Pride & Prejudice & Psycho | Robert Hale

Four decades after moving to Clerkenwell, 79-year-old family firm Robert Hale is still publishing an eclectic list of titles ranging from Jane Austen and equestrian books to horror classic Psycho.

Andre Paine meets the founder’s son, John Hale, and managing director Gill Jackson…

Publishing has experienced serious turbulence in recent years, ranging from mergers and acquisitions to digital disruption, but one EC1 stalwart is unique in remaining a family firm for almost 80 years. Robert Hale Ltd was founded in 1936 and this year celebrates 40 years in Clerkenwell Green. To mark the occasion, 84-year-old company chairman John Hale, who retired as managing director in 2010 after 54 years at the publisher, meets me on the top floor of the six-storey building he shrewdly acquired in 1974.

“It has a wonderful view,” he says. “It’s quite nice just to sit and stare.”. The company used to occupy the entire building, but outsourcing and technology mean it now rents out the other offices. I can’t resist asking what the building cost in 1974. “A little bit less than today,” says Hale with understatement. The publishing veteran clearly inherited his father’s intelligent approach to building a company. “Father was a very bright man from a business point of view,” says Hale. “I suppose he understood money better than books.”

Although he didn’t have a literary family background, Robert Hale entered the publishing trade after school and later served in World War I. By 1936 he had the experience and investors he needed to set up on his own. He published non-fiction titles for readers hungry for accounts of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, while his most successful project was a collection about the counties of Britain.

“That’s always every publisher’s dream to have a series,” explains John Hale. In 1956, he joined the family firm his father had led for 20 years, though Robert Hale’s death at the age of 68 meant they only worked together for three months. In The Times, colleagues paid tribute to this “lone wolf” of publishing and the “sweetness of his nature”. “Publishing has always had a lot of people who have great egos and want to put themselves in the limelight – he never did that,” recalls John Hale. The firm continued with its eclectic range of titles including popular authors EV Thompson, Jean Plaidy and Harold Robbins. In 1960, Hale published Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho ahead of the Hitchcock movie adaptation. Their paperback edition still sells well today.

In recent decades, Hale discovered authors who have gone on to become bestsellers including thriller writers Robert Goddard, David Hewson and CJ Box. In 1984, a planned book about alleged leaks in the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) resulted in an incident that could have appeared in one of Hale’s novels. “We had a visit from the authorities demanding the typescript and they slapped a D-notice on us,” recalls managing director Gill Jackson, who first joined the company in 1969.

On the whole, though, Hale has avoided the headlines and focused on niche titles rather than big-name authors. “There’s no subject we haven’t touched whether it’s watchmaking or horse riding,” says Hale. “If there’s a gap, that’s what we’re interested in. ” Hale doesn’t even submit novels for the Booker Prize because of the costs involved. But Betty Trask, one of their romantic novelists of the Fifties, did leave a bequest in 1983 that now funds a major literary prize for a debut novel. Previous winners include Alex Garland, Zadie Smith and Grace McCleen.

Having previously focused on the hardback library market, Hale recently made a push into popular paperback fiction with its Buried River Press imprint, inspired by the River Fleet. ‘We had a visit from the authorities and they slapped a D-notice on us’. “It seemed appropriate and fixes us in Clerkenwell where we are long established,” says Jackson. Since her appointment in 2010, she has focused more on the e-book business.

Key new titles include a story collection by Wendy Perriam, a biography of Tolkien and an account of Gallipoli. Hale also specialises in books inspired by Jane Austen, which began a decade ago with Darcy’s Diary. “That set off a trend within the whole of the publishing industry,” says Jackson. As I conclude my interview with John Hale and Gill Jackson, she introduces me to the production director – none other than Robert Hale. The grandson of the founder joined his father at the firm 35 years ago. So Robert Hale Ltd looks set to remain a family business in EC1 for some years to come.