- Low Profile: A Life in the World of Books
For over fifty years Frank Hermann has worked in some capacity with books. First as a publisher, later as an auctioneer, and always as an author, he truly has lived "a life in the world of books." The title of his memoir, Low Profile: A Life in the World of Books, is doubly apt, since most of his work has been behind the scenes. In publishing, authors and their books, rather than publishers, get the attention of the public and the media. So too in the auction world, where important sales and sometimes the major auction houses, but certainly not the auctioneers or specialized auction houses, generate public attention. The one arguably high profile activity for Hermann, writing a very successful series of children's books featuring the Giant Alexander, is somewhat outside of his normal range of activities. His other books, most notably The English as Collectors, though successful (and even collectible in their own right), have not made Frank Hermann a household name.
Hermann started his career in publishing with a job at Faber & Faber in 1947. Over the next fifty plus years he worked at a variety of firms, including Methuen, Thomas Nelson, and Ward Locke, eventually becoming a sort of specialist in turning around failing companies. Because of this specialization much of [End Page 102] Hermann's discussion about his later publishing career has to do with rather dry financial maneuverings. Much more interesting is what he has to say about production and editorial matters. Though this theme continues throughout the book, it is stronger in the earlier chapters, which are consequently more interesting.
Throughout his career Hermann has been an author. His book on collecting led to Sotheby's approaching him to write a history of the company. This in turn led to a job managing the firm's overseas operations and ultimately, in 1983, to his founding, with David Stagg and Lord John Kerr, of Bloomsbury Book Auctions (BBA). This firm, unlike Christie's and Sotheby's, specializes in books and manuscripts. Two final chapters cover Hermann's time with BBA, which has grown to be an important player in the rare and antiquarian book market.
Hermann has opted to organize the book somewhat thematically rather than wholly chronologically. Unfortunately, though, he has not included enough chronological indicators in the text, sometimes making it difficult to determine the order in which all events and activities occurred. Surprisingly, then, for a longtime publisher, the book could have used more careful editing. At least one factual error slipped through as well. Most readers will be surprised to learn, in a discussion of the sale of Graham Greene's papers and library, that Boston College is in Connecticut.
Despite the criticisms, Hermann has much of use to say about the publishing and auction businesses. Low Profile should find a place in any collection covering either of these areas in depth.