Philip Attenborough

Chairman of Hodder & Stoughton during the most successful period in the firm's history

Wednesday 01 April 2009 22:35

Philip John Attenborough, publisher: born Chislehurst, Kent 3 June 1936; export manager, Hodder & Stoughton Ltd (later Hodder Headline plc) 1960-63, director 1963-93, sales director 1969, chairman 1975-1993, deputy chairman 1993-96; chairman, The Lancet Ltd 1977-91; Treasurer, Publishers Association 1981-82, Vice-President 1982-83, 1985-86, President 1983-85; CBE 1994; married 1963 Rosemary Littler (one son, one daughter); died Maidstone, Kent 4 April 2006.

Philip Attenborough was chairman of the publishers Hodder & Stoughton during the most successful period in its history. Yet such is the mercurial nature of the industry that following the firm's substantial losses only a few years later, in 1993 he was forced to oversee its sale. It was a blow. Hodder & Stoughton had been a family business for more than a century.

Destiny had much to do with his career. After Rugby and Trinity College, Oxford, where he studied Modern Languages, there was an inevitability that he would enter the firm. But before that he spent two successive Christmases as a parcel postman, then undertook National Service in the Royal Artillery (rising to the rank of sergeant) and had a spell as a lumberjack in Blind River, Ontario. Whereas his father, John Attenborough, was an editorial force in the firm and deputy chairman, Philip found his métier in sales. He was export manager by his mid-twenties and sales director in 1969. Philip Attenborough's generation was to play a major role in Hodder & Stoughton's fortunes over the coming two decades as his brother Michael and his cousin Mark Hodder-Williams also joined the board. In 1975 Philip succeeded his uncle Paul Hodder-Williams as chairman.

The firm, famous between the world wars for its roster of commercial novelists, among them John Buchan, "Sapper" ("Bulldog Drummond"), Edgar Wallace and Leslie Charteris ("The Saint"), was already going through a resurgence. Early fiction by talents as diverse as Nicholas Mosley and Len Deighton paved the way. Now, after many years as a joint owner of the paperback firm Pan, it decided to go it alone by beginning its own paperback imprint, Coronet, led by a young team under the direction of Michael Attenborough.

Important changes in the firm's business were already taking place. During Philip Attenborough's chairmanship, the Hodder board moved its warehousing out of south London and made its headquarters on the outskirts of Sevenoaks in Kent. Historically a City of London business with offices in Warwick Lane in the shadow of St Paul's, it now transferred its editorial base to Bloomsbury, where it leased a house in Bedford Square, alongside a raft of famous publishing imprints, among them Michael Joseph, Jonathan Cape and Frederick Warne.

The square also housed the offices of the Publishers' Association, where Attenborough became a force. Always a believer in industry consensus, he fought for the retention of resale price maintenance in the book trade (the net book agreement), led delegations to China, Bangladesh, India (twice) and Pakistan. In time he held a succession of posts: Treasurer, Vice-President (twice) and President. These contributed to his appointment as CBE for services to publishing in 1994.

By the early 1980s, Hodder & Stoughton was widely viewed as a powerhouse in British publishing. Its success owed much to popular fiction as the firm now boasted an unrivalled list. Mary Stewart had been a Hodder stalwart since the late 1940s, John le Carré had become a Hodder author in 1971 (and is still with the firm 35 years later). Now, thanks to the its ability to publish vertically (the publishing jargon for hardback and paperback publishing under one roof), Hodder added Jeffrey Archer (about to write his all-time bestselling novel, Kane and Abel, 1979), James Clavell, Jean Auel and - following the purchase of the American-owned New English Library in the early 1980s - Stephen King, Harold Robbins and James Herbert. It was a heady mix.

Not that Hodder was solely a middle-brow fiction publisher. Attenborough delighted in its publishing of Anthony Sampson's Anatomy of Britain (1962) and its successors, and its long-standing mountaineering and adventure list (Edmund Hillary, Chris Bonington, Francis Chichester). He was proud when the firm took a surprising direction by publishing The Fringes of Power (1985), the enthralling diaries of John Colville, one of Churchill's wartime secretaries.

Hodder had since its earliest days had a strong religious list, stemming from a nonconformist base. This grew during Attenborough's time with the addition of the New International Version of the Bible. The children's list that had for many years been one of Enid Blyton's publishers, became the British publisher of the French cartoon series Asterix. The education list included the "Teach Yourself" line and an academic strain that had once been named (without licence) the University of London Press (providing a distant Attenborough relation, David, later to make his name as a television wildlife specialist, with his first job). During Attenborough's tenure the firm also tapped into books that fed the growth of the English language worldwide. Hodder was later to purchase another mainly educational firm with a Bedford Square base, Edward Arnold, which brought the fiction of E.M. Forster into the Hodder orbit.

Attenborough was never an editor and rarely an acquirer of talent, but he was an avid and critical reader. Following his holidays, editors would hear from him as he marked an author's latest work out of 10. When the Booker Prize for fiction began to make its mark he was probably the first member of the Hodder staff to read Salman Rushdie's 1981 novel of Indian independence, Midnight's Children, which he judged a masterpiece. To justify the publication of the correspondence of the former Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi, he showed that he had lost none of his salesman's skills, by selling the Indian government sufficient quantities to make the book profitable.

When the firm began winning Booker prizes - two in four years, Thomas Keneally's Schindler's Ark (1982) and Keri Hulme's The Bone People (1985) - that both these novelists came from the antipodes was particularly pleasing to Attenborough, who not only understood the importance of export sales, but in Hodder's case championed its modest New Zealand subsidiary into publishing local talent as a way of helping it pay its way.

Attenborough was also proud that Hodder owned the medical journal The Lancet, which operated from separate offices in John Adam Street, Adelphi. When the firm's fortunes faltered at the end of the 1980s, The Lancet was an asset sold to reduce borrowings. Attenborough put a brave face on it, commenting that Hodder lacked the resources to develop the journal. "We have been reviewing all our operations and, in consequence, we have decided to focus our full attention on our book publishing activities."

The confidence of the early 1980s vanished. Jeffrey Archer departed for another publisher and in 1993 the board agreed to sell the firm to Tim Hely Hutchinson's Headline, one of the newcomers to British publishing of the previous decade. Attenborough stayed on for a time as deputy chairman, but his heart wasn't in it. In his retirement he continued to indulge his passion for trout-fishing and watching cricket.

Ion Trewin

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