LOTR Movie Site
November 28, 2000
LOTR Publisher Unwin
Obituary: Rayner Unwin: Publisher of the old school who saw
the demise of his family firm and the painful upheavals of an industrial revolution The
Guardian - United Kingdom; Nov 27, 2000
BY ANTHONY SMITH
Rayner Unwin, who has died aged 74, was born into the publishing business, being a son of
Sir Stanley Unwin, whose dedication to the trade was total. He also witnessed the collapse
of a style of publishing which, notably in the 1980s, became no longer able to survive.
After education at Abbotsholme school, Uttoxeter, and leaving it aged 17 with, as he later
wrote, "no conspicuous qualifications", Rayner sold books for Basil Blackwell of
Oxford. As this was wartime, and paper rationing was severe, the customers were often
asked to cut back their optimistic orders, thus providing curious training for a future
publisher. After military service in the Royal Navy, which mainly entailed rounding up
Japanese after the conflict was over, he went to Trinity College, Oxford, and Harvard. In
1951, as had been presumed all along, he joined the family firm of George Allen &
Unwin, at 40 Museum Street, Bloomsbury.
It cannot have been easy working there, on pounds 34 a week. His father read all the mail,
both incoming and outgoing. The place was Dickensian, its ledgers and orders written by
hand. Employees complained of bed bugs, left over from the building's wartime use as a
public air raid shelter. The offices, never elegant, became yet more labyrinthine after
numbers 40A and 41 were purchased.
As recreation for the 50 staff, there was deck quoits on the roof, and darts in the
basement, with darts often preferred, as it was tedious retrieving a quoit after it had
fallen five storeys to the street. There were spy-holes for Stanley to see what was going
on, and visitors could be come lost, perhaps straying into the packing department, where
labels were glued on to secondhand cardboard boxes which were tied up with string.
But the place lived within its means, never being overexcited about a major profit. It had
good authors, including Lancelot Hogben, Bertrand Russell, Julian Huxley and then, most
amazingly of all, Thor Heyerdahl, after Stanley's nephew, Philip Unwin, stumbled upon the
Kon-Tiki story while visiting Scandinavia. JRR Tolkien was acquired shortly afterwards,
Rayner, having cabled his father (then selling books abroad) that The Lord Of The Rings
was worthy of publication but might lose pounds 1,000. Back came the famous reply:
"If you believe it is a work of genius, then you may lose a thousand pounds."
Despite the infusions of cash which the various best- sellers produced, there was never
much sign of affluence. Allen & Unwin's fame partly occurred for its astonishing
turnaround in book dispatch, almost all orders being dealt with on the day of their
arrival, but their authors' contracts could create merriment (as I knew personally) and
also envy if shown to other publishers.
If advances were modest, as indeed they were, the writers at least knew their books would
stay in print if possible, and never be remaindered when sales stayed small or
microscopic. There were some 2,500 titles extant on its lists when Rayner took over as
chairman after his father's death in 1968.
That profligacy, plus a wide-ranging interest, was largely to blame for Allen &
Unwin's later troubles. It seemed to have covered every kind of book - academic, popular,
railway engines (Philip's fancy), exploration, philosophy (often from India) and fiction.
The name of Allen had been retained from the firm's earlier history, which meant that, in
records of titles, the company seemed to be top on every form of list.
As in the old days, the business was editorially led, but a consultant was introduced in
the 1960s who then, after joining the board, became managing director. He pushed through
reforms which, as Rayner himself wrote, "would have been entirely sensible in the
competitive climate of a public company". Some could hardly be called objectionable,
such as a two-thirds pension from the age of 60 or formal contracts of service, but power
politics was getting in the way of editorial choice. The new broom was not content with a
gentle upward drift of profitability, but wanted to spend more - and therefore to make
more. This was an athema for the old school, among whom Rayner counted himself.
Allen & Unwin's major problem, acute in the mid-1980s, was being middle-sized, neither
large enough to absorb overheads easily nor small enough to be quirky and buoyant. The
company showed its first loss in 1985, and the decision was taken to join Bell &
Hyman, thus forming Unwin Hyman, with A&U having a 40% stake in the new company and
with Rayner as chairman. Five years later that firm was bought by HarperCollins, and
Rayner performed the melancholy task of collecting by van a few personal relics.
The new owners retained in print no more than a few highlights, such as the Tolkien books,
and only employed half a dozen members of the Unwin Hyman staff. The asset-stripping
operation, as Rayner wrote (in a privately published book called A Remembrance) was
"messy, depressing, and, at times, outrageous for those at the receiving end".
Rayner Unwin, who was awarded the CBE in 1977, was a senior figure with the Publishers
Association, notably for the 23rd International Publishers Association Congress of 1987,
the first to be held in the UK since 1936, when his father had been in charge. He
published five books of his own, including The Defeat Of John Hawkins and A Winter Away
From Home, the latter about the extraordinary over-wintering in the arctic by William
Barents in the 16th century.
In 1952, he married Carol Curwen, a childhood friend and daughter of Harold Curwen, owner
of Curwen Press. They had three daughters and a son, Merlin, who now looks after Merlin
Rayner Stephens Unwin, publisher, born December 23 1925; died November 23 2000
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