Michael Fishwick: In search of all the smashing people

One publisher is acutely sensitive to the agonies of authors - because he is one. Danuta Kean meets Michael Fishwick of Bloomsbury, novelist - and cheque-writer

If you meet Michael Fishwick, jovial publisher turned literary novelist, whatever you do, do not tell him you "enjoyed" his latest book, Sacrifices. By all means say it was "wonderful", "fabulous, darling" or even "I loved it", but "enjoyed" sends only one message to a man who is well versed in the coded language of the publishing fob-off.

"The difference between this and my first novel is that people are coming up to me and saying, 'I loved it!'" His first novel, Smashing People, only elicited an "I enjoyed it". "Sacrifices has to be better than my first novel, because 'I enjoyed it' is not the biggest compliment in the world." He launches into a very funny parody of a hapless author fishing for praise, head bobbing, eyes bulging, dog-like expectation. "You are supposed to say 'fabulous' and 'wonderful, darling'. 'Enjoyed' really is bottom of the heap." He lets rip a loud, cynical laugh.

Fishwick is well placed to spot a fob-off. He has delivered enough, and for the past 20 years he has been part of an elite group of A-list editors, whose authors, from Margaret Thatcher and John Major to William Dalrymple and Karen Armstrong, scream quality and connections.

Smashing People came out four years ago, and raised as many eyebrows among rivals in the business as it did plaudits. Publishers rarely put their heads above the parapet, let alone out themselves as writers.

"It was terrifying," Fishwick admits. Aware that, if his book was a dud, word would travel through the trade faster than gossip at the Groucho, he approached only one agent, David Godwin. "I thought that if I sent it to lots of agents and they all turned it down, my life wouldn't be worth living. The sense of vulnerability I felt was over-powering." He need not have worried: Godwin brokered him a two-book deal with Cape.

Sacrifices, which has garnered excellent reviews, suggests he has recovered his confidence. Bleaker than his debut, it is the story of Christopher Hughes, by all appearances an honourable man, father and public school headmaster, but through the multiple narratives revealed to be a monster and emotional terrorist.

We are in Fishwick's bright office at Bloomsbury, where he has worked for the past year as publishing director following 20 years with HarperCollins. Outside, tourists laze in the Soho sunshine. It is one of London's hipper addresses - a sign of his employer's affluence, mainly thanks to Harry Potter. Neighbours include 20th Century Fox and the Football Association. Publishing rivals are located further away, in the nether reaches of W1 and beyond.

Inevitably the conversation turns to Fishwick's day job. In the past few months Bloomsbury has become the Roman Abramovich of publishing, shelling out a fortune on author talent, taking advances to record breaking levels for the lucky few. Cookery writer Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and travel writer and historian William Dalrymple received £2m apiece. William Boyd was snapped up for £500,000, while David Blunkett's earned a reported £400,000.

Most surprising of all was £1m for Take That star Gary Barlow's autobiography. Eyebrows were raised. Barlow hardly fits the publisher's literary image - though it is worth remembering that before Harry Potter, Bloomsbury made a fortune with Anna Pasternak's Princess in Love, about James Hewitt's affair with Princess Diana.

Fishwick is playing his own part in the spending spree. He signed both Dalrymple and Blunkett - covers of The Blunkett Tapes are scattered about his office. They join other high-profile signings, including Germaine Greer, twentysomething Cambridge historian Anne Whitelock, Rosie Boycott and Ben Macintyre.

But he is adamant that whatever rivals say, and they have been saying quite a lot, Bloomsbury has not forced advances through the roof. "We may be outbidding for some books, but we are mostly matching what other people are offering," he claims. "We are having a lot of that - it is a sort of boast."

Rival editors beg to differ. One, who in the past has wielded the chequebook, tells me she has been unable to buy anything for a year because Bloomsbury outbid her each time. Another says that though he had matched some bids, he feels exposed by the number of six-and-seven figure investments he has been forced to make in a market that can only sustain a handful of expensive books. "These enormous advances have got incredibly out of hand. It is extremely worrying," he moans.

Fishwick will have none of it. "I have seen people throw loads of money around, but this company is not stupid. It is just constitutionally incapable of profligate behaviour. No one is going to suddenly go bonkers," he says with a passion unusual in editors talking about their employers.

But he stiffens at mention of the Dalrymple deal. "It wasn't wildly more than he was being paid at HarperCollins," he says sniffily. The reports ignored the small print, he adds. The £2m is for five books. "His last book sold 50,000 in hardback and will have sold 200,000 in paperback. All William's books sell 5,000 or 6,000 copies a year and have done since I first published him in 1987. So, in terms of where you are going to put your money, it is as safe a bet as you can think of."

Does he have pangs of advance envy when he signs the cheques? He laughs that loud hearty laugh. "No!" He sits back in his chair and gazes at the ceiling. "The trouble is that I wouldn't know how to write a commercial novel," he muses. "I actually thought Smashing People, because it was full of jokes and jollity and sex and stuff, would sell." It didn't - at least not in Dalrymple quantities - but the Shrewsbury-educated publisher does not seem to care.

"I would like to think that I was sensitive to my authors even before I was writing myself," he says of the impact of his writing on the day job. "But it has made me realise even more what they go through." It also means that the word "enjoyed" has been dropped from his vocabulary.

'Sacrifices' is published by Cape (£16.99). To order a copy for £15.99 (free p&p), call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor