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
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the eleventh season of Two and a Half Men

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

film
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman as Doctor Who and Clara behind the scenes

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cheery but half-baked canine caper: 'Pudsey the dog: The movie'

film
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
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.

    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
    Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

    Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

    They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
    The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

    20 best days out for the summer holidays

    From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
    Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

    All the wood’s a stage

    Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
    Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

    Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

    Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
    Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

    Self-preservation society

    Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
    Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

    Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

    We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor