For a long time now, the then eight-year-old Alice Newton has been partly credited for being the one whose enthusiasm after reading a few pages of Harry Potter And the Philosopher’s Stone nudged her father, Nigel Newton, founder and chief executive, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, to sign on J.K. Rowling. But another person who perhaps deserves as much recognition is her grandfather, Peter Newton.
Had it not been for his advice, the Bloomsbury children’s book division would have shut down months before it signed what would go on to become the biggest deal of its publishing career. Peter was a Financial Times journalist turned wine entrepreneur.
“My father was my unofficial adviser,” says Nigel Newton, 57. “We spoke on every Sunday, since the time I was 18 when I left (San Francisco, US) to study at Cambridge (UK), until he died five years ago. I would tell him what the issue of the day was and he would have a comment or a thought about it. I remember after we had started our children’s division in 1994, that it was financially a burden. The question came up, ‘Should we fell this division because it wasn’t, certainly in the short term, going according to plan?’ His advice: No, don’t do that because you have poured so much energy into putting the building bricks in place; give it more of a chance. I took that advice and a few months later we signed up the biggest children’s book in recent times.”
Newton and I meet in Delhi at The Imperial hotel’s 1911 Bar for a 6pm drink the day after the Bloomsbury India division was launched last month. I am his fourth appointment of the evening and I wonder if he is game for yet another session. “No, I am not exhausted at all,” he says, and though he offers the sofa at the bar to me first, he sinks in gladly when I opt for the straight-backed chair instead. He’s dressed in a slightly rumpled khaki jacket and a light blue shirt; and over Johnnie Walker Red Label (with water and ice), a few glass bowls of Tangles, potato chips and salted peanuts, he finally sets the record straight about Alice and Rowling.
“That story is somewhat exaggerated. It is so appealing to the media. Alice, who is a brilliant person, did read pages I brought home the night before we made the final decision. Sure, she was transfixed by it but the person who signed the book up and the one who asked me for approval—which I would have routinely given—was Barry Cunningham (who was the children’s publishing director, Bloomsbury), and so the credit is his and not mine (or Alice’s). But that story did not appeal much to you, did it?” he notes with a laugh when I ask if Alice was ever given a chance to read the manuscript of any other potential children’s author. “Not really. In case you are wondering, Alice, now 24, is reading the classics at Cambridge. I think the last Bloomsbury novel she read was The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, which just won the Orange Prize.”
Newton set up Bloomsbury in 1986 in London, when he was 30, after having worked with Macmillan Publishers and Sidgwick & Jackson, and says it simply felt natural to start his own publishing house. “I don’t know quite why. I do know I had the intention to start it up but it involved some pretty hard work, and I needed to write the plan. So I set aside… no, I did not set aside, I had this thing, relatively new then, called paternity leave. It was two weeks when my first daughter Catherine was born. After doing what I could to help with my paternal duties, I was determined to sit down and write this plan. And I did. It was like one birth led to another one.”
With Newton around, it is hard to get off the topic of Harry Potter and its amazing success, even though the last book came out five years ago and Rowling has moved on to another publisher since. “They (Harry Potter-related questions) have stopped now,” he says slowly and then waits as I look surprised. He chuckles: “I just thought I would try stopping you. No, these questions have not really stopped altogether. I answered them earlier today. The £70 million-plus (around Rs.590 crore now) surplus cash we generated through that deal is being spent to make acquisitions of academic publishing houses. Post-Potter, we have been generating more cash through these new acquisitions.”
Newton believes the future of publishing lies in diverse portfolios. “Good publishing is about portfolio management and so the broader your spread, the better it is.” In April, Bloomsbury acquired Fairchild Books (which focuses on fashion) and in July, Applied Visual Arts Publishing (which focuses on art, architecture and photography) became a part of its portfolio. Both these acquisitions will help Bloomsbury grow revenue in their academic and professional section, which is managed by Newton. The trade (fiction books) is handled by Richard Charkin, executive director and managing director, Bloomsbury Adult.
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“There are lots of reasons for academic books to do well: The prices are higher; they have more focused readerships; are already digital in nature. These books provide a perfect balance to the ups and downs of the trade book publishing,” explains Newton. After the success of the Churchill Archive, an online subscription of Winston Churchill’s writing, Newton is excited about Drama Online, an online collection of over 800 plays which will also work on a subscription model. The site is up for trial.
Whether the e-books and online subscription model will be big for Bloomsbury in India remains to be seen but Newton says his research tells him that most reading in India will be done on cellphones in the future. He reiterates the point he made in his speech at the launch—India represents a great opportunity because it has a large population of English readers, most likely more than the combined book-buying demographic of the US, UK and Canada, and also represents a chance to find unknown writers and new voices.
“That’s fundamental to who we are and what we are here for. Originally, we had been thinking of setting up a joint venture with another party who shall remain unnamed. We were attracted to the idea of a partner because we thought they would be able to negotiate the complexities of the (Indian) market. We did not want to be ignorant foreigners.” But after meeting Rajiv Beri, now managing director, Bloomsbury India, who had been a colleague of Charkin’s at Macmillan, Newton changed his mind. “It made much more sense for us to have total ownership of our own enterprise. We knew Rajiv could provide the local know-how.”
Among the new authors he is most excited about is Samantha Shannon, a 20-year-old Oxford undergraduate who is yet to take her final exams. “She has written a dystopian novel (The Bone Season), which I have not read, and even though she has not yet graduated, she has been written about in huge articles.” Newton, who says he is mainly a reader of fiction and has no intention of ever writing a novel himself, currently has two books sitting by his bedside table—Manil Suri’s The City of Devi, which has left him “enthralled”, and William Dalrymple’s Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan. He’s finished reading The Bull of Mithros, a Greek detective series, and before it, Throne of Glass, a young adult novel by Sarah J. Maas—he believes she is another author to watch out for.
“I mainly tend to read books in manuscript form and yes, I do give feedback. Lots of feedback.”