London Show Daily feature: Thirty years on Grub Street

Anne Dolamore • 01 May 2012

BookBrunch Editor Nicholas Clee kindly reminded us that this year is our 30th anniversary, writes Anne Dolamore. It's just as well, since we had forgotten it was a birthday year for us.
It's not that we're like Hollywood starlets, shy about our age, but Grub Street's birthday is something of a moveable feast. As the Irish would say: "It depends where you start from." That is because the company has undergone a couple of reincarnations, but the original Grub Street did indeed start in 1982, as a book packager, pure and simple.

Set up by three exiles from Robert Maxwell's takeover of Phoebus Partworks and founded on their redundancy payout of £50 each, the fledgling company housed itself in a few rooms above Shampers Wine Bar in Kingly Street - and in the true spirit of publishing in those days, anything much in the way of profit found its way downstairs into the coffers of the wine bar.

The founding fathers: John Davies, Roger Hammond and Mike De Luca (who left the company early on to help with a family business in Scotland) chose the name Grub Street because, like their 18th-century counterparts, they realised they would be forced to take money from anyone willing to engage their services. Those early years produced such gems as DIY Designer Furniture, Home Maintenance Manual, What Plant Grows Where?, Aircraft versus Aircraft, Duel for the Sky, and Sea Combat off the Falklands. It was the heyday of book packagers; publishers were hungry for highly illustrated productions, which many of them had neither the time nor expertise to execute. In addition, healthy coedition runs, especially with generous orders from the US, made those the boom years of packaging. Some titles had a first printing of 40,000 copies.

But as well as packaging, the first original publications started appearing under the Grub Street imprint. Among these was a little stocking filler called 101 Uses of a Condom, which because it was made up of cartoons and had no text went on to sell in numerous foreign editions. Humour books became something of a mainstay in those early years, culminating in the Eat Your Own Pet Cookbook, a hilarious tome, which was selling a storm until the animal rights activists took against it, saying it encouraged people to kill and eat their pets - we kid you not. We hadn't realised what a humourless bunch they were until their threats to firebomb branches of WHSmith stocking the book resulted in Smiths delisting it, just as we had taken delivery of a 10,000 copy reprint.

But with Roger Hammond's innovative design work, Grub Street excelled as a packager of many television and celebrity tie-ins, such as Rik Mayall's B'stard's Book of the Best, Phil Cool, and Adrian Edmondson's How To Be a Complete Bastard, along with an early Roux Brothers cookbook or two.

The first Grub Street cookery titles emerged in 1986 with Gourmet Barbecue, commissioned, and subsequently edited, long distance from Australian author Charmaine Solomon via a handy new device called a fax machine. Ours was a super-expensive model handling A3 sheets as well as A4 - very cutting edge. That was followed by The Basic Basics Combination and Microwave Handbook, a bestselling title that still graces the list some 26 years on.

Special sales
John Davies was convinced that there were special sales opportunities to be exploited on the Grub Street titles, especially 101 Uses of a Condom, and was pointed by Chris Lloyd (who was then doing sales for the Grub Street originals) towards me. I had set up my own business in 1982 offering special sales and marketing services to the publishing industry. We met in 1986. I had never heard of Grub Street before that day, but when I discovered that they did cookery books I told him I wanted to write an olive oil cookbook. I was invited to present my proposal and synopsis, only to have it rejected a short while later by John and Roger on the grounds that they had, in the meantime, received a proposal for a book on oils and vinegars, which they felt was a more commercial proposition. So I requested an audience and went in person to re-pitch my idea. Suffice to say it was The Essential Olive Oil Companion that was presented by Grub Street as a potential book package at that year's Frankfurt Book Fair, acquired to my amazement by Kyle Cathie at Macmillan in the UK and Salem House in the US.

By 1988 Roger Hammond had decided that he wanted to move on, so John and I (having by then moved our association from the professional to the personal) took over Grub Street. But the boom years were over and, facing a threefold increase in the rent for the offices (by then in Golden Square), we pared down the company and relocated to the basement of our house in Battersea. We decided to publish to our areas of interest and expertise, and concentrated on cookery, military aviation history and cartoon books, but producing the odd package to order along the way to make ends meet. Sadly, the cartoon books had to be axed in the early 1990s as they were making a loss. The humour market by then was entirely dominated by television tie-ins.

Organic growth
For the last 20 years we have grown the business, slowly and organically, assiduously avoiding the venture capital route, which was so much the vogue in the 1980s and 90s, and which eventually took so many small publishers down. We almost went under ourselves in 2001 when our UK distributor went into liquidation owing us £150,000, while a year later our US distributor pulled down the shutters owing us a further £30,000. We never saw a penny from either, but we battened down the hatches and, with the support of our printer Biddles, worked our way back from the brink to the present backlist of 200 titles.

And here we are now, 30 years after our first fax machine, with 37 books available as ebooks.

Anne Dolamore is Publisher at Grub Street

Photo: Anne Dolamore with John Davies