Bookselling, Butterflies and Brexit..

This small independent publisher started in the annex to a farmhouse ten years ago; they now produce some of our favourite, most distinctive and most asked-for books. We sent bookseller, Tamsin Rosewell to talk to publisher, Jon Woolcott and find out more about Little Toller.

Little Toller specialises in reviving classics of nature, rural life and British local history; they also bring to our shelves wonderful new writing – but all are elegant, sophisticated little books that add real character and value to what we offer as an independent bookshop. Both Little Toller’s Nature Classics and their new writing, have attracted huge interest at a time when there is growing public curiosity about reconnecting with the natural world.

Tamsin: What is a Little Toller book? You have reissued some beautiful nature classics, and also commissioned new writing. Edward Thomas’ Pursuit of Spring is a very different creature to Alex Woodcock’s King of Dust. What are the qualities that all your books have in common?

Jon: I guess that all the books are informed by a strong sense of place, of the landscape, and, inevitably of nature. This is the thread that binds Little Toller Books together, but I also hope that readers notice our strong aesthetic too.

Tamsin: Where did Little Toller start, and where is it heading?

Jon: We started ten years ago, in a small annexe to Adrian and Gracie Cooper’s farmhouse, which was then at the beginning of a long renovation. We began by republishing the great classics of rural writing only – books like Edward Thomas The South Country and Clare Leighton’s Four Hedges. These were often books that had either fallen out of print entirely, or were languishing, unloved, on other publishers’ lists. Within a few years, and buoyed by the success of these books – our Nature Classics Library – we began publishing books by established writers like Marcus Sedgwick, Fiona Sampson, Iain Sinclair, Horatio Clare, Tim Dee and Adam Thorpe. We still publish and reprint our Nature Classics, but increasingly we publish new books by new writers.

Tamsin: If you overheard a bookseller talking about your books, what would you want to hear them saying?

Jon: Oh, that’s a great question! As an ex-bookseller, it’s the sort of conversation I used to really enjoy, and it was as a bookseller I first spotted Little Toller Books, while snooping in another bookshop. I hope they’d comment on the covers being good, and that they were pleased to see that someone was publishing books like that.

Tamsin: I’ve read many articles about a huge revival of interest in nature writing; some link it to Brexit, and others to exasperation at our technology-reliant culture. Do you think this interest is a new thing, has something changed? If so what do you think has triggered it?

Jon: This is very true. I think it’s a long trend, not a flash in the pan. I think that the publication of the Unofficial Countryside by Richard Mabey – which we now publish – in the early 70s kickstarted a slow burn, a revival of interest, which on the way encompassed the late, great Roger Deakin and then contemporaries like Robert Macfarlane and Helen Macdonald have blazed the way. I think the British have always been interested in nature and rural life – this can be consoling, but it can also be a call to arms, and a rejection of the sort of life that’s led to climate change, polluted rivers and seas. So I hope it’s many things.

Tamsin: The discussion about hardback v. paperback bubbles away – what are your views? Do you like hardbacks? What about flaps? Are you a flaps person? Dust jackets? Do you have a company approach? 

Jon: We like ‘em all! I think it’s a matter of horses for courses. Our nature classics are classy paperbacks with flaps, but we also publish hardbacks for almost all our new books.

Tamsin: Can you see Brexit changing the way you work?

Jon: Massive question! I think inevitably there will be consequences. In the short term there’s no doubt that consumers are worried about it, and that affects spending, even on relatively cheap things like books. In the medium-term publishers need to think about printing – printing in the EU has become significantly more expensive already, as a result of the weaker pound since the referendum result, and we don’t really know where that’s heading. Beyond that, and forgive me if I go a bit off-topic – I think you’re used to that from me ! – the main question has to be about the sort of country we want to be – and we need to begin listening better to those who felt so disenfranchised in 2016. How can we reflect that in publishing? I have no answers!

Tamsin: Can we talk about illustration? People still talk about illustration as if it is for children; and yet much early illustration has been for science: from naturalists’ records to medical study. Tell me about your approach to illustration as a publisher and about some of the illustrators with whom you work. 

Jon: Absolutely. We like to illustrate all our books, in some way, depending on the book. We commission lots of artists to work on our jackets, but we also like to think creatively about how we can use it in books. This has been a theme running through all publishing about nature of course – we publish Clare Leighton’s Farmer’s Year, a book that was published originally many decades ago, and she was commissioned to produce both words and woodcuts – integral to the book. We’re also publishing Peter Marren’s Emperors, Admirals and Chimney -Sweepers later this spring – all about the naming of British butterflies and moths, and as well as using the wonderful Bea Forshall to design the jacket, we’ve used older illustrations of butterflies throughout. There are some artists who are especially in tune with us, and we enjoy working with them on our books – notably Ed Kluz, who did our jacket for Horatio Clare’s Something of his Art, and has just finished the cover for King of Dust, and he’ll contribute some of the internal illustrations too.

Early illustration by Benjemin Wilkes, 1742.

Tamsin: What do you think smaller publishers bring to our industry? And do we make the most of having smaller publishers with specialist knowledge?

Jon: I hope we bring a different dimension. The trade wouldn’t work only with smaller publishers, of course, but we bring an element of risk-taking to publishing and we’re good at spotting talent and developing it. I’m really proud, for instance, that we published Carol Donaldson’s brilliant book, On the Marshes, about the marshes of north Kent and her relationship with it, and the people and wildlife that choose to live there. It is great it went on to success – the second printing of the paperback is just back from the printers.

Tamsin: You’ve worked in this industry over several decades, and as a bookseller and marketing director as well as a publisher. If you could make three changes to the British Book Industry to make its future better, what would they be? 

Jon: Just the three? I’d like to see the retail trade become stronger still – both the chains and the indies – they’re a really key way that readers discover books and a bookseller’s passion is a wonderful thing, and that means a proper look at our high streets and what they mean to people now, because the new technologies have meant that bookshops simply don’t compete on a level playing field. I’d ask London publishers to think more about the regions, both in terms of output and serving readers elsewhere, but also to understand that they need to recruit more from elsewhere. We can be a little mono-cultural, and that can’t be good for anyone. Lastly, I’d like to see books really grab the national attention again – there are lots of initiatives like World Book Day, of course, which do good work, but the coverage for books in national media is increasingly limited, with publishers relying on social media to do their marketing work for them, and with nothing on television about books, aside from some excellent adaptations. Overall I’d like to see the creativity really getting out of hand.

Tamsin: Tell me what Little Toller has planned for its tenth anniversary year. 

Jon: It’s a belter! I mentioned our tenth anniversary and we’ll be going to bookshops offering posters and more to help us celebrate, but we’re also at full capacity for new books. These include Peter’s book on butterflies, King of Dust which you mentioned earlier – the biography of a stone-mason, Copsford in our Nature Classics series, a non-fiction book from the prize-winning Paul Kingsnorth called Savage Gods, a book from the late, and extremely great Oliver Rackham on the landscapes around Cornwall’s Helford River. We’re just about to take delivery of the first ever book on the wood engraver and illustrator, Clifford Webb, a hugely important but now sadly neglected figure – this should revive interest in him. In the future too, we’ve got planned a book by young naturalist Dara McAnulty – he really is one to watch!

Reintroducing the art and engraving of Clifford Webb to the world.

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Toller: n river valley in West Dorset. Recorded in the Domesday survey as Tolre, derived from a Celtic word for stream in a hollow valley.