There are a few things I remember vividly about reading as a child.
In my nursery school, we all learned only the sounds, rather than the names, of letters. That was unusual, but I don’t think any of us any of us had any difficulty learning to read. Others struggled with letter names and sounds and had a much harder time. We were of course doing ‘phonics’, something I’ve believed in passionately ever since.
Then there was the night I read the whole of Enid Blyton’s Island of Adventure with a torch underneath the sheets. Utterly wonderful. And of course, like all boys brought up in the war, I adored every story about Biggles, Spitfire pilot.
But I was never a particularly big reader, and had no plan to have anything to do with books. Pilot? Engine driver? Inventor? Painter? Great. Children’s book publisher? You must be joking.
That completely unexpected career choice came about like this.
My first publishing effort was starting a magazine, Mesopotamia, at Oxford. My second one was starting a much funnier one, Private Eye, after Oxford. After three years as Satirical Managing Director of that, I diverged for a few years into management consultancy, which I loathed. Eventually I landed up back in publishing, as Assistant to the Chairman of a big group known as BPC Publishing.
After a couple of years, as I vividly remember, my wife rang me at about 3pm on a Friday afternoon and told me ‘You’re going to be a father’. Stunned, I immediately walked into my boss’s office and said ‘Please can I stop doing this and start working on something to do with children?’ ‘OK,’ he said, without hesitation. ‘Go downstairs to the third floor where you’ll find a company we own called MacDonald Educational, and get yourself a job.’
I knew absolutely nothing about children’s books, which turned out to be an advantage. I obviously had a knack for them, and I managed to invent a new book series of super-simple mildly humorous information books aimed at early readers. Astonishingly, they worked extremely well, so I produced more kids’ information series and ended up quite quickly as publishing director.
One day I met my boss in the gents, and, as we were washing our hands, he asked what I wanted to do next. I said, ‘Start my own company, I’m afraid’. He said, ‘I’ll lend you the money’. Which he did. Over £1m in today’s money. So that was the start of Usborne Publishing.
Now I’m 80, and have been lucky enough to have sampled most of life’s supposedly greatest pleasures and treats. As I keep telling everybody, nothing, absolutely nothing beats the excitement I get from a new book. Books are new people, new people’s minds. Nothing covers a wall like floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. My table full of books not yet read is my ultimate treat.
Being a children’s book publisher is something I now consider to be life’s ultimate privilege. When I hear about other peoples’ often painful and tedious jobs, and compare them to mine, I feel downright guilty. I am allowed to work with writers, artists, salespeople and production experts to make things that are attractive as chocolates, funny, colourful, helpful and intriguing. And I never have to go home in the evening wondering ‘what was the point of all that?’
Making books has given me a perfect, golden life that I’ve enjoyed non-stop. Building up Usborne Publishing has meant working with people I like, travelling wherever and whenever I like, attempting to speak lots of languages and constantly pursuing new ideas. I think life is exciting and wonderful, and if my books manage to get that across, they will have done their job.
In 1973, Peter Usborne pioneered a completely new generation of entertaining, colourful and friendly non-fiction books. Having already co-founded the hugely popular satirical magazine Private Eye, Peter’s next aim was to make educational children’s books as engaging and visually appealing as television.
Over 40 years later, Usborne books have an unrivalled reputation for quality, child-appeal and authority. In 2011, Peter was awarded an MBE for “services to the publishing industry”.
Peter is still very much involved in the business and – when he’s not travelling the world – is in the office every day.
Image (c) Martin Usborne