Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Ernest Hecht and the Souvenir Press

In 1951, Ernest Hecht set up an independent UK publishing company called the Souvenir Press. Today, he's still running it, in its 56th year of operation.

The Souvenir Press first came to my attention in 1974. In those days I was much younger and more naive than I am today, and I tended to believe what I read in the book-trade press. Hence, when I read in the Bookseller that an amazing new thriller was about to come out, I got a bit excited. I liked thrillers.

The book in question was The Cooler, by George Markstein. The author, Wikipedia tells me, was born in Germany but came to England as a child refugee. He was already a successful TV producer and scriptwriter. But I knew nothing of that at the time (and in 1974 there was no easy way to find out; you have no idea, you younger persons, what a difference the internet makes). All I knew was that the Bookseller went on for weeks and weeks about The Cooler, pointing out how the film rights had been sold for a vast sum, paperback rights for ditto, advance orders huge, and so forth. The author, it was said, had made a quarter of a million pounds even before publication.

Now all this, you will readily understand, was pure hype and flim-flam. You and I can recognise that sort of thing now, because we've seen so much of it. But at the time I believed every word. (I told you I was naive.)

When the book came out, I read it eagerly. And, er, guess what -- it wasn't really all that good. Not a patch on Ian Fleming.

I sat there scratching my head and wondering what I was missing. So I was not only naive, I was a bit thick as well.

Eventually, of course, some vague apprehension of what was going on here gradually sank in. I don't believe that a film version of the book was ever made (the 2003 movie of that name seems unconnected), and I doubt that the book was a huge seller either. But I did remember the name of the Souvenir Press and its publisher, Ernest Hecht.

Over the years Mr Hecht has published a slightly weird and eclectic list. This reflects something of his character, which was briefly described by Nicholas Clee, in the Times last year. Hecht has, in his time, published quite a lot of fiction, including, for example, both the Modesty Blaise series (commercial) and Knut Hamsun (Norwegian Nobel prize winner). Today, however, he publishes very little fiction 'because of the marketing difficulties with the chains'.

Despite the difficulties, every so often Hecht does re-issue a novel which he believes has been overlooked. In 2002, for example, he chose Address Unknown, by Kressman Taylor, which is now on its fifth printing. This dates from 1938, and is a very short but powerful expose of Nazi Germany. In 2003 the choice was In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, by Delmore Schwartz; the author was, it seems, the model for Saul Bellow's Mr Herzog.

Last year, the Souvenir Press re-issued two novels which the firm had originally published in 1983, by then young and unknown writers: If I Should die Before I Wake, by Michelle Morris, and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, by Ron Hansen (recently filmed starring Brad Pitt).

One of the firm's latest re-issues is The Marvellous Adventures of Cabeza de Vaca, by Haniel Long. This was originally published in 1939, and the first Souvenir Press edition was in 1972. This novella has been described as 'a spiritual classic as powerful as Khalil Gibran's The Prophet' (Gibran is an author whom Hecht also published, by the way).

A glance at the Souvenir Press catalogue reveals, however, that the firm does not just put out the best of the past. New books include a history of chess, a guide to dog training, and a study of obituaries.

I would like to be able to point you at the Souvenir Press web site, so that you can explore more at your leisure. But I find, not altogether to my surprise, that the firm doesn't have one.

As an alternative, go to Amazon.co.uk, and search by publisher. With a bit of luck, this link might do the job for you, and you'll find a list of over 2000 books.

Long live the Souvenir Press and its distinguished and indefatigable publisher.

10 comments:

Edmond Clay said...

The list you linked for Souvenir Press is impressive. Interesting also is the english translation of "souvenir" and the publishers wont to "republish." Anyway, the book you referenced "The Marvellous Adventures of Cabeza de Vaca" is listed in my US library circuit as "Interlinear to Cabeza de Vaca : his relation of the journey, Florida to the Pacific, 1528-1536." by Haniel Long and a republish. Publishing seems a bit romantic here with a sentimentallity that may accompany each publication as if they might be considered as family. How nice.

Andy O'Hara said...

How can one not admire Hecht? I particularly like his plans for the firm after his demise--none.

Peter L. Winkler said...

George Markstein is best known as having been the story editor for the cult classic TV series The Prisoner, starring Patrick McGoohan. In a very revealing interview which I wish I could supply a link for here, Markstein discussed his wotk on the show, which he claims he created, and on McGoohan and their subsequent falling out.

I believe I read The Cooler in paperback some time ago, probably the early '90s. If were talking about the same book, it was about a female British officer who was sequestered in a top secret facility in the countryside during WW II. It was essentially a transposition of The Prisoner to a WW II setting. I found it an easy read, but unmemorable.

Trent Bigelow said...

Very impressive. Do you know how I could get in touch with Hecht or the Souvenir Press? I'm an American entrepreneur who's very interested in licensing imagery from some of Souvenir's illustrated books for use on greeting cards and stationery.

Any help or advice would be greatly appreciated! Cheers.

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gazza34 said...

Probably I have known the Souvenir Press longer than anyone currently writing. I first heard of it in the fifties and I met Ernest in the early sixties. Some points which are worth mentioning. He is, was (is he still with us?) a football fanatic. His dress takes eccentricity to the extreme. He is in love with Brazil. He is ever ready to take a chance on a book. His method of filing is dust layers. His office is covered with piles of paper and he can tell by the level of dust which files are important. He has no taste in pop music. He once told me Police would be bigger than the Beatles. Ha!
His is also a very nice person and a wonderful human being and I miss him. Me being in Australia, him (if he still is) in England. When he goes publishing will be a duller, greyer place.
Gareth Powell who is, yes, still publishing

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