Ostara Publishing Colourfon

Ostara Publishing

11 Nov 2009

Crime and Detection Magazine December 2009

Article from 'Crime and Detection' magazine December 2009 issue 57 

The Thrill of the Chase                                  Mike Ripley

It began, as most good things in publishing do, with a lunch.

   My invitation came from the man behind Ostara Publishing, which I recognised as a relatively new outfit using Print-On-Demand technology to revive some classic detective stories under themed imprints such as Cambridge Crime (with authors including Victor Clinton-Baddeley and Douglas Browne) and Clerical Crime  (D.M. Greenwood and Veronica Heley).

    What was intriguing was that the invitation had come from a man named Andrew Cocks. Could this possibly be the Andrew Cocks I had known more than 30 years ago when we both worked at the University of Essex and who now lived less than two miles from me? It could and it was, and he was offering not to buy me lunch but cook it for me.

    So it was over a generous glass of red wine sitting at Andrew’s kitchen table on the afternoon of the last day in July that he made me an offer I could certainly have refused, but could not resist. Would I like to establish an imprint within Ostara that used Print-On-Demand to re-publish unfairly neglected and out-of-print British thrillers of my choice, with a free hand when it came to editorial selection? In other words, would I like to become a publisher who only published the books he liked?

     It was almost too tempting and it took me all of ten seconds to say “Yes”.

     I did not need much convincing about Print-On-Demand as an economic form of publishing out-of-print titles, nor about the need for it as I well knew how quickly novels – and authors – can disappear from public view. I was equally aware that when I spoke in public about thrillers and crime novels I had read in my youth, I could see gleams of recognition in the eyes of my audience when names such as Hammond Innes or Francis Clifford were mentioned.

    It was the same in my journalism on crime fiction. Whenever, in print or in my internet column for Shots Magazine (www.shotsmag.co.uk) I mentioned an author whom I regarded as a brilliant storyteller or a unique stylist, but who was now disgracefully forgotten, I would receive a flurry of emails or phone calls (far more of a reaction than for anything I ever wrote about a contemporary book or author) agreeing with me.  All the comments were positive and the majority were from fellow writers. Veteran crime novelist Margaret Yorke congratulated me on championing the work of Francis Clifford; Reginald Hill agreed with me that apart from Rogue Male the work of Geoffrey Household was totally overlooked; the legendary Len Deighton emailed me from a secret location, possibly in Europe, to say how much he too felt that the work of spy-writer Anthony Price was due for a revival; Baroness Cohen of Pimlico (Janet Neel) turned out to be as much a die-hard fan of Nevil Shute as I was; Jeremy Duns, a new arrival on the thriller-writing scene, called from Sweden to say that he too was a fan of the quirky, almost surreal, thrillers of Geoffrey Rose.

     Earlier in the year I had lunch with possibly the most successful British thriller writer, Lee Child, who – without prompting – bemoaned the fact that several of the Alistair Maclean titles he had grown up with were, amazingly, no longer in print. And on several occasions I had discussed with Barry Forshaw (the editor of  the British Crime Writing: An Encyclopedia) the thrillers of Alan Williams, of which we were both great fans, but which seemed to have disappeared entirely.

    So I was in a receptive mood when I was offered the chance by Ostara to get some unjustly neglected writers back in print.

    We quickly set out a Mission Statement for our thriller revival imprint. Authors would be predominantly British and the books , dating from the 1960s and ‘70s, would be chosen not just for their plots or sense of adventure, but for the quality of the writing and distinctive writing style or narrative voice.

     What we should call the imprint was also speedily resolved. Richard Reynolds, of Heffers Bookshop in Cambridge suggested “Top Notch Thrillers” which was actually a quote from a review I had written years ago describing an early Inspector Rebus novel by Ian Rankin – a quote plastered on the front of several paperback editions. As I had coined the phrase originally, I naturally agreed this was a good name, so Top Notch Thrillers was born. All we needed to do now was select the first titles to launch the imprint.

    For that I had to travel no further than my personal library, where I quickly drew up a ‘wish list’ of authors I would like to see back in print, including: Geoffrey Household, P.M. Hubbard, Francis Clifford, Geoffrey Rose, Philip Purser, George Sims, John Blackburn, Hammond Innes and Alan Williams. Then came the slightly trickier part: were these authors willing to grant Print-On-Demand rights to us and were they still alive and if so where were they? 

    Several, I knew, were no longer with us; several did not even rate an entry in the British Crime Writing “Encyclopedia”. I knew that for some, their literary rights would be closely guarded by publishers or ferocious agents, but at least the hunt was on.

    I quickly found the agent who handled the estate of Geoffrey Household (d. 1988) and also quickly realised that he had no intention of answering my emails or returning my phone calls. I found other agents who still handled the rights of dead authors who were willing to talk to me but were not willing to grant Print-On-Demand rights as they were “holding out for a proper publishing deal” - on titles which had been out of print for 30 years. My argument that if we got just one title available through Print-On-Demand it could well spark an interest in other works by an author, did not seem to impress them.

    So much for agents. Several publishers were at least pleasant if not, in the end, of much practical use and at least they had the good grace to be embarrassed by the fact that they had no idea whether their former authors were alive or dead. One publisher supplied an address for an author, admitting that they had not been in touch with them since 1980. The address was one of many false trails.

    The British Library could not help and referred me to the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (of which I am a member). They in turn referred me to the Society of Authors and everybody referred me to The Book Trust until a very harassed lady there told me that “tracing old novelists” was the last thing the Trust did.

    When it looked like a hopeless cause, I had my first success. I knew that one of my targets, George Sims, had been a well-known antiquarian bookseller on the London scene in the 1950s and 60s, a background he had used for some of his novels, and with a few clicks of the mouse I located on the internet his obituary from 1999. That obituary gave me enough clues to work out where he had lived and so I sent a letter of introduction more in hope than expectation.

   I was delighted, only a few days later, to be telephoned by George’s widow Beryl, who was alive and well and still living in the family home and absolutely delighted to see George’s debut thriller The Terrible Door (from 1964) back in print. Over several conversations with Beryl Sims, the subject of public libraries came up and that gave me an idea.

   The Public Lending Right does not, of course, release the addresses of writers who are registered with them and who receive (nominal) payments when their books are borrowed, but they did agree to forward letters for me, though to addresses they admitted “might be a bit out of date”.

    I should have thought of the PLR sooner, if only on the basis that any writer liable to receive even a nominal royalty is going to make sure his address and bank details are up to date.  Phone calls followed in rapid succession from Geoffrey Rose, now 77 and happily retired after a 47-year career as a professional actor, and Alan Williams, now 74 and determined never to learn how to use a computer. Both were happy to allocate rights for new editions of their books and Alan Williams even asked me to join him at the Chelsea Arts Club to seal the deal  – a rare, if not unique, case of an author taking a publisher out to lunch.

    So I had three titles, but naturally wanted more and the fourth was an obvious choice – Philip Purser, for not only was I a great fan of his 1968 thriller Night of Glass, but we both did occasional bits of journalism for The Guardian and I knew where he lived; in fact I had had dinner with him in July.

   And so my initial list was complete and with a fair wind and no glitches in the computerisation of old texts, the first four Top Notch Thrillers should be available from Ostara in time for Christmas –when they would make the ideal present for anyone who likes a well-written, thumping good read.


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