Forget for a moment the big boys in publishing. Forget, too, the burgeoning cottage industry of desktop publishers that seems to be flourishing in Oxfordshire, and focus instead on a business between the two which happens to be celebrating its 40th birthday this year — and seems to be a winner, thanks to an army of fiercely loyal readers.

Managing director of Osprey Publishing, Rebecca Smart, 37, once said that her company’s customers “would rather buy Osprey’s books about military history than eat” — and has been ribbed about the remark ever since.

“Well, perhaps not eat,” she told me during a conversation at the firm’s headquarters at Midland House, Botley.

“But the books are higher on their list than new clothes, bless them.”

Osprey, ten years on from the date it became independent following a management buy-out from Reed Consumer Books, has apparently hit a niche market, which is still going from strength to strength.

It now employs 38 people including two in New York — since 50 per cent of its sales are in the United States — and has an annual turnover of £6.5m, up from £2-3m ten years ago.

As an example of the kind of loyalty Osprey enjoys, Ms Smart tells the story of how an Eastern European set-up once tried to undercut Osprey publications with cut-price pirate copies. The readers showed outrage in the website chatroom, as if they personally were being robbed.

Ms Smart said: “If you want anything to do with military history, you’ve got it here. Everyone knows someone who has Osprey books.”

Stalwart sellers have been the Men at Arms series and Uniform and Equipment books, but more recent ideas include the Duel series of books which compare two rival aircraft, say, or pieces of equipment.

For instance, in front of me as a I write is a book called P-47 Thunderbolt vs Bf 109G/K Europe 1943—45 in which two iconic aircraft (Thunderbolt and Messerschmitt) are compared in a historical context.

But no-one must run away with the notion that Osprey deals only with relatively modern history. A glance at its list of 1,500 titles currently in print shows the company spans time and space. Under Eastern Warfare, for example, we find Soldiers of the Dragon: Chinese Armies 1500 BC-AD 1840 alongside Japanese Warrior Monks AD 949 — 1603.

Then there are books about crusaders, Knights Templar and Hospitallers, Vikings, Aztecs, not to mention the American Civil War and Revolution. You name it, if it involves men at arms, Osprey has a book about it.

But Ms Smart freely admits the challenge now is to keep bringing new people into what some might say amounts to something resembling a readers’ club, a sort of Puffin Club —remember that? — for grown up boys.

In this respect she says that huge attention to detail, or ‘getting the khaki right’, is important, citing the time that one of the company’s eight commissioning editors had a bag of sand brought back from a Normandy beach to make sure that the colour was right in an illustration.

Ms Smart says that more than 90 per cent of the company’s customers are probably men, but adds she just loves the whole world of business. She joined Osprey from Heinemann ELT, in Cutteslowe, Oxford, ten years ago as a production and design manager, having graduated from Hull University.

Now she said the company, which put her through an MBA course at Warwick, is entering a new phase of growth. She said: “We are safe, robust and acquisitive.”

And talking of acquisitiveness, Osprey acquired Shire Publications in August last year. Shire produces about 70 new titles a year, some of which sell extremely well and prove to be good little earners for all concerned.

A small book called Timber Framed Buildings, for instance, has sold more than 100,000 copies and Discovering Church Architecture: A Glossary of Terms, also sells like hot cakes, being compact enough to carry around when visiting churches.

Other top sellers include a book about thimbles and another about silver hallmarks. Other titles range from The Victorian Asylum to The London Taxi, through British Tea and Coffee Cups 1745-1940, and The Archaeology of Rabbit Warrens.

Until last year, Shire Publications were produced at the 17th Buckinghamshire home of their founder John Rotheroe. Now they have joined the Osprey stable but the list of titles continues to inspire awe.

This month alone, books about wagons and carts, London’s bridges and church clocks will hit display units in bookshops, teashops, and perhaps stalls in country fairs, not to mention collectors’ conventions.

Ms Smart said: “We know who our customers are and they know us.”

But perhaps the main secret of the success of Osprey, and now Shire too, is the fact that the company has definitely treated the Internet as friend, not foe.

“Customers feel a sense of ownership and the Internet helps us to encourage that. Now we have a scheme which allows members access to a database of our work for £3 a month and gives them 15 per cent off purchases,” she said.

And the company is also beginning to produce ebooks.

But how does a person working in the masculine world of military history cope with the proverbial work-life balance, particularly one who has a husband, Dave, in full-time work — running the Guitar Gallery in Summertown, Oxford —and two small children, Poppy, five, and two-year-old Joe?

Ms Smart said: “I go home to Cumnor and spend time with them. Then, when they are in bed, I do more work.”

Name: Osprey Publishing Established: 1968 Chief executive: Rebecca Smart Number of staff: 40 Annual turnover: £6.5m Contact: 01865 727022 Web: