Bloomsbury: All our yesterdays

Nigel Newton
Opinion - Publishing Monday, 10th October 2011

Nigel Newton ( below ), CEO of Bloomsbury, looks back to the publisher's first heady Frankfurt, when 'the Fab Four' had only just announced their intentions, and at other Frankfurts past In writing a piece on the 25th anniversary of Bloomsbury at Frankfurt, it is clear that our story is essentially one of 25 Frankfurts and what happened between them. When David Reynolds, Alan Wherry, Liz Calder and I announced in September 1986 our new publishing company to a surprised publishing world, we had already booked a Frankfurt stand the previous June. Therefore, when we arrived at Frankfurt a week after Liz had resigned from Jonathan Cape, Alan from Penguin, David from Shuckburgh Reynolds and me from Sidgwick & Jackson, there was a long and detailed entry already printed in the Frankfurt Fair directory for Bloomsbury Publishing, a new publisher of literary fiction, controversial non-fiction and general reference.

We felt tremendous excitement as we took up our positions on our large blue stand, bearing only our logo of Diana, Goddess of Hunting, which had not a single book on it because we were only one week old. Our one chattel was a small fridge filled with quarter-bottles of fizz.
Liz was quick to sign our first novel, Trust by Mary Flanagan, in that first week and we were glad to have something to sell. Following our first publication date six months later on 2 April 1987, Trust went into the Sunday Times bestseller list.
By our second Frankfurt we had many books. I had an appointment on our stand to show a book about Marilyn Monroe by the poet Norman Rosten, with 5,000 unpublished photographs of Marilyn taken by the MGM stills photographer Sam Shaw, to Hans-Peter Übleis, the legendary publisher of Heyne Verlag in Munich. We couldn't reach agreement on whether he had to buy 5,000 or 8,000 to clinch the German rights, so in the end we decided to flip a coin. He won and got to buy the lower quantity, but I made my first friend in German publishing that day (Hans-Peter later disappointed me by telling me that he was, in fact, Austrian). His willingness to embrace the unpredictability of publishing by betting on a co-edition print run was very appealing to me (he was also later to re-print the book).
In 1994, the year we floated on the London Stock Exchange, I had a less agreeable Frankfurt. On arriving at my hotel, the An Der Messe, I was told by the receptionist that the two steely men staring at me from the lounge were reporters from the Daily Mirror and the Sun respectively, and that they had been camping in the hotel lounge for the last three days waiting for me.
The previous week, we had published a book about Princess Diana and James Hewitt which had fascinated the tabloid press, including the News of the World, which devoted its first 13 pages to it. After an interesting debate with the Mirror journalist about the concept of “in the public interest” versus “of public interest”, I gave him the comments he wanted to make them go away.
We found a British television news crew waiting on our stand the next day; they threatened to follow me everywhere I went in Frankfurt if I didn't give them an interview. I declined their offer, looking a bit menacing, and they gave up in the end.
The book, which we had bought following an author meeting rather than a written proposal, struck the publishing world as improbable coming from us, but was useful because its worldwide commercial success helped deliver a good financial result in our first year as a public company when we had been dangerously distracted from book publishing by the flotation itself. Many vigorously questioned the veracity of the book, about which we ourselves had seen confirming epistolatory evidence, and a year later, when the Princess herself confirmed its truth in an interview with Martin Bashir on Panorama, that doubt was removed.
Frankfurt played a key role in our acquisition of Harry Potter, because it was on our stand that Christopher Little, of the literary agency for the Princess Diana book, met Barry Cunningham, Publishing Director of the newly formed Bloomsbury Children's Books. Thus it was that Christopher's agency represented the two most opposite works in Bloomsbury's history and, though he did not say so at the time, he must have been running out of potential publishers for JK Rowling's first children's book - eight of the big companies had, according to the subsequent legend, already turned it down. I left Barry and Chris to make each other's acquaintance, little imagining what this would lead to.
I do remember chatting at the next Frankfurt to Alan McDougal, President of Raincoast Books in Canada and our distributor there, and he said what a shame it was we didn't have Canadian rights, as Bloomsbury in the UK had by then sold 30,000 copies of the remarkable, three-month-old novel Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. I said, 'Yes we do.' A quick call to London confirmed that, and Alan placed his first order. He was to go on to sell one million copies of each hardcover of the subsequent books in the series in Canada alone. So if you've ever wondered why you go to Frankfurt, it must be for those idle chats in the aisles of Halle acht.
Frankfurt continued to be of great importance to us as we funded many of our title acquisitions through rights sales - in the early days including UK paperback rights to Patrick Janson-Smith of Corgi and Jonathan Lloyd of Grafton and others. Our Rights Director Ruth Logan ably carried the burden of our new company's hopes on her shoulders.
Peter Mayer was good enough to buy the US rights for Viking to an illustrated biography of Jim Morrison from us at Frankfurt. I was puzzled by the huge size of the advance he offered until the book went to number three on the New York Times bestseller list and I was thus reminded what an astute publisher he is.
Frankfurt is also the scene of large amounts of hospitality, including the generous annual lunch given by Holtzbrinck, owners of our distributors Macmillan in both the UK and the USA. I shall always remember the German banker who was the host of the venue for that lunch in Frankfurt at the twin Deutsche Bank Towers saying with precision in his speech, “This is Tower A and”, pointing out of the window, “that is Tower B”.
Following the acquisition of A&C Black in July 2000 and through the 17 other acquisitions we have made since then up to that of Continuum in July of this year, our stand at the Fair has grown bigger. People often say approvingly to me how busy our stand looks (and indeed it is), but sometimes I worry that they are just seeing me talking to our sales manager and concluding that he is from a giant west coast software company with a great new idea for books.
We have taken Bloomsbury more and more into academic and professional publishing and have experienced real success with the lists of Continuum, Berg, Methuen, Arden, A&C Black and Bristol Classical Press; and Tottel Law and Tax, now Bloomsbury Professional. We have also grown the trade side at the same time, adding real success in cookery to our fiction and non-fiction publishing. Our international offices based in New York, Berlin, Sydney and, through Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing, in Doha, have increased the reach of our offering to authors as well as the size of our stand.
We have renamed Berlin Verlag Bloomsbury Germany and have a terrific forthcoming list with Zeruya Shalev's Shatters of Life and William Boyd's Waiting for Sunrise, which we will publish in German. We are having a big party on our stand in the German hall to celebrate this list, and our management team including MD Philip Roeder, Publishing Director Birgit Schmitz and our recently appointed Publicity Director Uta Niederstrasser as we grow our Berlin list.
In Frankfurt in 2011 there is a strong Bloomsbury team presence on our stand in the English hall. Some of the most interesting books we will be offering rights in will be A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar by Suzanne Joinson; City by P'D Smith; Cairo by Ahdaf Soueif; Wilderness by Lance Weller;and Heston Blumenthal at Home by Heston Blumenthal.
Richard Charkin, Evan Schnittman, Jonathan Glasspool, Stephanie Duncan and I will all be working to exploit at Frankfurt Bloomsbury's considerable digital innovations from The Bloomsbury Reader, to Public Library Online and Drama Online. We also look forward to celebrating our twenty-fifth birthday with a few old-fashioned foreign language rights deals, a glass of sekt, and seeing old friends.
Photo: Bloomsbury's founding Fab Four as they were at their birthday party last month: Nigel Newton with Alan Wherry, Liz Calder and David Reynolds

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