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

Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
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.

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London