Rounding off our Anniversary Interviews series, theatre journalist Al Senter talks to Publisher Nick Hern and Managing Director Matt Applewhite about thirty years of Nick Hern Books, and what lies ahead for the company…
In the thirty years since it came into being, Nick Hern Books has grown into a considerable force, not just in theatre publishing – where it’s undoubtedly a leading player – but arguably in the whole ecology of theatre in the UK and beyond. Without Nick Hern Books, the livelihoods of many playwrights, and consequently many theatres, would be severely diminished.
And yet, while he is hugely liked and respected amongst playwrights and their agents, and in the world of theatre professionals in general, the company’s Publisher, Nick Hern, keeps a relatively low profile. He’s not to be found on Wikipedia, and some people still confess a degree of surprise when they learn that Nick Hern is in fact a real, living person.
I know for sure that he is, because I recently met up with him, along with the company’s Managing Director and Commissioning Editor, Matt Applewhite, at their offices in Shepherd’s Bush in West London, not far from the venerable Bush Theatre, one of London’s great crucibles of new writing.
Nick is in his seventies now, but his commitment to the theatre and to his company is undiminished. He came to theatre publishing from academia, joining Methuen as Drama Editor in 1974. When he left Methuen to set up his own theatre imprint at Walker Books in 1988, it was Sebastian Walker who came up with a name for the fledgling imprint. ‘I was at a bit of a loss about what to call it,’ recalls Nick. ‘Sebastian said, “I call my company ‘Walker Books’, so you’ll be Nick Hern Books”. I thought it rather self-aggrandising, but I’ve got used to it now.’
For five years, after leaving Walker Books and setting up as a self-financing limited company, Nick ran things out of his back bedroom. But now, after thirty years, it’s thankfully on much firmer footing. In 2013, Matt Applewhite was appointed as the company’s youthful and enterprising Managing Director, and the two continue to work closely together, along with a core team of eleven staff. They have every intention that the company will embrace another thirty years and more of theatre publishing. ‘We’re prepared for the future,’ says Nick, ‘whatever that will bring.’
Matt first joined the company in 2003 as Editorial and Production Assistant, not long after getting a good degree from Cambridge and finishing a Masters at RADA. Nick recalls how, when his future employee turned up for interview, it was in the middle of a torrential downpour. ‘He was like a drowned Bob Cratchit!’ he recalls. ‘But it was clear that, of the ten or twelve people we interviewed, he was head and shoulders above the opposition.’ They connected immediately.
Matt spent his childhood in Chichester, getting his first fix of drama at the esteemed Festival Theatre, and sometimes venturing up to London. ‘Chichester is a great place to grow up – if you like theatre,’ he says. For a while he had ambitions to become a stage director, ‘But I think I lacked the courage to cope with the challenges of being a freelance. On the other hand, I wasn’t absolutely smitten at the time by the idea of going into publishing. I eventually settled for giving the job six months, maybe a year, and seeing where that got me.’
Once he’d started working at Nick Hern Books, however, Matt realised that theatre publishing was the perfect fit. ‘I’d spent my whole youth watching plays and buying theatre books, so nothing had really changed.’ Over the next few years, he tackled just about every job it’s possible to do at NHB. Within that time he spent six months at Currency Press, Australia’s chief publisher of plays, having swapped jobs – and lifestyles – with his opposite number there, which included living in a flat just a stone’s throw from Bondi Beach. The experience gave him a new perspective on theatre publishing, and NHB’s association with Currency Press remains strong. ‘The world of theatre publishing can be insular, with rival publishers competing for the same small pool of talent,’ says Matt. ‘But being immersed in a very different theatre culture is a great reminder that there’s equally important work going on elsewhere. It’s vital to remind ourselves of that, especially at times like the present.’ NHB prides itself on having a list of contemporary playwrights that spans the globe, and Matt is particularly pleased to have so many talented Australian playwrights on the list, including Joanna Murray-Smith, Andrew Bovell, Tommy Murphy and Melissa Bubnic.
There’s something of a family atmosphere about NHB. It’s a small, tightly knit company, with employees who are noticeably passionate about the theatre. Many of them have been with the company for over a decade. What’s the secret? ‘There’s no secret, really,’ says Nick. ‘Though certainly, when we take someone on at Nick Hern Books, the most important thing is that they like theatre. If what you really want to do is get on in publishing, you’re probably better off elsewhere.’ Matt agrees. ‘In many ways, I think of us as part of the theatre world, working alongside theatres, if you like. We do a lot of things differently from a conventional publishing company.’
For one thing, much of the company’s publishing schedule is dictated by the theatres that produce their authors’ work. ‘When I first started in theatre publishing,’ remembers Nick, ‘plays were being published some months after their premiere. I’d come from teaching in the provinces, and what we needed most was immediate access to the plays that London was seeing. So I wanted to speed the whole process up. And I’m pleased to say that it’s now more or less expected that a playtext is available on opening night.’ ‘Which means we have to move fast,’ adds Matt, ‘because understandably our authors want to be able to make changes to their text as late as possible in the rehearsal process. We have to go from final text to finished copies in a matter of days – sometimes less than that. I don’t know if many conventional publishing companies would be able to compete with the turnaround times we can achieve.’
Another difference is that the company handles the licensing of amateur productions of its plays. ‘It was something I wanted to do from the start,’ says Nick, ‘to extend that relationship between the play on the page, and its future life on the stage. We have an in-house Performing Rights team actively promoting the plays we publish to the amateur community, which includes students and drama schools, as well as the many, many amateur groups who do brilliant work. It has become a huge part of what we do. Amateur theatre is really flourishing at the moment, which is so pleasing.’ ‘And authors like it too,’ says Matt. ‘It means their plays have an ongoing life, which is so important. We’re publishing plays not just as a record of the first production – but also as a blueprint for future ones.‘
For their own part, Nick and Matt have a relaxed and informal working relationship. It’s easy to see why Nick and his wife Jane were mistaken for Matt’s parents while they were visiting him during his stint in Australia. ‘I already saw him as my successor,’ says Nick. Matt claims to have learned everything he knows about publishing from Nick, and in return, Matt has overseen the expansion of the company’s activities into ebooks, apps, audiobooks, and online publishing, alongside developing an enviable social media presence. ‘We’ve got further plans in that direction,’ says Matt. ‘It’s hugely important to connect with new readers, and especially new generations of drama students, who are using exciting new platforms to access our titles – and we want to support them in doing that.’
Can Nick point to other examples of Matt making a difference to the firm? ‘Yes. I’d always assumed that in a publishing company, design and typesetting was something you outsourced. But Matt assured me that it would be much quicker and more efficient to take these functions in-house. And he was right.’ ‘It’s about being able to respond quickly when you’re up against a tight deadline,’ says Matt. ‘And knowing that your designer or your typesetter is focused on the job, and not squeezing you in between other assignments.’
Both insist that there’s never been a cross word between them. ‘Nick operates with a combination of charm and iron,’ says Matt. ‘The authors he’s worked with all know that he’ll be candid with them about their work. They expect and appreciate that. And it’s the same in the office. Though he’s yet to wield the big stick!’ ‘We have the same taste in plays,’ adds Nick. ‘We talk about plays in the same way, even though we’re from very different generations. And we trust each other’s judgements. He has a great understanding of the work of younger theatre-makers – he really gets them. Yet the fact that NHB has survived for thirty years means I must have been doing something right.’
Are there ever any differences between them? ‘Matt is much more collegiate that I am,’ says Nick. ‘He seeks consent from the rest of the office, whereas I’m much more autocratic. However, I do look around me at organisations where the leadership is ageing but where they are simply not preparing for the future. I feel incredibly relieved and happy that NHB’s future is assured in Matt’s hands.’
‘There are some differences between us,’ admits Matt. ‘But I really value the fact that Nick is still very much involved with the running of the business. He’s so knowledgeable about plays and playwrights, and he still goes to the theatre more than anyone I know. His indefatigable, undimmed passion for it is inspiring.’
So, no regrets? ‘Occasionally I wonder what might have happened if I hadn’t got the job at Nick Hern Books, and gone into theatre-making instead,’ confesses Matt. ‘But actually, I think I can make more of a genuine contribution to theatre in my current role, through publishing the plays that people will go on reading and performing, and the books that make such a difference to other theatre-makers learning their craft. That’s the contribution we all make at Nick Hern Books.’ Apparently, he still has the advert for the Editorial and Production Assistant role that he cut out from The Guardian’s Media section, sixteen years ago. ‘Sometimes I wonder where I’d be now if I hadn’t bought The Guardian that day!’
As for Nick, he’s spent most of his career working behind the scenes, the midwife to other, starrier careers. Does he ever crave the limelight himself? ‘Not really. I did a bit of acting when I was at university. I have no great desire to inflict myself on the public.’ Still, he can certainly rise to the occasion when it calls. At the recent Amateur Theatre Fest – a day of talks and workshops for anyone involved in amateur theatre, organised by Nick Hern Books as part of their thirtieth-anniversary celebrations – one of the headline speakers was the playwright Jez Butterworth, whose plays, including Jerusalem and The Ferryman, are published by NHB. When Nick followed Butterworth onto the stage in order to conduct the interview, there was a second roar of approval – this time for the publisher who has brought so many great plays to so many different stages, simply by putting them in print.
The Nick Hern Books Anniversary Interviews series includes interviews with Harriet Walter, Rona Munro, Lucy Kirkwood, Jack Thorne and Howard Brenton. Catch up with them all here.
Photograph of Nick Hern and Matt Applewhite by Dan Wooller.