Publisher at Hodder and Doubleday
Tuesday 17 January 2006
Eric Patrick Major, publisher: born London 25 June 1937; publicity director, Collins 1968-75; deputy managing director, Hodder & Stoughton 1975-78, managing director (general division) 1978-91, deputy publisher 1991-93, managing director (religious books) 1993-96, publisher 1993-96; vice-president (religious publishing), Doubleday 1996-2002; married 1961 Patsy Ring (one son, three daughters); died Leigh-on-Sea, Essex 14 January 2006.
Eric Major was a publisher of distinction on both sides of the Atlantic. He was proud of being a generalist who could even read back a secretary's Pitman's shorthand note. The dedication of John Gardner's 1980 thriller, The Garden of Weapons, is to "Eric Major, who has been around in many guises from Ludgate Circus to Bedford Square".
As managing director of the hardback side of Hodder and Stoughton (the Bedford Square reference) from the late 1970s into the early 1990s, Major oversaw its huge growth, in fiction, non-fiction and religious publishing. Then, to the surprise of even his closest friends, he and his wife Patsy moved to New York, where he ran and developed the religious publishing division of Doubleday.
Eric Major was one of a generation of British publishers who learned their skills in publicity and went on into publishing management. Born and brought up in Walthamstow, north-east London, and educated at William Morris Technical School in Walthamstow and South West Essex Technical College (where he became Essex cross-country champion), he had thought originally of catering as a career. When that didn't work out, he unexpectedly found himself - after National Service in the RAF from 1956 to 1958 - working on "general duties" for Frederick Muller. Muller was a small and now barely remembered publisher, in rackety offices at the Ludgate Circus end of Fleet Street (the other John Gardner reference).
Naturally gregarious - and helped by the location of his office - Major ensured that the Muller list, which had a little of everything, but very little of substance, began to gain more that its fair share of attention in the national press. His talents were spotted by none other than the firm of William Collins, whose chief, Sir William Collins (known as Billy), was no slouch at promoting his authors.
Eric Major was hired originally to help run the firm's Canadian office, but in the meantime he was seconded into publicity in London, where one of the team had suffered a breakdown. Such was his success that he never went to Canada. The Collins list mixed the best of commercial fiction (the novels, among others, of Agatha Christie, Alistair MacLean, Desmond Bagley and Hammond Innes) with serious non-fiction, natural history and a religious list run by Lady Collins. Major showed himself capable of dealing with them all, including the sometimes thunderous personality of Billy Collins, who could never understand why every Collins book didn't merit a lead review in every national newspaper.
When, in 1975, Major left the publishing aristocracy of Collins for the smaller, but also family-controlled house of Hodder & Stoughton, there was some surprise. He was still a publicist, but the ruling Attenborough family and the firm's editorial director, Robin Denniston, recognised greater potential. As Hodder moved from a building in the shadow of St Paul's to new headquarters in Kent and a London editorial office in Bedford Square, so Major's responsibilities grew.
Publishing was changing: the rise in importance of paperbacks meant that Hodder acquired most of its fiction in tandem with its paperback imprint, Coronet. The launch of Hodder's rich fiction roster became Major's responsibility. John le Carré, Mary Stewart, Jeffrey Archer, James Clavell, James Herbert, Jean Auel, Stephen King were among those on the firm's "A" list.
Major was also keen for Hodder to take on more literary fiction and it was during his tenure that the firm published Fay Weldon, Melvyn Bragg and its only two Booker prizewinners - Thomas Keneally (with Schindler's Ark, 1982) and Keri Hulme (with The Bone People, 1985). Indeed Hulme, a Maori author, might never have been published in Britain if it hadn't been for Major. He had been visiting the firm's Auckland subsidiary, which had had some success distributing The Bone People for a local women's collective (Spiral, who published it in 1984). Major promised to take a look to see if it might be worthwhile publishing the novel in the UK. On the flight between Auckland to Sydney he started reading it. Later he recalled that, if he had had something else with him, he might never have got past the first few pages. But he persevered and by page 40 realised that here was something "rather special".
In London he made a deal to import 1,500 copies from New Zealand and publish it that summer. Entered for the Booker Prize that year it was spotted by the prize's administrator, Martyn Goff. Never the bookies' favourite, it went on to win the prize. Major's only disappointment was that Keri Hulme did not write further novels.
Hodder had long had a reputation for publishing mountaineering books. Under Major, who enjoyed climbing, the list was steadily refurbished with authors such as Chris Bonington and the late Peter Boardman (Major would later play a substantial role in running the Boardman Tasker Prize for mountaineering books). His Roman Catholicism led him naturally towards Hodder's thriving religious list, where he helped the firm gain the contract to become one of the publishers of the New International Version of the Bible.
He was quick to seize the initiative when Delia Smith first made her name as a television cook. He knew that Hodder's paperback arm Coronet had in the 1970s published collections of her London Evening Standard daily recipe column, and it was considered an enormous coup when he persuaded Smith to allow Hodder to publish one brand-new book, tied to a television series she made under the title One is Fun! (1985). Later he was to publish devotional books by Delia Smith, who shared some of his religious convictions.
When in the early 1990s Hodder's star waned and the firm was eventually taken over by Headline, Major felt less at home. He decided to retire and contemplated a number of consultancies in religious publishing. And then he was approached by Doubleday in New York. This huge publishing house had long had a religious list. Major, who knew the people there, was asked if he would like to "come over and run it".
He moved to Manhattan and for six years not only ran the religious list, but transformed it. He also developed a latent talent for editing and under Doubleday's president, Stephen Rubin, was given the opportunity of acquiring and editing books on the Doubleday general list - where his authors included the Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein.
Then cancer struck. Although following treatment this went into remission, in 2002 he decided, aged 65, to retire and with Patsy he returned to England and their house by the Thames at Leigh-on-Sea.
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