The Quarto Story

The story of Quarto starts in the 1970s – just at the time when publishers were starting to get to grips with creating highly illustrated books in full color. This was a huge step forward after decades of printing mainly ‘black & white’ books with chunks of pages illustrated in color appearing just here and there.

The Paste-up Problem …
There was a problem, though: books like this were extremely time-consuming and expensive to produce. In the days before desktop publishing, each layout spread involved gluing column strips of edited and typeset copy very precisely into place on a layout board, with laboriously traced images of where the scanned pictures would eventually go.

Editing text after it had been typeset was costly, and sending layouts to repro – 100 heavy paste-up boards, one for each spread – was expensive. Repro was also expensive. And four-color printing was eye-wateringly costly. At the time, most publishers would not touch this kind of illustrated book with a barge pole – it was not economic.

... And a New Solution
But there was a way to make it work. After all, these big, lavishly illustrated books were popular with the reading public. And if print runs were big enough, costs per unit were way lower. So if books could be co-published in different markets, the economics looked totally different.

At around this time, a London-based writer/designer partnership called Jackson Morley, which specialized in illustrated part-works, magazines and brochures, had worked up a few illustrated book proposals, including The English Pub, The Encyclopedia of Motorcycles and The World Guide to Beer. With the aim of expanding the print run to make these projects work, Bob Morley and Michael Jackson (the latter going on to become a beer writer and commentator of some renown) arrived in New York in February 1975 to pitch to US publishers. During the course of this trip, a friend put them in touch with a Columbia University professor who also was running a small publishing outfit in his spare time, Laurence Orbach.

Quarto Quartet ...
Over the coming months, Morley, Jackson, Orbach and his publishing partner Sid Mayer (also an academic and keen to leave teaching), worked up plans to form a new, illustrated publishing outfit, co-owned by the four of them, and named, appropriately enough, Quarto. As it turned out, Mayer chose not to join the new outfit – but the company name had been registered, and it stuck.

... Becomes A Trio
As a start-up, with hardly any staff, and in the pre-internet days, everyone did everything. The company had three directors, one staff member, and two regular freelancers. Morley (head of design) and Jackson (head of editorial) made a road trip into Belgium to research The World Guide to Beer. Orbach (handling sales), funded the start-up and was the majority stakeholder. He also had a part-share in a light aircraft, and on one occasion flew the team through a violent storm to reach Germany for a meeting with the author of The Encyclopedia of Motorcycles. Another set of author meetings took place in a gypsy caravan, with the author’s nine children playing in the yard outside.

Often, to meet the all important deadlines, the group worked through the night, with Bob Morley driving to the airport at 4 a.m. to hand a package of layout boards to the courier company, where they were flown to Italy for repro. Meanwhile, the rest of the team sat down to breakfast with punks and strippers in a greasy spoon café next to the office in Carnaby Street – in the heart of London’s 1970s clubland.

The Rise of The Co-editions ...
Laurence Orbach built up strong relationships with Chinese printers based in Hong Kong, some of whom had also been working with the company since the 1970s. A foreign rights director, Jenny Manstead, joined the company and she quickly developed sales across numerous foreign language markets – allowing the bigger co-editions to reduce print costs, and leading to reprint business from the multiple language editions, which helped to fund the new title development. At the same time, the appetite for the big ‘Encyclopedia’ style books spurred on the creation of series titles, taking advantage of proven formats to produce books for enthusiast readers on subjects such as aircraft, railways, automobiles, ocean liners, firearms, military insignia, and more. As the company grew, the infrastructure of foreign language sales channels and international co-edition printings made it possible to ‘bolt on’ other illustrated book operations.

... Acquisitions and Launches
The first acquisition was a small publishing company run by Alastair Campbell and Ted Kinsey called QED, which was staffed by a group of full-time illustrators – so their books were full of line drawings and diagrams that were created in-house. Quarto passed the Complete Guide To Painting and Drawing to QED to work on – which started off a major line in art instruction publishing which still exists today. These days, of course, QED has become a highly successful co-edition imprint creating children’s nonfiction.

After acquiring QED, Quarto also took over another small company beginning with the letter ‘Q’ – Quill. It was run by a former drummer from the early years of another letter ‘Q’ – the rock band Queen.

Quarto also launched its own home-grown companies. The first of these was Quintet, originally set up to produce books for the growing promotional market (though it now has a very different profile). To sell these books in the UK, Quarto set up Apple Press and in the US sold mainly to Book Sales Inc., which eventually became a Quarto group company. Once that was established Quarto decided to try children’s books and in 1990 Quarto Children’s was launched, specializing in ‘Books Plus’ – books with kits or other special features – selling successfully through the burgeoning price clubs via trade publishers in the US.

Ahead Of The Pack
By the mid-1980s, desktop publishing was starting to make the creation of illustrated books (and all other printed media) considerably quicker and cheaper and a good deal less messy. While this brought more publishers into the illustrated book publishing field, by then Quarto’s rapidly growing size, large print runs, and established connections with a network of international publishing partners in foreign language territories gave it a substantial advantage over many of the competitors.

In 1986, as this publishing revolution was taking place, Quarto listed on the London stock exchange with the aim of providing some serious funding for more acquisitions, most of them ‘trade publishers’ rather than co-edition operations. The group expanded further in the US – with the addition of Book Sales, Rockport Publishers, Walter Foster, Creative Publishing international, Motorbooks, and more recently Cool Springs Press in the US; and in the UK with Aurum Press, Jacqui Small, Frances Lincoln and Wide Eyed Editions; and in Australia and New Zealand.

As the group expanded, and continues to expand today (with the recent acquisition of Ivy Press and its imprints) the mission of the group has not changed: to provide first-rate illustrated publishing through as many retail markets as possible for enthusiast audiences, driven by publishing groups with a strong knowledge of the audience, and with a focus on putting words and pictures together to match their needs.

This is something that was as much in the forefront of the company at the start as it is for the Group today, as we look forward to 2016, and celebrating our 40 years in publishing.