In August this year, countryside publisher
Merlin Unwin Books celebrates its 25th
anniversary, with a party thrown in
Ludlow, Shropshire, the place it has made
its home. The press was founded by
Merlin Unwin in 1991, when he left
HarperCollins some time after its
purchase of his family firm Unwin
Hyman. He is now chair, while his wife,
Karen McCall, is the firm’s m.d.
McCall says the publisher is comfortable
within its niche— the countryside—
publishing titles such as The Herbalist’s
Bible , Venison and Fishing with Emma —
but actually the business began in an
even smaller niche.
Unwin says: “I was coming out of general
non-fiction publishing, i thought fishing
was a good niche to be in. No one else
was specialising in that area. But the
pond became a bit too small to stay in.”
McCall joined the firm five years after it
was founded, having previously worked in
journalism at the Financial Times and
Hello . Her interests, says Unwin, were
broader. She adds: “We started off in
fishing but then broadened out. We are
fortunate that the niches we are in haven’t
diminished. We’ve been able to keep up
with trends, particularly in countryside
It’s intriguing that the business caters for
both sides of the “countryside”: the
hunters and shooters, in addition to the
nature lovers. Venison is a sound
example, a cookbook that includes 23
pages on butchering the carcass. McCall
says: “We go from the very soft side, from
hedgerow medicine, to butchery and
hunting. We send that catalogue to 10,000
regular customers and they seem happy
to live alongside each other. The
vegetarians don’t seem to mind that we
have books about killing things.”
The business now has more than 100
titles in print, and publishes 12–15 new
books each year, with a team of four
people at its Ludlow base. It also,
perhaps suprisingly, runs its own
warehouse in nearby Woofferton. The
centre holds 80,000 books which gives
the company flexibility and the ability to
respond quickly to demand.
McCall says the publisher is well
supported by bookshops, including indies
as well as waterstones, and also by
country-focused retailers such as Fur
Feather and Fin. It also gets good
support from the local press and the
country press, including Country Life.
McCall feels it is less well-supported by
the national press. “The big publishers do
seem to have review coverage sewn up.
Is it a coincidence that the same six
books appear in reviews across all the
newspapers at the same time? That does
make things difficult. It is very hard to get
noticed, it feels like a bit of a closed shop.
But social media can help, we have
worked hard to build that up.”
There is an emphasis on production too.
“I like to think a lot of people [in terms of
the quality of the books] don’t realise how
small we are,” McCall adds.
Turnover is around £250,000 to £300,000
annually, with McCall keen for the
business to grow. Last year the company
published its first fiction title, The
Stalking Party by D P Hart-Davis. “We
keep trying different ways—one door
closes, another opens,” she says.