The Society of Bookmen was, originally, precisely that at the invitation of Hugh Walpole, assorted members of the book trade gathered at his house to establish a Society that would bring together all those connected with the production of books – whether publishers, printers, authors, binders or salesmen. The inaugural meeting was held on 20 October 1921, and was attended by 26 well-known bookmen – including John Galsworthy, Harold Macmillan and Stanley Unwin. Its aim was ‘the advancement of literature by the co-operation of the various branches of the book trade’. The first 15 years were essentially dedicated to professionalising the book trade. As early as 1924, the Society was proposing co-operation between the four principal trade bodies – The Incorporated Society of Authors, The Publishers’ Association, The Publishers’ Circle and The Associated Booksellers – to work towards presenting a united publicity front. This marked the beginning of what would become the National Book Council, later the National Book League, ‘to publicise and promote the use of books’. Other initiatives included a book distribution survey, the first serious discussion of the Book Tokens scheme, and Basil Blackwell’s tirade against the ‘Nemesis of the Net Book Agreement’ (1933). It was not until 1935 that the first Ladies’ Night was held, at which Eileen Power and Margaret Irwin were the distinguished guests. By then one talk had been given on the subject of ‘What Women Read’ and it was by a male speaker. Times, fortunately, have changed, though early histories of the Society report, cheeringly, that Ladies’ Nights got rather out of hand in 1944.
Hugh Walpole emerges as warm, gregarious and friendly. He believed passionately that anyone concerned with books should be able to talk to anyone else off the record, and on equal terms. Plain speaking, good tempers and good manners were the order of the day. This was certainly not true of the book trade as a whole at the time – in which there were several publishers who refused to sit next to each other at PA meetings. Two pioneers emerged from the Society who worked energetically to formulate policies for the book trade as a whole and who chivvied reluctant trade associations to put them into practice. Stanley Unwin – Sir Stan – was widely regarded as a dangerous radical, publisher of subversive thinkers like Marx and Freud, and a sharp and irrepressible thorn in the flesh of the establishment, and the Society of Bookmen provided him with the perfect platform for his ideas. He was matched, both inside and outside the Society, by the bookseller Basil Blackwell, a formidable friend, ally and sometime critic. Since those early days there have, of course, been many changes – membership is burgeoning, the average age of members has reduced, and women make up over 40% of the current membership.
Attendance at dinners, having declined badly, a decade or so ago, is now buoyant – largely because the Society is once again seen as an essential forum for discussion. Yet in essence the aim of the Society remains much the same as it always was – to bring together a disparate group of book-enamored professionals and to give them the opportunity to meet each other to talk about everything and anything that matters to their trade. It has never seen itself as a defender of the Establishment nor as a keeper of sacred cows. As Alan Bott said in 1943, ‘It launches ideas but makes no rules and decrees no sanctions. It is therefore appropriate for the confession of heresies.’ It is still the case that the best evenings are those that prompt people to speak their mind, in a space where no special interest group predominates, no single agenda applies and where the Chatham House Rule rules. Typically Victor Gollancz’s first (and probably only) address to a book trade gathering was entitled: ‘Things I Should Not Say’. He then went on to say them. More recently Ken Livingstone took much the same advantage in a speech entitled: ‘You Can’t Say That.’
Two attempts have been made over the last fifteen years or so to change the name of the Society to reflect the fact that, since 1972 – a disgracefully late date – the Society has embraced women members. In the contemporary world, a Society of Bookmen was, at the very least, a quaint survival. The main reason that the attempts to change the name failed until recently were not so much the result of misogyny as the lack of acceptable alternatives. The Society of Bookmen and Women – too labored; the Society of Book People – too twee; everything else, too far from the original. In a third attempt The Book Society was regarded by the existing committee as the only viable alternative, and the vote was overwhelmingly successful. The balance of the membership has improved immeasurably, as has its youth, and (as in the past) an inordinate amount of time in committee meetings is spent trying to ensure it improves still further.
Today, in 2018, speakers at the Society are as wide-ranging, challenging, entertaining and informative as they have always been. In the past few years they have included publishing heads such as Anthony Forbes Watson, MD Pan Macmillan; Andrew Franklin MD Profile, Derek Freeman, Chairman Bonnier; John Makinson, Chairman Penguin Random House; Brian Murray, President and CEO of Harper Collins Publishers; Charlie Redmayne, CEO Harper Collins UK; plus many other highly influential figures in books and publishing, such as Peter Bazalgette, Chair of the Arts Council England; Philip Jones, Editor of the Bookseller; David Prescott, CEO Blackwells; Di Speirs, BBC Radio 4 Books Editor; Ed Victor CBE, literary agent; and Kit de Waal, author and campaigner.