Rough Atlantic weather ahead?

Liz Thomson
Opinion - Publishing Friday, 31st July 2009

When Anthony Cheetham ended several months of speculation by bowing out of Quercus on 12 February this year, finding himself deprived of power and temperamentally unsuited to the role of Non-Executive Chairman, he said he had 'several irons in the fire'. Asked by if one of those fires could be Atlantic, which his son had only recently joined, he replied, 'I couldn't possibly comment.'

Yesterday, Cheetham had comments a-plenty as, almost two weeks ahead of the end of his gardening leave on 10 August, he announced that he would indeed be joining Atlantic, a company which is presided over by Chairman and CEO Toby Mundy and MD Daniel Scott, with Ravi Mirchandani as Editor-in-Chief. Both Mundy and Mirchandani previously worked with Cheetham at Orion.

The internal announcement was made by Mundy, who 'outlined” the move at a staff meeting. Nic Cheetham, it is said, appeared surprised - which is odd, since his father has been spotted going in and out of Atlantic's Boswell Street offices several times in recent months. Both Mundy and Mirchandani seemingly spent much of yesterday in meetings, but this morning Mundy told BookBrunch that 'there will be a detailed statement by the middle of next week”. From New York, Morgan Entrekin, President and Publisher of Grove/Atlantic, who has a controlling interest in Atlantic London, told BookBrunch in an email: 'Anthony Cheatham [sic] is one of the most brilliant and accomplished entrepreneurial publishers of the last 30 years. We are tremendously excited to have him join Toby Mundy and his terrific team at Atlantic Books.'
There are reports that not everyone in London is as 'excited” as Entrekin. Whether Cheetham fils – who worked with his father first at Orion and then at Quercus before leaving for Atlantic in January - is pleased to be once again in his shadow is a matter for conjecture, though Mundy assured BookBrunch that “he will be delighted”. Be that as it may, there has always been a widespread view that Nic Cheetham, a likeable enough young man by all accounts, but one with no particular track record, was a sprat to catch a mackerel.
Thus yesterday's news was greeted by a great many people to whom BookBrunch spoke with something approaching grim resignation.'I wonder if he's lost his golden touch - though he's always the main casualty,” a senior agent pondered. 'He left Century, he left Orion, he left Quercus... so we shall see.' Added a publisher: 'It's a disaster waiting to happen. After all those years of struggle, Atlantic's doing fantastically. Now it'll end up like Fourth Estate after the success of Longitude - bought by a conglomerate.'
The concerns were all the same: Cheetham is brilliant but difficult, energetic and full ideas - but he won't take no for an answer. Toby Mundy is mistaken if he thinks he can control him. And anyway, does he need him?

Mundy would not be drawn further as to Cheetham's precise role with Atlantic, despite persistent rumours that he will invest (which seems likely), even that he will become Chairman, though Mundy assured BookBrunch that there would be no change to his own aforementioned role. Cheetham himself told the Bookseller, for whom he has been a columnist, that he will be engaged in 'an entirely new activity' and will be an associate publisher and a board director. Asked about concerns that his new recruit would seek to dominate and control the company, Mundy replied: “this isn't about control but about collaboration”. However, as Quercus CEO Mark Smith told BookBrunch in February: 'We tried the non-executive role and it didn't work. Anthony didn't enjoy it - it's not his way of doing things.' It is believed that there remain unresolved issues between Quercus and Cheetham.

Then there is Cheetham's fondness for doing business with Georgina Capel, a partner in Capel & Land who is also his wife. Almost half of C&L's 100-plus clients have at least one contract with a company with which Anthony Cheetham is, or has been, associated. Already at Atlantic, Nic Cheetham's Corvus list, barely six months old, has at least five: Hywel Williams, Andrew Roberts and Simon Sebag Montefiore, all of whom have contracts with both Quercus and the Orion Group, and Lizzie Speller have been among the authors presented to retailers; Fay Weldon, with whom Quercus was happy to part, is another; her latest will be published in September. The for the year ending 31 December 2008 showed 'related party transactions' had led to payments of more than £1m in agent's commission by Quercus to Capel & Land, with more due this year, the result of its former Chairman's fondness for taking projects 'off the table', often with multi-book deals.
Atlantic is currently enjoying the fruits of its Man Booker-winning success, The White Tiger, bought by Mirchandani at a bargain price. But like all fruit, it will eventually wither, leaving the company with the plantings of Cheetham pere et fils, which may turn out to be an altogether riskier crop.

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