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
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week

Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

Arts and Entertainment
Bryan Cranston will play federal agent Robert Mazur in The Infiltrator

Books
Latest stories from i100
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.

    US immigration: President Obama ready to press ahead with long-promised plan to overhaul 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?

    Immigration: Obama's final frontier

    The President is ready to press ahead with the long-promised plan to overhaul America's 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?
    Bill Cosby rape allegations explained: Why are these allegations coming out now? Why didn’t these women come forward earlier? And why has nobody taken legal action?

    Bill Cosby rape allegations explained

    Why are these allegations coming out now? Why has nobody taken legal action? And what happens next for the man once thought of as 'America's Dad'
    Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain

    You know that headache you’ve got?

    Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain
    Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?

    Scoot commute

    Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?
    Paul Robeson: The story of how an American icon was driven to death to be told in film

    The Paul Robeson story

    How an American icon was driven to death to be told in film
    10 best satellite navigation systems

    Never get lost again: 10 best satellite navigation systems

    Keep your vehicle going in the right direction with a clever device
    Paul Scholes column: England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil

    Paul Scholes column

    England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil
    Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win says defender as he prepares to return with Hull

    Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win

    Hull defender faces his struggling former club on Sunday ready to show what they are missing. But he says he will always be grateful to Tottenham
    Frank Warren column: Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game

    Frank Warren column

    Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game
    Synagogue attack: Fear unites both sides of Jerusalem as minister warns restoring quiet could take 'months'

    Terror unites Jerusalem after synagogue attack

    Rising violence and increased police patrols have left residents of all faiths looking over their shoulders
    Medecins sans Frontieres: The Ebola crisis has them in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa

    'How do you carry on? You have to...'

    The Ebola crisis has Medecins sans Frontieres in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa
    Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

    Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

    Residents in what was Iraq’s safest city fear an increase in jihadist attacks, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Underwater photography competition winners 2014 - in pictures

    'Mysterious and inviting' shot of diver wins photography competition

    Stunning image of cenote in Mexico takes top prize
    Sir John Major: Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting

    Sir John Major hits out at theatres

    Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting
    Kicking Barbie's butt: How the growth of 3D printing enabled me to make an army of custom-made figurines

    Kicking Barbie's butt

    How the growth of 3D printing enabled toy-designer to make an army of custom-made figurines