No country for old men

Publishers get rid of talented editors whose worn faces don’t fit their youth-focused world


This article is taken from the October 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Browsing the acknowledgments of Look! We Have Come Through!, Lara Feigel’s excellent study of D.H. Lawrence, the Secret Author noted an unusually discreet sentence about the book’s editor, Mike Fishwick, and his recent retirement from its sponsors, Bloomsbury Publishing. 

The talented sexagenarian finds himself surplus

The discretion lay in Ms Feigel’s use of the word “retired”. For Fishwick, a gentleman in his early sixties, had, as anyone in the world of publishing knows, suffered a rather crueller end to his time in the industry: he had simply been made redundant.

What might be called the Fishwick phenomenon — the talented sexagenarian who spends years honing his craft only to find himself surplus to requirements — turns out to be a feature of the modern British book trade. Other recent casualties include Picador’s Philip Gwyn Jones and Fourth Estate’s Nicholas Pearson. Women are not immune to the superannuating axe: one might also note the enforced departure of Rachel Cugnoni, founder of Yellow Jersey, the first literary sports list, and former boss of Vintage, from Penguin Random House back in 2021.

Why were these four unfortunates asked to leave, as we used to say at school? Had they committed a grievous mistake? Were they spectacularly bad at their jobs? Actually, no. 

Fishwick’s Bloomsbury stable included not only up-and-coming stars like Ms Feigel, but the very wonderful (and best-selling) social historian David Kynaston. Pearson was responsible for the dazzling success of Hilary Mantel — said to be “absolutely furious”, according to a publishing insider tapped by the Sunday Times — and had superintended Jonathan Franzen’s career on this side of the Atlantic since the days of The Corrections.

Granted, Mr Gwyn Jones had made himself terribly unpopular in enlightened circles by defending Kate Clanchy’s memoir Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me — since found to be racist, ableist and so on — but no one could fault the quality, or the commercial success, of the books he published. 

It was the same with Ms Cugnoni, acclaimed by her star author Jeanette Winterson as “top class”. No, despite their ability to hit the sometimes mutually exclusive targets of cash and cachet, each has been got rid of merely because in the right little, tight little, youth-focused world of contemporary publishing, their slightly worn faces no longer fit.

There is nothing like profit-and-loss to focus a young publishing mind

It takes only a glance at publishing demographics to register the absurdity of this approach to staffing. For all the industry’s praiseworthy efforts to make itself more accessible to new audiences and shake off the tag of stuffiness, most books in this country are bought by middle-class and middle-aged people with tastes to match. The most successful novel published in the UK in the last three years? You guessed it, Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club, which, painful as it is to relate, is a cosy crime novel which just happens to have been written by a white, middle-aged man.

Does this remind you of anything? Well, it reminded the Secret Author of the BBC, which despite countless indications of the foolishness of the enterprise, can never be persuaded to play to its strengths and prefers for some masochistic reason to go on annoying the — again — middle-class and middle-aged people who make up most of its viewers and listeners. 

These, it scarcely needs saying, are the kind of licence fee-payers who prefer BBC Four (about to be shifted to cyberspace) to BBC Three and found the Ceefax button an absolutely invaluable resource. In this context, The Thursday Murder Club is the spiritual equivalent of the soccer results being broadcast at 5pm on a Saturday afternoon — another cultural fixture which a forward-looking Corporation just can’t see the need of and wants to dispense with as soon as possible.

Is there any way to save the likes of Mike Fishwick and Nick Pearson? In the short term, sadly not. Half a century ago, in a less commercialised age, writers were sometimes prepared to stand up for editorial sponsors whose work they appreciated. Graham Greene famously left messrs Heinemann for the Bodley Head after the former’s maltreatment of the employee who saw his books through the press. 

Here in 2022, on the other hand, the chances of Hilary Mantel and Jonathan Franzen telling Fourth Estate, or rather its parent company HarperCollins, where to stick it are doubtless rather dim.

If realisation dawns, it will probably do so in several years time when the new breed of fortysomethings now succeeding to the top jobs in publishing have to suffer the scrutiny of the accountants. There is nothing like a profit-and-loss account to focus the energies of an enthusiastic young publishing mind. 

Sooner or later, for all your good intentions, you have to publish books such as The Thursday Murder Club or the CEO will start complaining, and that is all there is to it. 

A shame that this elementary rule of publishing didn’t feature in Bloomsbury’s deliberations when they gave poor Mr Fishwick the order of the bowler hat.

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