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

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