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Thames Ramble

Tony Hill reviews “Sweet Thames Run Softly” by Robert Gibbings 

One of the advantages of charity and bookshops being closed is that I am having to choose books from my shelves to read, so I’ve just finished “Sweet Thames Run Softly” by Robert Gibbings which was published in 1940 and very successful at the time. Gibbings was a very important figure in the revival of illustration from wood engravings (as well as fine printing in general – he ran the Golden Cockerel Press for some years), and this book is illustrated with his typically bold pictures. Unlike “Coming down the Seine”, which I read last year and was a narrative of a single journey, this book is more of a discursive ramble through his long-term association with the upper reaches of the Thames, and includes many observations on the wildlife, encounters with rustics with funny accents, a couple of mildly erotic incidents with young women, and much simple but beautiful description of the river and its surrounds. Today’s nature and travel writing tends to be of higher quality, but I can see how this would have been perfect for a period where the very existence of England was under threat.

My copy has the bookplate of Gerald Finzi, an English composer who lived at Ashmansworth and whose reputation has grown in recent years. The bookplate is by Reynolds Stone, another important British wood engraver who designed a number of commemorative stamps after the war. Finzi’s son, Christopher (‘Kiffe’) was married to Jacqueline du Pre’s sister who wrote a much criticised book about Jacqueline which I’ve got but have never read. It was also filmed. I bought two van loads of books last year from a dealer who had purchased the contents of the farmhouse when the Finzis moved out, not long before Kiffe’s death last November. In the 1970s I ran a market stall on Saturdays and opposite me was a health food stall run by Kiffe Finzi so I got to know him vaguely. He was very much the Alpha Male, and he ran the farmhouse at Ashmansworth as some sort of commune at that time.  Jenny, the wife of the friend I ran the bookstall with, often used to come and spend the day at the market too, and to my astonishment (and a great deal of anguish at the time) we ended up in a relationship that has endured, fairly tempestuously, for over 40 years. Jenny grew up in Reading, and much of her immediate family came from the upper reaches of the Thames. One of her great aunts was a lock keeper at Marsh Lock near Henley-on-Thames and her mother used to help her aunt on summer weekends at the tea room her aunt ran next to the lock.  

So this book is not exactly an association copy, as the book trade vernacular has it, but it is certainly a book with associations!

Tony Hill is the proprietor of Sarsen Press and has had a lifelong fascination with books. He began selling second hand books at Winchester market in 1975 and a year later co-founded the Winchester Book Fair, believed to be the longest running Fair in the UK.  He has accumulated a wide ranging collection, some of which can be found on sale at the Hyde Street office.

Oliver Gray – travelling with style!

On moving to Winchester in 1976, I soon started putting on gigs in local venues, for which I needed posters. Several people recommended Sarsen Press, who catered for the printing needs of organisations in the Winchester area. I immediately felt at home with the slightly “alternative” feel of Sarsen, which belied the supreme professionalism of their work. Years later, I started a small educational publishing company, which specialised in laminated cards. Over the years, Sarsen Press produced thousands of these for me, often designing them in-house as well. At one stage, over 80 percent of UK secondary schools were using these materials, and I was spending my entire life collecting, collating and mailing them. Tony Hill, Sarsen’s proprietor, once told me I was their biggest customer, which gave me a warm glow. When I finally felt the need to write a music memoir. Sarsen Press again did the design and production, and that has led to a series of further books, which we have done as long runs, short runs or the very convenient “print on demand”. I have remained friends with all the loyal staff there and yes, I do still use Sarsen Press for my gig posters!
Books published by Sarsen Press:




Access One Step


Banjo On My Knee

Polly In My Pocket

DayGlo paper – historical footnote for Liberal Democrats

It was only in the late 1960s that the Liberal Party started to campaign across the country using the colour orange. Prior to that the colour used locally tended to depend on the political history of the area and could be green, blue, red, yellow or orange. Dayglo orange is actually quite red, so the party tried to standardize on “Blaze” which is a bit more orange. The new wave of activists who joined the party in the late sixties and early seventies, many of whom were campaigning for the first time in decades in the major cities, favoured arc chrome rather than blaze which they saw as being too close to Labour Party red. The now ubiquitous diamond shaped poster measuring 10″ x 10″, because dayglo came in double crown sheets (20″ x 30″) and so cut six out of a sheet with no wasteage began to gain a foothold at that time too.

When the SDP emerged on the scene in 1981 they decided that their posters had to be different from the Liberal Partyʼs, and so they got Slater Harrison to produce a new colour of dayglo called “Amber Soleil”, which was a sort of mustard yellow and looked very half-heartedly fluorescent. For years after the merger of the Liberal Party and the SDP some diehards used to ask us for samples of non-fluorescent paper in an attempt to emulate amber soleil, which was not added to Slater Harrisonʼs dayglo range.

Printing and VAT

This is a rough guide to VAT and printing – it is complicated!

Zero rated material: in the UK the government has sought to protect reading materials from bearing VAT . This means that books, magazines and newspapers are all zero rated. By extension, booklets, newsletters and leaflets amongst common items of printed material are also zero rated.

Standard rated items: all items of stationery (letterheads, business cards, compliment slips, invoices etc), forms, any leaflet which has space designed for more than 25% manuscript addition (e.g. a form to fill in and return), postcards, posters – all these bear VAT at the standard rate, currently 20%.

Hybrid Items:

a. Artwork, design and typesetting: if this is provided as a stand alone service then VAT is charged. If it is part of a job that would otherwise be zero rated, for example the design and typesetting of a book then if the same company is doing both jobs then the whole job would be zero rated.

b. Finishing: a finishing operation carries VAT if it is chargeable on the completed item, for example scoring and folding greetings cards. If the item being worked upon becomes part of a zero rated item, for example scoring or laminating a book cover, then the operation is zero rated. However, there are exceptions: one of our major customers produced language teaching materials which would normally have been zero rated, but because they were laminated to make them more durable they became standard rated.


Registered charities can claim exemption on some items that would be standard rated in some circumstances. These relate to specific fund-raising activities and do not include normal items of stationery like letterheads. There is a 38pp document on the HM Revenue & Customs website outlining the law on VAT and charities.

The principle of VAT is that it is a tax on Added Value. As a manufacturer we buy a raw material (paper for example) for x£ + 20% VAT. We then add value to that raw material by printing on it and sell it to our customer for x + y£ + 20% VAT where y is the cost of production plus our profit. At the end of each quarter we take the difference between what we have paid out in VAT for raw materials and overheads, and what we have charged our customers and give the balance to HM Revenue & Customs.

NB – the above is my understanding of the regulations relating to VAT and should not be construed as a definitive statement.

Marketing and selling your book

We do not finance, market or sell books. Poetry and fiction are likely to be the hardest books to sell, while local history and areas of specialised non-fiction may have ready-made markets. The good news is that even in this digital era the sale of books is increasing-up 7% in 2016. 

You can find companies on the internet who will both print and claim to market your book (for an additional fee). Be very wary of such claims. If you have an ISBN number, your book automatically goes into the database of books published and can be ordered from you by the major book distributors like Bertrams, Coutts and Amazon. That is a service you do not need to pay for anyway. If a company claims to do more than that ask yourself how, if it was a title you might be interested in, could its existence be brought to your attention by a marketing company with the few hundred pounds they will ask you for. If you still think that might be a good idea then Google the company and ‘Problems’ or ‘Complaints’ and see what the experience of other authors has been.

Below are some suggestions based on the experience of people we have produced books for over the years.

1. Family and friends

A lot of the books we produce are family histories in small quantities, either the memoirs of a particular person or the result of family history research. There is not really a need to market these as there is a clearly defined group of people who will be interested, and who will hopefully pass your book down through the generations. It might be worth considering case binding if you want your research to be available to future generations because this is likely to survive better than a paperback. Who knows whether it will survive on-line for decades?

2. Local author publicity

Your local newspaper (if you still have one) probably doesn’t have many reporters any more so if you are able to write an interesting and relevant press release about your book, preferably with a photograph, it is likely to get printed. Don’t forget to include details of how to get hold of the book. If you have a local independent bookshop (even less likely than a local newspaper) they might be prepared to have a small window display for you as long as you supply the information. They will require a substantial proportion of the cover price though (how much will vary from shop to shop).

3. Bookshops

Apart from independent shops this basically means Waterstones these days. Any information here about Waterstones is probably going to be out of date because their policies may change, so you will need to check with your local branch manager who will probably have to check with their head office. However, in the past our local Waterstones has hosted launch parties in the evening for authors whose books we have printed – terms and conditions may vary, but they required the sale at the event of a minimum number of copies before they would agree to stock the book. The discount they expect is around 60%. They are most likely to accept local history, and least likely to take poetry, fiction and specialised books with a limited appeal.

4. Local organisations

Whether or not this is appropriate depends very much upon the sort of book you have written. If, for example, it is local history then there is likely to be a ready-made market and you may already be part of the local history group. But there are usually many other local organisations which have a guest speaker at their meeting, so if you can put together an interesting talk and feel confident that you can hold the attention of an audience then you may be able to get onto the list of speakers for, for example, the W.I.

5. Website

It is quite cheap and easy these days to create your own website to publicise your book. What is less easy is to stand a chance of a search on Google finding you. You are then getting into the area of Search Engine Optimisation.

Hopefully this section has not actually put you off asking us to produce your book. There have been books that we have produced that have been massively successful: one on hypnobirthing has sold more than 10,000 copies. Conversely, a beautifully written novel that should have found a major publisher sold fewer than 100 despite the best efforts of the author. Good luck!

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