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Oberon Books’ James Hogan : “If you’ve been doing this job for thirty years, you’ve seen everything. Flapping doesn’t get you anywhere.”

James Hogan

James Hogan

James Hogan is one of UK theatre’s most captivating—and articulate—independent publishers. His company, Oberon Books, publishes many of today’s hottest contemporary playwrights, as well as a prolific library of works by and about some of the greatest theatre practitioners in history. Hogan is the people’s publisher: widely respected, but unassuming.

We meet at The Ivy Club in London. Hogan is already in the restaurant when I get there – seated in his favourite booth. The restaurant is relaxed and spacious, the furnishings a mix of leather and velvet. He greets me warmly and we talk candidly about the industry, the challenges of publishing in the twenty-first century and more.

Skim his company’s back-catalogue and you find one landmark publication after another; over 1,700 hundred plays and counting. So how did it all begin? “It was back in 1984 – I was part of a play-reading group at Riverside Studios, and it occurred to me that there were very few publishing outlets for young writers,” he explains. “So, I started one. And ever since, it’s been a mixture of love and business… though always the idea was to say yes, not no”.

Oberon Books

Oberon Books

Oberon went on to become one of the UK’s most exciting independent publishing houses specialising in drama and the performing arts. “I started it alone, publishing mainly lesser-known writers at small theatres and theatres in the regions,” he says. “I went outside of London and luckily a lot of writers working in the regions then came into London and we already had them on our list. We did a lot of work with the Glasgow Citizen’s Theatre, I even published a play that premiered in Westcliffe-on-Sea,” he smiles.

Hogan had an altogether different early career. “I began work, at the age of nineteen, in the Foreign Office. I was security-vetted. So, I had to come out and say I was gay. This was pre ’64 and homosexual acts were illegal, because there had been a lot of spies in the news and gay, single men were targeted by the security services,” he tells me. “I was invited – if you want to call it that – to appear before a security panel. The first question, as I barely sat down, was: “Are you homosexual?” I said yes. I was living with a man and in a relationship. It wasn’t an easy time. Soon after, I decided it would be much more comfortable to get out of the Foreign Office and go to another department, so I went to the Department of Trade. It was important to come out because they obviously already knew. So, if I denied it I would have been a security risk – blackmailable. They weren’t out to persecute me – they wanted to know if I was hiding my true identity. That’s all. I didn’t suffer any repercussions.”

I tell him that he strikes me as unflappable. Hogan rolls his eyes. “I’m certainly flappable if someone comes up and kicks my dog Lily; I’d be pretty flappable then and probably throw stones,” he says. “But if you’ve been doing this job for thirty years, you’ve seen everything. Flapping doesn’t get you anywhere.”

Nonetheless, his ardour is apparent when we talk about modern approaches to publishing, getting current work seen and protecting writers’ interests from “unscrupulous” and “nouveau” publishers who demand more rights than they need: “Don’t give online-only publishers exclusive rights to your play. There’s no need to at that level. Generally, publishers only need a LICENCE to publish,” he points out. “The copyright stays with the author ALWAYS. Give yourself a get-out. You may need it. Bigger publishers who offer the full range of sales and promotion support naturally expect an exclusive LICENCE but not copyright. Get an agent if you can, or at least a copy of a typical industry-standard publishing Agreement.”

What you sense in Hogan is an outstanding publisher speaking up for his clients, past, present and future. He gives every writer exactly the attention they need, and Oberon is driven by the tangible, on-the-ground concerns of its authors. He wouldn’t have it any other way, but he also has an eye to the changes ahead.

“I have slowed down because I’m 73. I’m doing the business thing of arranging management succession. The company has to be secure as it goes forward. Eventually I am going to die and somebody else will be running Oberon,” he pauses. “What happens if I fall off my perch? I’ve got to think of the writers. They have to stay as safe and secure with the same prospect and service without any interruption.”

Significantly for Hogan, two plays by the late Edward Albee open in the West End this spring. James Macdonald’s production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at the Harold Pinter Theatre and The Goat, directed by Ian Rickson at the Theatre Royal Haymarket are the first revivals of Albee’s landmark plays since his death last September.

“I met Edward Albee through Will Eno (whose play “Wakey Wakey” has just opened in New York and received fantastic reviews in the New York Times)”, he says. “I’m sure that Albee agreed to meet me because I publish Will, but I also published a biography of Albee by Mel Gussow. I found Albee absolutely enchanting and I had lunch with him a couple of times in London. We had things to chat about; he was diabetic and I’m diabetic so we talked about which kinds of chocolate we can eat. I’d never imagined that he was the chatty type. But more importantly he gave me some important information about how he writes. He said that he rehearses the play in his mind, every line, from beginning to end, before he writes anything down. He clearly had very rational and clear views of the world. There were no illusions, with Albee they don’t exist.”

And the fact that a new generation are flocking to the West End to see these plays is wonderful to him. Hogan is passionate about the necessity of theatregoing.

“It sounds banal but go and see theatre that you enjoy, just keep going, don’t turn away from the theatre because it will continue forever,” says Hogan.  “In most cases, it tells the truth and that’s what unscrupulous politicians are afraid of and always have been. The theatre has always been seen by politicians as a dangerous place so let it go on being a dangerous place. It can’t be a dangerous place if you don’t go to it.”