20 DECEMBER 1975, Page 22


Admirers of James Herriot will be pleased to hear that the literary vet has delivered a new manuscript to his publishers Michael Joseph. This was an event of some note, as the author's stature has soared dramatically since the delivery of his previous work Vet in Harness, published in 1974.

At that time Messrs Michael Joseph were perplexed by the whole Herriot question. They had published his first assortment of veterinarY anecdotes, If Only They Could Talk, in 1970 after another publisher had turned it down. It got one or two nice reviews — notably in his native Scotland and also in Yorkshire where he still practices — but the sales gave little indication of the success to follow. A second volume, It Shouldn't Happen To A Vet fared little better.

By the time Herriot's third book, Let Sleeping Vets Lie, appeared in 1973 there were signs that the tide was about to turn. In America an astute editor at St Martins Press decided to publish the first two volumes in one, and, with a promotional flair that British publishers seem to lack, managed to talk the book onto the US best-seller lists where it stayed for six months. Back in Britain the paperback publishers Pan had begun to show some interest and acquired rights in the earlier titles.

It was not until the publication in 1974 of a fourth book Vet in Harness that Herriot fully established himself as a hardback author in Britain; launched at the same time as Pan's edition of Let Sleeping Vets Lie, it quickly sold out its first print of 15,000 copies and has been reprinting regularly ever since. This year a second composite volume has stormed the American bestseller lists and Pan have been doing very nicely with their editions of the first three books — each of which has stayed in the UK paperback best-seller list for over thirtY weeks. They will doubtless expect to carry the good work with the paperback Vet in Harness which appears next spring and for which, with a mixture of foresight and good fortune, they paid the relatively trifling amount of £4,000.

By the time Herriot's fifth manuscript, VetS Might Fly, arrived a" few weeks ago, so clearlY had its talented author. And if Pan thought they were going to pick up paperback rights for next to nothing, they were quickly disabused. Michael Joseph's corporate cousins in the Thomson Group — the paperback firm of Sphere, now under new management — immediately slapped in a bid of £25,000; moreover they offered an immediate payment of £10,000 in anticipation of royalties to be earned on Vet in Harness; not only that, but they also offered an extra £50,000 in similar anticipation of paperback earnings on Herries first three books. So what might have been a cheque for £4,000 or a little more, has become a cheque for no less than £85,000. Its surprising how a bit of competition can concentrate the mind.