Afternoon Tea with Persephone Books

For the second event at the Durham Book Festival 2012, Nicola Beauman, the founder of Persephone Books, joined some of her devoted readers for a wonderful afternoon tea at the stunning Bowes Museum.

As the intimate audience of about sixty Persephone Books fans tucked into tea and warm scones (with jam and cream of course!), Nicola Beauman took to the floor to talk about all things publishing, beginning with a question of taste. This big question is what brought Persephone Books into existence, as Nicola Beauman felt there were high quality books, written not so long ago, that had been shelved by publishers and left remarkably difficult for readers to get hold of. Due to producing high quality productions of some such titles, Persephone Books has developed a wide ranging readership. Ashamedly, I have only quite recently discovered the pleasure of Persephone Books, but there are some readers who have taken the twelve year journey alongside this quaint publishing business; one lady in particular has collected every single one of the biannual mail catalogues of Persephone Books. This just goes to show that once you experience one Persephone Book, you are sure to want another!

From a publishing perspective, the most interesting topic discussed was of how Persephone titles are chosen. It is a big undertaking to publish any book (both financially and emotionally) and so the publisher must feel absolutely sure in the decision making process. Persephone Books is able to function because of the copyright law and by choosing books that are still in copyright but are no longer in print. Nicola Beauman said that she checks Amazon for titles before even considering whether to publish, because if a book is available for just pennies (or free as an e-book) it is difficult to breakeven from a reprint that is required to sell in the thousands at a considerably higher price.

When one thinks of beautiful books, one naturally thinks of Persephone, and so design was inevitably another theme of discussion. The love that has been poured into every single Persephone book is evident and this is presumably why the Persephone market for gifts is thriving. It seems odd that such well put together and intricately designed books should be a standard grey colour and the audience at the Afternoon Tea were very amused when Nicola Beauman mentioned a sign next to one bookshop’s collection of Persephone Books stating: ‘one shade of grey’, but it is true that the bland grey colour stands out on any bookshelf.

Although I have admired the endpapers of many a Persephone book, I must admit I never really gave much thought as to how each was chosen. It turns out that a lot of thought and research goes into the selecting of the pattern that will appear as the endpaper, as they are in fact fabrics or textiles that were designed at the same time that the novel in question was written.

If you have never heard of Persephone Books before and are considering which to purchase, the favourite author of many people in the Afternoon Tea audience was Dorothy Whipple, but I don’t recommend her work for the faint hearted! If Whipple doesn’t take your fancy, Persephone Books is sure to have something for you as they are now celebrating the publication of their 100th title, giving readers lots to choose from!

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