Quartet Books is a leading independent publisher with a fine tradition of pursuing an alternative to mainstream.
How Quartet Books was formed
Quartet was incorporated in a blaze of idealism and innovation. Its four founders – Ken Banerji, John Boothe, William Miller and Brian Thompson – had all been executives within Granada publishing. In September 1972, they joined forces in order to attempt something new and ambitious in the world on publishing.
It was a company founded on socialist ideals and a strong emphasis on co-operative spirit. The aim was to provide a wide-ranging service, including fiction and non-fiction in both casebound and paperback, and also paperback editions of books published by hardcover houses. From the start the company looked at new ways of presenting books and in a bid to make books more affordable introduced ‘midway editions’. Such paperbacks – a halfway house between hardbacks and paperback reprints – are both widely produced by other houses as well as ourselves.
Quartet aimed at quality and variety. It was keen to publish outside the normal spectrum and thereby establish itself as a new, refreshing force in British publishing. For example, it produced sets of colour prints in book form, but with a detachable binding so that the prints could be used individually. It also nurtured Virago, the feminist publishing imprint, which was set up in association with Quartet in 1974. Groundbreaking books that alarmed other publishing houses were welcomed in Goodge Street. The Joy of Sex was published in 1973 and became an instant bestseller.
By the time Naim Attallah (pictured) took over in 1976, Quartet had established a reputation in the field of politics, sociology and biography: biographies of Vita Sackville-West and Jack Kerouac were successes as were autobiographies by Frank Lloyd Wright and P. J. Kavanagh. Jazz became one of the greatest strengths; our books about Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Dextor Gordon and Billie Holliday were acclaimed by connoisseurs. We attracted novelists such as Angela Carter, David Pryce-Jones, Thomas Keneally, Dennis Potter and Colin Spencer and in paperback we published many famous names, including Brian Moore, George Mackay Brow, Anais Nin, Robert Kee, Julian Barnes and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.
Before long we became leaders in the area of photographic books, publishing outstanding names such as Helmut Newton, Angus McBean, Bob Carlos Clarke, John Swannell and Norman Parkinson. We translated a wide range of fiction and non-fiction from Arabic and Eurpean languages. Naguib Mahfouz (the first Arabic winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature) was one of our authors and our Quartet Encounters series included writers not just from the near continent but also from Greece, Albania, Poland and Norway.
Quartet had never fought shy of controversy. In 1978 we created the satirical Mrs Thatcher’s Bag, while in 1979 we published the memoirs of Leni Riefenstahl, the great cinematographer who filmed the 1936 Berlin Olympics. At the age of ninety she was still encountering hostility and prejudice, but eventually the book succeeded in receiving world attention.
Quartet, by a process of healthy evolution, moved on from the house that was started by the four founders. Thus the political publishing of the 1970s evolved into books on social issues (Prozac Nation, Drinking: A Love Story); music publishing formerly focusing on jazz musicians moved into the fields of pop and rock (books on Frank Zappa and Tupac Shakur were very successful); translations on early twentieth-century classics (by Broch and von Doderer for example, as well as more recent revised editions by Leonid Borodin and Marlen Haushofer) were followed by contemporary writers (Peter Esterhazy, Emmanuel Carrere).
Meanwhile Granada, the company the founders left, has been swallowed and swallowed again in a process that has changed the face of the book trade. Once great publishing names are now controlled by the businessmen and accountants that run the conglomerates.
Quartet continues to evolve but has not overlooked past values. A commitment to find an alternative to the mainstream provides the key to our fine tradition of leftfield publishing. The aim at Quartet will always be to publish titles that larger houses are wary of and to do it with success. Our publishing continues to be risk-taking, but with a sharp eye towards the zeitgeist.
Our main strength is an ability to offer something different, without losing sight of the commercial realities, with a constant endeavour to rebuild on a firmly founded list. We have been supported through lean times by the successes of our backlist. Bestsellers such as A Woman in Your Own Right, Bitch, My Secret Garden, Naim’s own collections of interviews and autobiography – as well as an idiosyncratic eye for controversy (such as with Brian Sewell’s two volumes of memoir, Outsider) – continue to underline the virtue of our publishing ideals.
On a personal note, Naim has always considered publishing to be an art rather than a science. It consists of instinct, together with the ability and courage to take risks; it also requires a certain faith. This is an old-fashioned view, but through commitment to basic principles and belief in people rather than statistics, Quartet will continue to publish exciting new work while remaining faithful to its founding principles.