Victor Gollancz strolls through Covent Garden on his way to work, 1950.

Goodbye to the Blonds

The generation of idiosyncratic proprietors who changed the face of the British book industry

This article is taken from the July 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

I have known several maverick publishers in my time. One of them was Anthony Blond (1928-2008), the only man ever to make a pass at me (as Private Eye remarked, “Blond prefers gentlemen”), who between the late 1950s and the mid-1980s kept the flag aloft for his distinctively up-market yet richly idiosyncratic talent-roster.

Muller, Blond & White, the final iteration of a series of publishing ventures that began with Anthony Blond Ltd back in 1958, failed for £400,000 after a catastrophic international co-edition in which Blond, having insured himself against a fall in the dollar’s value against the yen of 10 per cent looked on with horror as it plummeted to 25. A calamity of this sort was always going to happen, and the wonder, knowing Blond and the way in which he operated, was that it didn’t happen sooner.

But the point about this bisexual Old Etonian, who once observed that to make a small fortune in publishing it was necessary to start with a large one, was how closely the various concerns that bore his name stuck to his conception of what a publishing house should be. 

He was keen on first novels, and happy to sustain the inevitable losses involved, discovered Simon Raven, whom he published for a quarter of a century, sponsored controversial items that other firms had their doubts about, started the terrific Doughty Library of Victorian and Edwardian reprints, as well as writing two books about the trade — The Publishing Game (1971) and The Book Book (1985) that are still worth reading in an age of conglomerates and bottom lines. 

What distinguished Gollancz, Deutsch and Weidenfeld from more gentlemanly competitors was the degree of personal control

However ramshackle and faltering the equipage whose reins he grasped, the books he issued had a style and an individuality that set them apart — even if, as he once confessed, his instructions to the printer were to make everything look as if it had been published by Jonathan Cape.

The self-willed, maverick publisher has been making his — very occasionally her — presence felt in British publishing almost since British publishing came into existence. The early twentieth century book-world scene included such legendary figures as the tight-fisted T. Fisher Unwin, known to his employees as “the Fishy Onion”, who once received a letter from a disgruntled under-manager accusing him of “reducing your staff to the duties and emoluments of the office boy” and the urbane Grant Richards, publisher of such aesthetically separable figures as the dandy-novelist Ronald Firbank and Evelyn Waugh’s elder brother Alec, whose exposé of public-school life, The Loom of the Youth (1917) was denounced from many a Great War-era pulpit.

Charlady Mrs Black pours a cup of tea for Anthony Blond in 1971

By the 1930s the torch had passed to wily newcomers like Victor Gollancz, who had announced his first list in 1928, and Jamie Hamilton, who founded the firm of Hamish Hamilton in 1931. Further infusions of new blood arrived after the war, often in the shape of emigrés from continental Europe such as Andre Deutsch (who began as “Allan Wingate” before adopting his own name), George Weidenfeld, of Weidenfeld and Nicolson and Anthony Hecht, who founded the Souvenir Press in 1951. 

Each had his specialist area — Deutsch went in for highbrow fiction; Weidenfeld, while cleaning up on Nabokov’s Lolita, liked publishing ministerial memoirs by the politicians with whom he hung out and was eventually ennobled by Harold Wilson; Hecht had an eye for left-field best-sellers and Nobel laureates — but taken together they may be said to have changed the face of post-war British publishing.

What distinguished Gollancz, Deutsch and Weidenfeld from more gentlemanly competitors was, essentially, the degree of personal control they exercised. 

If the imprints that bore their distinctive colophons — Gollancz’s giant ‘G’, Deutsch’s bow and arrows — were not exactly one-man bands, then everybody who worked for them took care to dance to the managing director’s tune. 

The Victor Gollancz premises in Henrietta Street, London WC2 in the 1930s boasted a deputy managing director and several assistants, but it was Gollancz who interviewed the authors, actual and aspiring, who laid down his famously stingy terms (George Orwell got a £40 advance for Down and Out in Paris and London), drew up prospectuses and vetted copy for the flaring press ads and — as he was terrified of libel writs — sat in endless conclave with the firm’s lawyer, Harold Rubinstein.

Lord Weidenfeld, when not hob-nobbing with Cabinet members, exercised a similar suzerainty over Weidenfeld & Nicolson. Fond of the grand gesture and the stupendous advance, he was also a patient researcher of the fields in which he specialised — reputed, when publishing abstruse academic books, to be able to judge the print run almost to the last copy. 

The presence of the proprietor gave the firm a collective identity that current outfits rarely come close to achieving

Significantly, the intense personal commitment demanded to keep such firms afloat in the way that their originators wanted nearly always faltered in the area of succession planning. Hardly any of the great British publishing firms established in the period 1930-1980 managed to survive the founders’ deaths: Hamish Hamilton is an imprint of Penguin Random House; Weidenfeld & Nicolson was subsumed into Orion and is now part of Hachette; the Souvenir Press survived until Hecht’s passing in 2018 and was then taken over by Profile Books.

Why are there no George Weidenfelds and Victor Gollanczes, or even an Anthony Blond or two, looming out of the cigarette haze of an old-style publishing party to place a coy hand on one’s shoulder and ask if one was writing anything? 

One reason is that publishing, like nearly every other form of business, has grown collaborative and professionalised. All the departments over which Gollancz so vigilantly presided — editorial, design, production, marketing — now have specialists who understand the individual components of the publishing machine far better than the person in the chief executive’s office. Most decisions are taken collectively by rooms full of people. There is still room for personal intervention, but the majority of grand book-world panjandrums are there to endorse or authenticate, not lead minions by the nose.

Another reason, connected to the first, is that publishing — again, like nearly every other form of business — has changed in a way that can only lessen the impact of the self-propelled solitary. Consolidation, at top and bottom — what the business pages call “disintermediation” — means that most modern book publishers are either vast conglomerates in six-story London tower-blocks or three people sitting in a room in Aberystwyth. 

Typically, a George Weidenfeld or an Andre Deutsch commanded a staff of 30 or 40 employees, all of whom they knew by name, ideally inhabiting a single premises, usually a terraced house in Soho or Bloomsbury. 

The frequent presence of the proprietor, always prone to interfere and often keen on economising — on the quite reasonable grounds that the money being spent was his own — might have been irksome to the staff, but it gave the firm a collective identity that current outfits rarely come close to achieving.

Who among modern titans of the trade can flatter themselves that they possess this clout?

The third reason is possibly more abstract but no less vital. This is that publishing is less glamorous than it used to be, less of a milieu in which a human dynamo can make a name for himself, accumulate column inches and flatter himself that in however marginal a way he is helping to shape public taste. Weidenfeld was a gossip-columnist’s staple. Tom Maschler, who ran Jonathan Cape for many years — see his memoir Publisher (2005) — could quite seriously claim that without his stable of homegrown writers (McEwan, Barnes, Lessing, Rushdie, Amis jr) the UK literary scene would have been a very different place. 

But who among modern titans of the trade can flatter themselves that they possess this clout? About the best anyone can hope for is to be given charge of an imprint within a major concern, where the men in suits don’t interfere too much, and be allowed to fashion it according to personal taste.

Certainly, Dan Franklin — Maschler’s recently retired successor — achieved this at Cape. Meanwhile Christopher MacLehose, now in his 80s, once of Harvill (part of HarperCollins), then of the MacLehose Press (part of Quercus) and now at the helm of the Mountain Leopard Press (sponsored by the Welbeck Publishing Group) has been following this line for nearly 40 years, introducing British readers to Richard Ford, Stieg Larsson and Raymond Carver along the way and rarely taking any nonsense from the people at head office. 

A more recent entrant to this none-too-crowded field is Lee Brackstone, once of Faber, but now working for Hachette as editorial director of White Rabbit, which publishes up-market music memoirs and slightly left-field fiction.

This is not an elegy for the old-style publishing maverick, who could be capricious, impetuous, penny-pinching, difficult to deal with and prone to misjudgement. In the early stages of his career, Blond, for example, was known to attend publishers’ parties with a fistful of unsigned contracts in his pocket which could be distributed among likely-sounding petitioners as the evening wore on: on one of these occasions he is supposed, at a late hour, to have signed up an author who proposed to cross the Atlantic in a boat made of concrete. 

It was left to Blond’s business partner Desmond Briggs to clear up the mess the following morning. On the other hand, all this can seem preferable to the spectacle of the modern editorial director, the prudent survivor of half-a-dozen buy-outs and takeovers, who would “love” to publish the latest darling work by novelist x but “just knows” that he won’t be able to get it past sales and marketing.

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