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Member Obituary: David Whitaker

Reprinted with kind permission from The Bookseller

David Whitaker, a former editor of The Bookseller, has died. Whitaker died peacefully in his sleep overnight on 4th August, his widow Maggie Van Reenen has confirmed.

Whitaker edited the magazine for three years from 1977 to 1979, although his principal contribution to the book trade came via Whitaker Publishing, the business that owned The Bookseller until its sale to VNU in 1999. Whitaker was proprietor, managing director and then chair of the business, until he retired in 1997.

Described by past editor of The Bookseller Louis Baum as a “thoroughly opinionated journalist”, he was also an “innovator and educator”. Whitaker helped establish the ISBN, then known as Standard Book Numbering (SBN), and contributed to the creation of the TeleOrdering system used extensively by booksellers in the 1980s and 90s. Under his leadership, the magazine also campaigned to keep VAT off books and gave sustained support for the Public Lending Right. As editor, he also introduced a policy of promoting women in the trade, through the way the magazine handled and commissioned stories.

Whitaker also famously saw off a libel claim from the disgraced media baron Robert Maxwell: Maxwell had told the Times that all he wanted was a “grovelling apology”, but The Bookseller‘s lawyer David Hooper successfully defended the challenge and Maxwell had to pay costs.

In 2008, reflecting on his editorship, he told the magazine. “I was editor for only three years and they were the best and happiest years of my working life. The only day I was sad was the day I was promoted out.”

David Whitaker was the son of Haddon Whitaker, and a direct descendant of Joseph Whitaker, the first editor of the magazine, founded in January 1858. David Whitaker remained on the board of the family firm until 1997 when a disagreement led to his departure, with his son Martin taking over as m.d. The company was sold to the Dutch group VNU in 1999.

Speaking about the creation of the SBN in 2015, to past International Publishers Association president Richard Charkin, Whitaker outlined how influential it had been across the trade: “It was an idea whose time had come. It was also the swinging sixties, a time when anything was possible, even co-operation between publishers! The Bookseller had been running a series of articles on computers in the book trade, on computer-controlled warehouses and on the need for a trade-wide numbering system. By the time SBN was operational, there must have been plenty of people who assumed it had existed for years.

“Book publishing, as an industry, has always embraced technology. Once ISBN came in, it paved the way for the first trade-wide electronic order transmission system, for public lending rights, for comprehensive bestseller lists and for bibliographic records in electronic form. All of these advances emerged out of, and were dependent on, ISBN.”

Charkin told The Bookseller: “David was pivotal in the book trade for many decades including contributions to TeleOrdering, SBN, The Book Society and Books in Print, as well as The Bookseller. He was also a good friend.”

Libraries campaigner Tim Coates added: “He was wonderful — in the years of the 70s and 80s when many of us were trying very hard to improve the quality of bookselling outside university towns, so that more people had access to better bookshops, he was a whirlwind of inspiration and challenge and power . . . He was the voice behind what has become BIC and Editeur and later Nielsen and the cement that held together the idea of a book trade that was more than the sum of its parts.  Then latterly he drove me on in my struggles with the public library service for which I was deeply and profoundly grateful.”

The funeral is expected to take place at St Paul’s Covent Garden, where his parents were married, and in the area where he spent his working life. Details will be announced in due course.