Lost Nature Classics: How Little Toller is reviving forgotten books

Little Toller set out in 2008 to revive classic and forgotten books about nature and rural life. Photo credit: Graham Shackleton

Every year, many classic books go out of print, becoming lost or forgotten to new readers. Adrian Cooper, one of the brains behind Little Toller Books, explains the joys and difficulties of reviving forgotten nature classics.

One of the most haunting experiences I’ve had as a publisher is walking through the warehouse where our books are stored before being distributed to shops around the British Isles. A kind of vertigo took hold of me there, in the belly of the whale, seeing for myself the infinite avenues of shelves, with books and boxes stacked so high that surely only a tip-toeing giant could reach them. A maze of books. Millions of them, all in limbo until somebody claimed them, summoned them into life. 

It is not just old books or out-of-print books that are lost. New ones can be too. And this warehouse can be either a port of discovery, a place of disembarkation and possibility. Or it can be a graveyard built from paper and card.

When something is published for the first time, nobody can predict how many copies will be sold or how many years it will stay in print. There is no algorithm that tells me or anybody else how many copies to print, let alone how many will sell in the months and years to come. Experience and guesswork lead the way, followed by the meeting of those unpredictable forces that push and shove against every book: Reviews, publicity budgets, the author’s celebrity, social media, word of mouth, booksellers, how much discount publishers give bookshops, awards, blogs and newspaper editors... 

These elements can launch a book, creating a wave of noise that propels it into the high ranks of the Amazon charts. These things do not, however, translate into longevity; which is a good thing to remind yourself as a publisher, especially one who works from the edges, snapping at the heels of larger companies and conglomerates. Neither money nor influence guarantees immortality. Instead, I prefer to believe in the silent exchange between page and eye, author and reader, where a sort of shamanism takes place: Something much more to do with the originality of the author, the tone of their voice, and how the particular qualities of their story provoke us. Perhaps all books are lost until this moment, whether they are new or old.

Part of what we have done at Little Toller, in creating a ‘nature classics library’, is to revive old books by stimulating a new appetite for them. The idea was simple when we started: To celebrate the long history of nature, landscape and place writing in the British Isles. We wanted to reflect the regional and local nuances, the shifts of style, subject or wider historical and environmental context. But why should people care about these old stories? Aren’t we obsessed by the latest this? Don’t we demand the newest that? And isn’t parochialism a bad thing?

Landscapes – both urban and rural – may be far too complex and dynamic for us to ever understand fully. But we still identify ourselves and our communities with them. Old books, lost books; however you want to describe them, they reveal this. A library of lost books, threaded by a simple idea, gives people the opportunity to discover and rediscover this for themselves. Place matters; whether we are aware of it or not.

The South Country by Edward Thomas was one of the first titles published by Little Toller. Photo credit: Graham Shackleton

Ten years ago, when we started publishing, this sense of continuity between old and new was lacking. Tarka the Otter by Henry Williamson and The Natural History of Selborne by Gilbert White were the only books I could find in print in the high street, along with the Dorset writers Thomas Hardy and William Barnes. The economic reliability of this clutch of authors neglected the depth and breadth of writing that had emerged over centuries, through wars, and between wars, all of which shares insight into what changes and what endures in our relationships with the natural world and the very particular places we inhabit.

From what is now our son’s bedroom, we started Little Toller Books by preparing three titles: The South Country by Edward Thomas (introduced by Robert Macfarlane), Ring of Bright Water by Gavin Maxwell (introduced by John Lister-Kaye) and Men and the Fields by Adrian Bell (introduced by Ronald Blythe). I taught myself how to design books and proofread, while Gracie, heavily pregnant, chose artwork, negotiated rights for covers and telephoned almost every single independent bookshop in the country, telling them about the nature library and asking ever so politely if they would take a book or two, possibly, perhaps, please.

We now have over forty titles in this series, which compliments the current generation of authors who we also publish; and I like to think that all these titles, new and old, are always murmuring to each other, informing and reviving. 

Like all publishers, we are challenged by what to keep in print. We’re not keen on the digital, preferring the physical form, which means ebooks and print-on-demand are not an option. With these particular intentions and beliefs, we have created a nemesis: A publisher that started its life bringing old books back into print, now has to decide for itself the books to keep in print and those to let go. It is quite a friendly nemesis, one that is extraordinarily fun and rewarding to live with. It’d be a relief, from time-to-time, if the nemesis would go on holiday or move next door for a while. But if it upped and left altogether one day, unannounced, there’s no doubt we’d mourn the vanishing, and perhaps the gravity of what we’ve started would disappear too.

You have until the 30 November to have your say in the search for the UK’s favourite nature book here. Once you've submitted your choice, share it on twitter using the hashtag #favnaturebook

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