Michael Legat: Editorial director of Corgi Books and prolific author of writers' guides
Saturday 03 September 2011
One of Michael Legat's favourite stories was about the interview he had in 1941 with Mr. Bentley, the Careers Master at Whitgift, his Croydon school, who suggested he try publishing.
And what did they do in publishing? "They read books and go to cocktail parties," said Mr. Bentley, which sounded just the sort of thing Michael had in mind. A telephone call later he was being offered a job as assistant publicity manager at The Bodley Head.
With a starting salary of 15 shillings (75p) a week, he soon found he was less publicity manager and more office boy, and that cocktail parties were a rare thing indeed. Taken under the wing of the firm's idiosyncratic manager, C J Greenwood, he learned about production, design and typography, royalties and accounts, as well as translating François Boyer's Les Jeux Inconnus, an achievement of which he was always especially proud.
In 1946, after three years in the Navy, he decided to become a teacher, only to find that all the teacher-training colleges were full of ex-servicemen like himself. An unsuccessful try at getting get into theatre left him no option but to return to The Bodley Head as production manager.
By 1950 he had met and married Rosetta Clark. Hearing that there was a job going with a new firm owned by the American publisher Bantam Books, he applied and got the job at a salary of £900 a year. His colleagues tried to talk him out of it – paperbacks were a long way below the salt in those days – but persuaded by the arithmetic (the salary was three times what he was earning), he took the plunge and in November 1950 joined Corgi Books.
The first three titles – all Bantam hand-me-downs – were An Affair of State by Pat Frank, A Private Killing by James Benet and Shane by Jack Schaefer. During production it was decided to up-price them from 1s/6d (7 p) to 2/- (10p) and over the next few days, Legat personally licked and stuck gummed labels on every one of 30,000 covers.
It was an indifferent start, and by the late summer of 1951 things were so parlous that Bantam's president, Ian Ballantine, flew in, appointing Allan Cheek manager, Legat production manager and Anne Vaisey secretary, with all three responsible for sales and publicity. After another frenetic year, Corgi was still losing money, and Bantam's president, John O'Connor (Ballantine had left the company), and financial director, Sidney B Kramer, flew in, clearly intent upon closing them down. Somehow they were persuaded that to succeed, the firm needed to be able to acquire its own books and to retain any profits it made. Surprisingly, Bantam went along with the proposition. New sales and production managers were brought in and Legat was appointed editor. And somehow, it worked.
By 1954, Corgi was riding high on a boom in the sales of war books, which made it possible to expand the list to include romances and Westerns. These latter included titles of interest to the English Westerners, an organisation devoted to the history of the old West whose monthly magazine I edited. A correspondence sprang up, I writing to Michael suggesting books he might want to take on and he explaining why he couldn't. This led in 1960 to my becoming Michael's editorial assistant – on a salary of £6 a week.
A year later, however, Transworld, Corgi's parent company, was again on the brink of disaster. For the last couple of years Cheek had been completely misleading Bantam about sales and profits and once again, Kramer flew over. In short order, Cheek resigned and several department heads were replaced, and next, Kramer brought in a new managing director. His name was Patrick Newman.
Few people thought someone from the greetings-card industry could rescue Corgi, but in his first year, Newman took the company from a £100,000 loss to a £35,000 profit and would go on to make it ten times that within a decade. Legat never really liked him.
At last Transworld began to have the kind of success paperback publishers dream of, but in the process Newman had become a persistent thorn in Legat's side. Tempted by offers from André Deutsch and Lord Sidney Bernstein, he turned instead to writing, and Dear Author, the first of a very long line of "how-to" books, was published in 1972. Just then, Kramer, now based in London, offered him the job of editorial director at Cassell & Co. It was an uphill and unhappy experience; at the end of his five-year contract he quit and, encouraged by a contract – and an advance – from his friend Ernest Hecht, began work on a novel about the business of winemaking, Mario's Vineyard, published in 1980. Four more family sagas followed.
As well as writing, he was active in the Society of Authors, the South East Arts Literature Advisory Panel, the Romantic Novelists Association and the Writers Summer School at Swanwick, until a serious bout of ill-health slowed him down. He spent his later years supplying regular columns for Writers News, giving talks to Rotary and Probus clubs and playing bridge and what he called "geriatric tennis".
His own take on his professional life is wonderfully captured in a slim autobiography, They Read Books and Go to Cocktail Parties. One of the most popular, principled and influential figures in London publishing, Michael Legat was a man very much of the times in which his unashamedly old-fashioned editorial style flourished.
Michael Ronald Legat, publisher and novelist: born London 24 March 1923; married 1949 Rosetta Clark (died 2005, two sons); died 15 August 2011.
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