25 February 2021
Behind the scenes at the British Library: John Lee, Publisher, and Maria Vassilopoulos, Publishing Sales and Marketing Manager
Our small publishing team of just five people publish approximately 50 books per year, surfacing unexpected treasures from our collections, including maps, manuscripts, great works of literature and rare books. Continuing our peek behind the scenes at the people behind the British Library, Jo from the digital engagement team catches up with two members of the publishing team about their roles, their book recommendations and the impact of the pandemic on the publishing industry.
Maria Vassilopoulos is our Publishing Sales and Marketing Manager. She is responsible for selling our titles to UK and international retailers and manages our publishing social media channels (see handles below).
As Publisher, John Lee oversees the team and manages our own books and our publishing partnerships.
“We publish a lot more than many cultural institutions. In addition to our exhibition catalogues, co-editions and facsimiles, we are surfacing forgotten stories from our collections. We’re not an academic publisher; we publish books for everyone.” John Lee
How has Covid-19 changed the way you work?
It is true that the publishing landscape has faced challenges over the past year but alongside the British Library Shop we have found our voice on our social media channels and started an Instagram account. We have had to think more innovatively about how to share the content of our books with our customers and retailers with less face-to-face opportunities available to us. Our Editors Abbie Day and Jonny Davidson and Publishing Apprentice Thomas Irvine have done a fantastic job keeping our schedules going and being innovative with our authors and contributors to bring our titles to a truly international audience.
“We’re an adaptable team and we just got on with it. We’ve pursued online retail opportunities and introduced more virtual ‘see inside’ functionality. Ebooks are also doing well. Plus, we’ve engaged a lot more with independent bookshops and run some online events, leading us to reach international audiences. At our recent Visions of the Vampire launch event we had attendees from as far afield as Paraguay.” Maria Vassilopoulos
The team have continued with their publishing activity even though there have been hurdles along the way. Access to collection items has been less straightforward but, thanks to our collections’ services team and studio photographer, the 2020 publishing programme was not enormously compromised. For example, during the summer of 2020 we were able to photograph a series of maps in the studio so that we could publish A History of the Second World War in 100 Maps in October, which has achieved international commercial success and been featured in two separate American library review lists of the top history books of the year.
“But I feel distanced from the collections and those chance encounters and discussions with curators. I’m also really missing our onsite readers and the simple inspiration I get seeing them queueing up every morning, each with the potential to do something wonderful with the collections.” John Lee
Both John and Maria speak about the energy of the Library and the people who use our collections. Maria uses the Library both as a researcher as well as being a member of staff. She misses talking about ideas with others.
How did you get into this field?
Maria started her career as a bookseller and worked for Waterstones for nearly a decade before taking a sales role at Abrams & Chronicle Books. She spotted the British Library job vacancy while managing the jobs section for The Bookseller trade magazine. She’s been with us since 2016. Alongside this she has been researching the history of the British Book Trade Industries for her PhD with UCL.
John went straight into publishing from college, working his way through the ranks and in a range of roles. He started in sales but quickly moved across to editorial roles. He has been managing publishing teams and programmes for some 25 years.
“Over the years I’ve worked in many different fields with overall focus on non-fiction subjects including history, art, cartography, transport and popular culture. My role at the Library has extended my range into classic fiction, exhibition books, heritage titles and even some children’s books.” John Lee
He also set up his own independent publishing lists specialising in cycling books and quirky history titles. He saw the British Library Publisher role advertised on LinkedIn and started with us in November 2018.
Give us a flavour of the books you publish
Our Publishing team actively publish from our vast collections to bring forgotten stories and original non-fiction to new audiences. We publish approximately 50 books per year, a mix of fiction and non-fiction, and have several popular series. Every penny of revenue from our publications goes straight back into the Library to supports all sorts of programmes.
“Six or seven years ago we launched our Crime Classics list and now have over 100 titles in the series. Most branches of Waterstones have a table especially for these bestsellers.” Maria Vassilopoulos
Spurred on by the phenomenal success of the Crime Classics, the team went on to develop a series of books focussing on horror and paranormal fiction under the ‘Tales of the Weird’ banner and also regularly publish new titles in the British Library Science Fiction Classics series. Our editors dig into the collections to bring weird and wonderful books and short stories to light. Right at the start of the first lockdown we also launched our Women’s Writers fiction series, linked to the Library’s Unfinished Business exhibition.
Sometimes books come from unlikely sectors and areas.
“A team favourite is the The Philosophy of Beards, an eccentric Victorian book that argues a strong case for the universal wearing of a beard. Re-discovered in our collections, we republished it for the first time since 1850, accompanied by illustrations of impressive beards from history. We’ve gone on to commission several spin-off titles such as The Philosophy of… Gin, Wine, Coffee etc. Tattoos and Beer are next.” John Lee
John and Maria are keen to increase our digital presence so that more people can find out about our books. They want to diversify both our pool of authors and the readers of our books.
Any book recommendations for our readers?
Maria recommends Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell.
“I’ve read it over again and I admire the way he describes the way people lived and the comparisons between the two cities. Linked to my PhD, I love social history and reading diaries.” Maria Vassilopoulos, Publishing Sales and Marketing Manager
One of John’s favourite writers is American author and journalist Bill Buford. (Hear a conversation with Bill Buford and Ian McEwan on BL Sounds from 1991.)
“I love the way he immerses himself in different worlds, from a chef in Heat to a football hooligan in Among the Thugs. I’m looking forward to reading his new book, Dirt. I’m currently re-reading Ed Catmull’s Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration which is about how to get the best out of people creatively and is based on the rise of the Pixar animation/film company.” John Lee
What’s your favourite object in the collection?
Using the Library as a PhD researcher, Maria has made good use of our newspapers collection. She also enjoyed working with the Virago Archive, exhibited as part of Unfinished Business, showing the challenges women have faced in the publishing industry.
John struggled to pick one item as a favourite. What he loves about his job is selecting a commercial subject for a book and simply mining the collection.
“My favourite item is the one we’re just about to find as part of research for a book. I love the unique potential we have here. I’m also very privileged to manage the Library’s facsimile programme with external publishers. I get to work alongside our curators to present some of the Library’s treasures and get to see these objects first-hand. In my second week at St Pancras I sat alongside Kathleen Doyle presenting the Harley Golden Gospels to a client. A truly breath-taking introduction to my new role.” John Lee