Peter Owen Ltd. Archive

Reference: MS 3627Date: 1951-1989Extent: 41 boxes

Peter Owen was born in Germany in 1927, the son of a German father and an English mother. He grew up in Nuremberg where his parents owned a leather factory but was sent at the age of five to live with his grandmother in England. There, he was eventually joined by his parents who, though Jewish, were reluctant to leave Germany.

In England, his father started a publishing company, Vision Press. After Peter left school, his father got him some menial jobs in publishing, in the literary department of Zwemmer’s and at Bodley Head, where he spent most of the time in the post room reading the file copies of books that were stored there, and then at Allen and Unwin, where he learnt all about production and typesetting.

A stint in the RAF gave Owen a forces paper quota of six tons with full Board of Trade permission for the production of 12 books. In 1951, with £850 capital, he decided to set up his own publishing house in the garage of his house in west London. Soon, however, the company started to flourish, enabling him to employ some staff – his first editor was Muriel Spark, (she drew a charming picture of the publishing house’s early days in A Far Cry From Kensington).

In a country notorious for its conservative tastes, Owen championed the global avant-garde, introduced British readers to voices from Japan to Mexico, held the torch for fading reputations and published many Nobel prizewinners (including Shusaku Endo, Octavio Paz, Hermann Hesse, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Cesare Pavese).  Of the 80 Peter Owen books in print in the 1990s, 50 were translations – from the Norwegian, Bulgarian, Japanese, Latvian and Maghrebi, as well as French and German.

Owen published everyone from Anaïs Nin, Paul Bowles and Muriel Spark in the Fifties to Fiona Pitt-Kethley in the Nineties, with Marcel Marceau, Salvador Dali and Shere Hite in between.  In the 1960s he was the first to buy up counter-culture books, including George Andrews’s The Book of Grass.

He had no marketing department, no financial controllers and typed out his authors’ royalty statements himself with two fingers on an old portable typewriter. He opened his own mail, famously saving any unfranked stamps, and kept in print, in a ramshackle warehouse, books from his first list in the 1950s.

The 1970s and 1980s saw a sea change in his fortunes. Suddenly, translated fiction became fashionable and paperback companies vied to buy up the publishing rights. One editor was said to have bought up South American fiction “by the yard”. Huge advances were suddenly being paid for Owen’s stock in trade. Paul Bowles and Anaïs Nin acquired cult status, as did the Japanese author Shusaku Endo, the film rights to whose book, Silence, were bought by Martin Scorsese.

Biographical information taken from Peter Owen’s obituary published in The Telegraph–obituary/

The collection contains manuscripts, typescripts, author’s corrected proofs and other publishing material relating to books published by Peter Owen Ltd. There is also correspondence between Peter Owen and various authors including Paul Bowles, Shusaku Endo, D.J. Enright, Ronald Hayman, Anais Nin, Kathleen Raine, Jeremy Sandford, Peter Vansittart and others.

More information

  • A full description is available on our online database
  • A handlist of the whole collection is available here