness among publishers about what the future might hold. The sales figures (and the press coverage we received) also made us more noticeable to the book trade in general, and increased the flow of submissions from literary agents, enquiries from readers and tips about the books to read next – all of which are vitally important in making new discoveries and engaging with the remarkably devoted and vocal community of golden-age crime fans.

All our titles are available as e-books, but golden-age fans clearly share our own love for the printed book, and we take great care to produce the Crime Classics as attractively as possible – we realise how important this is, especially for the growing number of readers who tell us that they plan to collect the set.

Crucial to our success has been the encyclopaedic advice I receive from Martin Edwards in his role as the series consultant. Like everyone else on the golden-age scene, Martin is unfailingly generous with his knowledge: every time we meet for coffee I come away with a hastily scribbled reading list, and find myself tracking down dusty rarities and forgotten classics from the Library’s collection. Once we’ve decided to publish a title and have managed to acquire the rights, we rely on Martin’s accessible, informative introductions to pick out the key things that will interest modern readers. I’m particularly proud that we published Martin’s anthologies of London-set and summer-holiday crime stories, Capital Crimes and Resorting to Murder. The reflex comment of any publisher is that ‘short stories don’t sell’, but we’ve bucked the trend with these books, selling over 10,000 of each title already.

With Martin as the guiding hand, and lots of constructive input from the friendly booksellers at Waterstone’s and elsewhere, we’ve succeeded in building a list that has a genuinely devoted readership. Plans are well developed for the next couple of years, and we’ll be publishing roughly a book a month – with an excellent blend of unduly neglected writers, and those whose work has begun to find itself a popular readership. We have novels set in a Scottish castle, a circus, and an airfield in Kent; short-story collections themed around country houses, rural England, and Christmas; and a parallel series of spy thrillers which is just getting off the ground. These will help us add substantially to the 400,000 copies of the series which we’ve sold so far in the UK – proof that for readers across the country, the golden age is having its long overdue moment in the spotlight.