Spies, Spaceships and Other Stories | Peter Usborne

Remember loving Usborne books in your youth? The children’s publisher, based in EC1, is still going strong and is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.

Andre Paine meets the founder, Peter Usborne, who talks about his best-selling spycraft manuals, the eBook revolution, and his favourite kids’ author (and it’s not J.K. Rowling)…

It’s not often you can admit your childhood dream of being a spy to a leading British businessman, but Peter Usborne has a twinkle in his eye when I tell him how I pored over The KnowHow Book of Spycraft as a boy. “My favourite book I’ve ever published – it was a sensation,” Usborne tells me as we reminisce about the title that launched his company, Usborne Publishing, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary. Full of tips on secret codes and disguises, the book was co-written by a former operative and even featured in a 1993 espionage trial when a KGB double agent was cross examined about its spying techniques.

I was kicked into taking an interest in children’s books when my wife rang me up one afternoon and said you’re going to be a father. The book’s been reissued to mark the anniversary with a personal message from its founder. Four decades on, the company based in Saffron Hill boasts a list of 2,000 titles and has a growing presence in Europe, China and South America. “It’s a great strength if you’ve been around that long because people do recognise you from their childhood,” explains Usborne.

At 76, Usborne’s still a bit of a big kid himself: he’s soon exulting over his range of sticker books featuring cavemen, spaceships and pirates (“easily the best-selling thing we’ve ever done”) and describing his recent experience flying a Spitfire. “It’s the nearest thing I’ve had to a religious experience,” he says. “Biggles was my hero when I was a boy.” He also rates Enid Blyton as an “absolute bloody genius” though is less keen on Harry Potter. “I would have turned it down,” he admits.

However, Usborne is diff erent in that it doesn’t focus on fi ction by big-name children’s authors but produces a vast range of reference, activity and picture books using an in-house team of 52 designers, a quarter of the entire staff . Unusually, the books are often written in-house, too. “We can look around and say where are the neglected areas – we call them ‘dusty corners’ – of children’s books?” he explains. This creative approach has not been seriously imitated by rivals who are “praying for the next J.K. Rowling to walk in.”

Usborne’s earned the trust of booksellers because the well-produced, distinctive titles are resilient sellers. The company has adapted Farmyard Tales for iPad with sound eff ects, but there’s no panicky drive to digital. “I don’t think many parents are going to be sitting with their little kid reading them a story on an iPad – pride of ownership is very important,” he says. “I haven’t lost sleep over eBooks.” It turns out that Usborne has his own children to thank for his career. “I was kicked into taking an interest in children’s books when my wife rang me up one afternoon and said you’re going to be a father,” he says. He was working at the British Printing Corporation and decided to move into its children’s publishing division, which led to his own venture with the company’s backing.

Based in Covent Garden’s then down-at-heel Garrick Street – “full of rats” – the small team worked on reinventing children’s books for launch in 1975, recruiting graphic designers to work on the illustrations. “That was a bit revolutionary at the time,” says Usborne, whose books were influenced by magazines and comics and even aped TV screens with curved boxes containing illustrations. Not every title sold like Spycraft but he stuck to his formula and established Usborne with colourful, witty and well-designed books. “I’m definitely in the entertainment business,” he says. “Do I like jokes? Absolutely, I started Private Eye for God’s sake!” Usborne has a stake in the magazine, which he helped launch in 1961 with Oxford contemporary Richard Ingrams.

The company moved to Clerkenwell 20 years ago when Covent Garden got too expensive and Usborne “loves” the area. As managing director, he heads into the office from Highgate for a few hours each day, but delegates a lot of the decision-making. “I have no plans to die and even fewer plans to retire – next question!” he snaps when I bring up retirement. Usborne’s steady growth earned it the Children’s Publisher of the Year award last year. Big publishers off er to buy him out, Usborne says, but he’s not interested (he sold a 26% stake to US publisher Scholastic in 1995).

He’s also working with his grown-up children on the Usborne Foundation, a charity that produces online games to help reading skills. Usborne sees the company as a “celebration” of his own family and believes making reading enjoyable can foster literacy. “I seem to have a knack for communicating with kids and it’s given me a wonderful life,” he says.