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RIP Diana Athill, queen of publishers (1917-2019)

Blog | By The late Diana Athill | Jan 24, 2019


Towards the end of the war, I gave a party to which George Weidenfeld brought André Deutsch. André, a Hungarian the same age as I was (26), had come to England to study economics, had been caught by the war, and had been interned as an enemy alien on the Isle of Man.

The Hungarians were soon let out on condition that they reported regularly to the authorities, and André returned to London armed with a letter from a fellow internee to a bookseller who had passed him on to a publisher called John Roberts. Roberts took him on as a salesman and was pleased to discover that he had acquired an intelligent and energetic young man who was greedy to learn every aspect of the trade. His being the first person I had ever met who was ‘in publishing’ was enough to exalt him in my eyes.

He was small, trim and good-looking in a boyish way. I remember thinking that his mouth was as fresh and soft-looking as a child’s, and being surprised that I found it attractive – usually I liked my men on the rugged side. He sat on the floor and sang The Foggy, Foggy Dew, which was unexpected in a Hungarian and charming, so that I was more aware of him than of anyone else in the room. Two days later, when he asked me to dinner and a theatre, I was gratified.

He was living in a tiny house in a Knightsbridge mews, and that was impressive too. In that little house, after the theatre, we ate an omelette and went to bed together, without – as I remember it – much excitement on either side.

We both expected me to be involved when he decided that he would start a publishing house as soon as the war ended... He had no money and no connections; how could he possibly start a publishing house? He asked me one day – we were walking arm in arm down Frith Street – ‘What’s the minimum you'd need to earn to start with?’

I didn't know what to say. I would have liked it to be more than the £380 a year I was getting from the BBC, but I didn’t want to sound greedy. Impatient with my hesitation he said: ‘What about £500?’ It sounded a lot to me, but we were only talking about a dream, so what did it matter? André started out as an independent publisher late in 1945. He rented an office – the ground floor of a late-Georgian house in Great Cumberland Place. Our capital amounted to £3,000, and it was generally held that no publishing company could make a go of it with less than £15,000; we were constantly reminded of that by André, as he urged us to recycle used envelopes, switch off lights behind us, and exercise the strictest economy in every possible way.

My job was to read, edit, copy-edit, proofread, and also to look after the advertising, which meant copywriting and designing as well as booking space after André had told me which books he wanted advertised in which newspapers, and had given me a budget. Although reading and editing were by far the most interesting of my tasks, they did not at first seem the most important. This was because I could do them easily: I had read a lot and I was developing confidence in my own judgement. Against which I had never before even speculated as to how advertisements got into newspapers, and as soon as I had learned what the process was, I saw that I would be no good at an important part of it. Booking space was no problem, but after that was done I had to persuade the advertising manager of the paper concerned that although our space was a small one (usually a six- or eight-inch column) it should be given the kind of conspicuous position usually occupied by much larger ads. This, to André’s incredulous indignation, I hardly ever achieved, and almost every time I failed he would telephone the newspaper’s man and tell him that next time he must give us an even better position to make up for his disgraceful failure this time – which the wretched man would usually do. But not without imploring me to keep André off his back because he couldn't go on inviting trouble for himself by granting such favours.

André’s great weakness as a manager of people was that he saw everything not done exactly as he himself would have done it as being done wrong – enragingly wrong – and anything that was done right was not worth comment. His vigilance taught us a lot, but the apparent indifference which took the place of carping when all was well was discouraging. I often pointed out that praise and kindness made people work better as well as feel happier, and he would promise to mend his ways, but he never did.

Once André’s nagging focused on someone, it did so with increasing intensity. I was sometimes slapdash about detail which struck me as unimportant. I might, for example, forget when typing out an ad or the blurb for a jacket that it was our house style to use single quotation marks, reserving double ones for quotations within quotations. When something like this happened, André’s shock would be extreme: ‘How can I go to Paris next week if I can’t trust you over something as simple as this? Don’t you realise what it would cost to correct that if it got through to proof stage?’ I was to see this happening over and over again to other people after the nagging had swivelled away from me. It could escalate with mystifying speed until you began to dread going into the office. You knew that justice was really on your side in that he was making an absurd and sometimes cruel fuss over small matters, but you had been manoeuvred into a position where you couldn’t claim this without appearing to be indifferent to the ideals of perfection to which we were all devoted.

It was not easy to summarise André’s own activities. He read books; he hunted books; he thought books up; for several years he did all the selling of books, and the buying and selling of book rights; he bought paper; he dealt with printers, binders and blockmakers; he made all the decisions about the promotion of our books; he checked every detail of their design; he checked copywriting, proofreading, important letters; he soothed and cajoled the bank; he persuaded suppliers to give us unprecedented credit; he raised capital out of the blue when we could no longer pay our bills; he delivered books in his Baby Austin; if we were sending out leaflets, he sat on the floor stuffing them into envelopes until after midnight and always did more to the minute than anyone else. His memory for detail was so good as to be almost frightening. He had learned his way about his trade so rapidly and so thoroughly, and had committed himself to it so wholeheartedly, that it is not fanciful to describe him as someone who had discovered his vocation. The firm, having been created by him, was kept going by him; without him, it would have ceased to exist.

Dictatorships work: that is why they are so readily accepted; and if they are demonstrably more or less just, as they can be to start with, they are accepted with a gratitude more personal than can be inspired by other kinds of regime. In its miniature way André’s dictatorship was strong for the following reasons: he had already learned so much about publishing while those working for him still knew nothing; it was his nature to turn ideas into action without delay, which is a rare gift; while he paid us mingy salaries, he also paid himself a mingy salary, and the company was so small that we could all see with our own eyes that there was no money available for anything else; when he was mean, chiselling down payments, scrounging discounts, running after us to switch off lights and so on, he was still always and evidently doing it for the company’s sake. We had to put up with him as he was, which, on the whole, we were glad to do. The people closest to him had such a habit of fondness for him that it never occurred to us to do anything else.

To start with André simply snatched at any homeless manuscript that happened to float by, and the reading public just after the war was so starved of books and so short of alternative forms of entertainment that almost anything could be presented by a publisher without looking silly.

One of our first moneyspinners was How to be an Alien by George Mikes. André had been at school in Budapest with George’s younger brother; meeting again in London, as exiles, they found that the years between them had concertinaed, and became friends. George’s little squib on being a foreigner in England had an extraordinary success. It was the foundation stone of a career that kept George going comfortably until his death in 1990. It also brought in Nicolas Bentley, who also became a partner in the firm. A book so short needed to be given a little more bulk by illustrations, and an author so foreign and unknown could do with a familiar British name beside his own on the title page.

Over the next 40-odd years, we went on to build up one of the most distinguished lists in London, including among our authors Norman Mailer, Mordecai Richler, Brian Moore, Roy Fuller, Terry Southern, VS Naipaul, Jack Kerouac, Philip Roth, Jean Rhys, Stevie Smith, Laurie Lee and Simone de Beauvoir.

The eventual demise of our house, a slow process, was caused, in part, by the diminishing number of people who wanted to read the kind of book we mostly published.

People who buy books are of two kinds. There are those who buy because they love books and what they can get from them, and those to whom books are one form of entertainment among several. The first group, which is by far the smaller, will go on reading, if not for ever, then for as long as one can foresee. The second group has to be courted. It is the second which makes the bestseller, impelled thereto by the buzz that a particular book is really something special; and it also makes publisher’s headaches, because it has become more and more resistant to courting.

Very slowly, group number two has been floating away into another world. Whole generations have grown up to find images more entertaining than words, and the roaming of space via a computer more exciting than turning a page. Of course a lot of them still read; but fewer and fewer can be bothered to dig into a book that offers any resistance. And although publishers such as André Deutsch Limited went on having a happy relationship with group number one, and still hit it off quite often with group number two, the distance between what the publisher and the wider public thought interesting was widening all the time.

André talked very little about selling the firm. I knew, quite early in the Eighties, that he was half-heartedly sniffing around for an offer, and he had stated his reason as clearly as he would ever do: ‘It’s not any fun any more.’

And it was not. He could no longer make those exciting swoops on ‘big’ books because the firms that had combined into conglomerates could always outbid us; and the ‘literary’ books at which we had been good... well, I was beginning to hope, when a typescript arrived on my desk, that it would be bad. If it was bad, out it went and no hassle. If it was good – then ahead loomed the editorial conference at which we would have to ask ourselves, ‘How many do you reckon it will sell?’ and the honest answer would probably be, ‘About 800 copies.’ Whereupon we would either have to turn down something good, which was painful, or else fool ourselves into publishing something that lost money. We still brought out some good things during those years, and by careful cheeseparing André kept the firm profitable (just) until at last, in 1984, he finally sold it.

Extracted from ‘Stet’ by Diana Athill