Media: The Literator: Inside Publishing - Proffitt motive

Last week's announcement that Stuart Proffitt has resigned from his post at HarperCollins, following Rupert Murdoch's decision that his company would not publish a book that might jeopardise his Chinese interests, finally brought to an end weeks of speculation as to why the publishing director was "working at home" and couldn't come to the phone "for legal reasons". Colleagues had been intrigued and speculation soon spread beyond the security gates at HarperCollins's Hammersmith offices.

Resignation on a point of principle will do Proffitt no harm at all, but there will be a great many colleagues, past and present, who will allow themselves a moment or two of pleasure at the spectacle of his fall from grace, because Proffitt is respected rather than liked.

Though described as "gentlemanly", he does not always conform to that description. Certainly the girlfriend who left HarperCollins for another publisher after her relationship with Proffitt ended would not see him that way. In addition, he is an assiduous guardian of his turf, alert to even the slightest suggestion of encroachment, and when Malcolm Edwards, the former HarperCollins fiction publisher who quit last year, was given additional management responsibilities and a new title, Proffitt had to be placated with a similar title, though his status changed not one iota. Indeed, one rumoured cause of his recent absence was his objection to the promotion of Nick Sayers in the reshuffle that followed Edwards's departure.

Beyond the headlines is Proffitt himself, a curious anachronism who looks as though he would be at home in a novel by Waugh or Wodehouse. At 36, he looks and acts much older, and as his profile increased with the acquisition of Lady Thatcher he took to wearing foppish velvet suits.

Whither Proffitt now? Certainly, the Penguin Group could do with a high- profile non-fiction publisher. So, too, Macmillan. But there are a limited number of openings and, if money is a priority, few publishers will be able to match his HarperCollins salary. However, hire Proffitt and it's likely that you gain at least some of his authors. It is not yet clear whether John Major will want to follow him and, if he does, how many publishers would feel it worth stumping up the pounds 1m-plus required to buy him out of his HarperCollins contract? Things could get very interesting.

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