And we're BACK....Harry Harry Harry (Potter)
HARRY Potter star Daniel Radcliffe has become the youngest person other than members of the British royal family to have an individual picture at Britain National Portrait Gallery.
Stuart Pearson Wright's likeness of Radcliffe, 16, is one of an exhibition of more than 40 new works opening at the famous central London gallery.
The artist, who has previously painted the schoolboy wizard's creator Joanne JK Rowling, captured Radcliffe, wearing jeans and a T-shirt and looking thoughtful in an armchair in his studio, two years ago.
EDITOR'S NOTE: KINDA ODD. KINDA CREEPY?
"It's very weird. It's fantastic. It's a very, very strange feeling," the young actor said of the portrait.
"It's a great honour to be in there among such amazing actors and actresses."
Radcliffe, who is currently shooting Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the fifth film based on the best-selling books, posed three or four times for the artist over the course of about 14 to 15 hours.
"It was probably quite hard for me to keep still," he said, but deferred to Wright's superior skills: "In terms of painting, drawing and sketching I'm utterly talentless."
The Radcliffe portrait will go on display alongside nine others Wright has made of actors, including Alan Rickman and Timothy Spall - Potions teacher Severus Snape and Peter Pettigrew in the Harry Potter movies.
Wright won the BP Portrait Award in 2001, and two years later painted a controversial portrait of Queen Elizabeth II's husband Prince Philip naked from the waist up.
Gallery director Sandy Nairne said: "Stuart Pearson Wright's drawings are wonderfully-wrought studies in figure and character - the gallery is very pleased to have been able to acquire a fascinating group of subjects."
The house that Harry built
Once, Bloomsbury was a small, well-respected, independent publisher. Now, thanks to JK Rowling's phenomenal success, it has more money than it knows how to spend. But are the Potter millions distorting the British book trade? And does the publisher risk losing its soul?
Matt Seaton reports
The following correction was printed in the Guardian's Corrections and clarifications column, Wednesday April 12 2006.
In the article below Jonny Geller of literary agents Curtis Brown was misquoted when we had him saying, "The Bloomsbury culture used to be all about growing authors." He said that they "are" a publisher famous for this.
Bloomsbury is on a roll. A fortnight ago, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince won Book of the Year at the annual "Nibbies" awards - probably the biggest publishing award of the year. EDITOR'S NOTE: UMM...THEIR BIGGEST BOOK AWARD OF THE YEAR IS CALLED 'THE NIBBIES'? OK. Then, last week, the company posted another spectacular set of financial results when it released its accounts for 2005. Turnover up 30% to £109m; pre-tax profit up 24% to £20m. This in a business where a 10% rate of return is considered very healthy.
The two events are, of course, not unrelated. Bloomsbury Publishing plc's extraordinary growth over the past decade is due in large part to the magical performance of the Potter series. Every publisher needs a big hit now and again, but the scale of Harry Potter's success is without precedent: when Bloomsbury founding editor Liz Calder calls it "the greatest phenomenon in publishing history", most commentators would agree that she is simply stating fact. Exactly how much of the Bloomsbury bonanza is down to the boy wizard is hard to unpick from the published accounts, but, at £69m, the children's division was responsible last year for almost two-thirds of the firm's turnover. Even on a conservative estimate, according to one industry analyst, half of Bloomsbury's business is Harry Potter.
It has made Bloomsbury not just the most successful independent publisher in Britain by far, but also one of the most cash-rich companies in the entire industry, with a reserve to draw on of over £50m. And draw on it it has.
Bloomsbury is on a spree. Last week it was reported that it had acquired a political memoir by David Blunkett for £400,000. Then there's the multi-book deal recently concluded with novelist William Boyd for £500,000. New books by Richard Ford, Germaine Greer and Charlotte Rampling have been snapped up. But these are small potatoes next to the huge contracts lately issued to cookery writer Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and travel writer and historian William Dalrymple - each worth £1.9m.
Lavishly illustrated recipe books are a new line for Bloomsbury, but apart from Fearnley-Whittingstall, all the above authors fit squarely into the firm's traditional formula of mixing crossover literary-commercial fiction with popular non-fiction - even if the sums being shelled out are pretty spectacular.
But the acquisition that has really raised eyebrows is the cool £1m that Bloomsbury has paid former Take That star Gary Barlow for his autobiography. With so much cash on offer, senior editors at rival publishers are grumbling about being continually gazumped. EDITOR'S NOTE: OOOO...I LOVE THE BRITISH, DON'T YOU?! GAZUMPED, INDEED! It's almost as if Bloomsbury has become the Chelsea FC of the book world, with JK Rowling in place of Roman Abramovich. Perhaps not Chelsea exactly - Bloomsbury still looks small next to the multinational conglomerates - but its spending power is out of proportion. Some would say it is distorting the market in much the same way as Abramovich's millions.
If this is the charge, then the Gary Barlow book is exhibit A.
According to a reliable source, the next nearest bid - in the sealed-bid blind auction - was £350,000. In other words, Bloomsbury bid nearly treble the next best offer. So the next question is: have they misjudged Barlow's currency?
"I can't see it working," says an executive at Penguin. "If they've paid £1m for a celebrity who was famous 15 years ago, they're going to take a bath." EDITOR'S NOTE: OF COURSE, FOR A LITTLE WHILE, THEY CAN AFFORD TO PLAY WITH MONEY, RIGHT?
From another publisher, this could be just sour grapes. But others find it baffling too. "There have been some strange recent purchases," says Jonny Geller, of literary agents Curtis Brown. "Their strategy seems to be to build up a commercial line that is overtly celebrity-driven." EDITOR'S NOTE: THEN AGAIN, HOW MANY WOULD HAVE SAID HARRY POTTER WAS A GOOD GAMBLE LO THOSE MANY YEARS AGO? ISN'T IT MAINLY A CRAP-SHOOT, THE PUBLISHING BIZ?
The Bloomsbury response is self-assured. "We have made a number of big purchases in the last six months; some very attractive titles came on the market," says Bloomsbury's chairman, Nigel Newton, in the measured, carefully self-censoring way of a man now more accustomed to meeting institutional shareholders in the City than lunching authors in Soho. "We're in a position to do so."
It is certainly a far cry from 1986, when the company set up shop, with a modest chunk of venture capital and no photocopying machine, in an office above a Chinese restaurant in Putney.
Calder, now 68 and no longer full-time, has always been the guiding light of Bloomsbury's identity as a publisher. Her taste and sensibility, which tend towards the literary high end but combine with a knack for finding the enduring "good reads", still inform the list: Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Joanna Trollope and John Irving are a few of her cherished authors. As a champion of writers who has made her mark in an industry once dominated by male editors and gentleman publishers, she commands enormous respect and affection. And Bloomsbury continues to trade on that goodwill, seen as the underdog keeping the spirit of quality, independent publishing alive.
But, 20 years on, the game appears to be changing; the new strategy looks like "big names, big money". But both Calder and surviving co-founder Newton - the other two originators having since retired - are at pains to point out that this is business as usual for Britain's biggest independent.
"All it is," says Calder, "is extending the areas we've always been involved in. The mix has always been part of the list. Its character has not changed." Calder and Newton both point to the recent success of Sheila Hancock's book about her life with John Thaw, The Two of Us, which has sold nearly 1m copies in all editions (hardback and paperback).
But many see the Barlow book, in particular, as a sign of something new and different: Bloomsbury using its cash to muscle in on the mass-market territory of supermarket retailing. To be a player there, you have to have the blockbusters - but does Bloomsbury thereby risk losing its soul?
"The Bloomsbury culture used to be all about growing authors. Now they're acting more like a big publisher - and perhaps overpaying," says Geller. "The challenge is not losing their identity. They have to preserve the values of their brand."
And it is a strong brand - Calder has, according to Publishing News editor Liz Thomson, "impeccable taste". And, now under the direction of editor Alexandra Pringle, Bloomsbury's fiction list is and will continue to be "the heart and soul of the company", in Calder's words. But perhaps the romantic perception of Bloomsbury - that it is some hallowed, uncommercial guardian of English literary culture - is more wishful than real. According to Joanna Briscoe, a recent Bloomsbury author with her last novel, Sleep With Me, it is wrong to pigeonhole Bloomsbury in this way.
"Everyone thinks they're this high-end literary publisher, but they make a lot of money not through Harry Potter," she says. "They do a wonderful job of applying a commercial touch to a thumping great literary novel like Jonathan Strange - and did incredibly well."
Susanna Clark's debut novel repaid its heavy promotion, especially in the US, where it reached number three in the New York Times bestsellers chart. And it is true that, Harry Potter apart, Bloomsbury does have an impressive track record of turning literary novels into crossover hits - going back to Donna Tartt's The Little Friend and, further still, to David Guterson's Snow Falling on Cedars.
It is true, too, that Bloomsbury has always published unabashedly money-making non- fiction.
Its very first list, says Calder, included a Marilyn Monroe photobook. And (though some at Bloomsbury might prefer to) who could forget Anna Pasternak's portrait of James Hewitt? But the new investment in mass-market non- fiction is on a far larger, more systematic scale.
"At a time when every big publisher has been cutting their lists by about 20% a year for the last three years, reducing the overall number of titles to concentrate resources on fewer, Bloomsbury has been growing its list aggressively," says Joel Rickett, deputy editor of the Bookseller. "It's moving in the opposite direction."
So why is Bloomsbury being so bullish? The answer is - odd as it may seem for a publisher with the Midas touch - that it has little choice: it cannot afford to stand still.
Bloomsbury's spectacular trading performance, built on the Harry Potter phenomenon, has been an incredible success story for shareholders, but it has also saddled the company with expectations of spectacular year-on-year growth. Yes, Bloomsbury is independent, in the sense that - unlike the giant publishing conglomerates that now dominate the scene - it is not part of some huge multinational corporation. But, being a plc and quoted on the stock exhange, Bloomsbury must answer to its shareholders. And that creates a fascinating and challenging conundrum for the company.
The fact that Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the latest and sixth in the series, is also the penultimate cannot have escaped the attention of Bloomsbury's shareholders. Newton talks about sustaining the franchise with "launches" of Harry Potter products (audiobooks, cloth-bound boxed sets, and so on) until 2011, but the truth is that after the final volume of JK Rowling's series appears, probably in 2007 and then in paperback in 2008, EDITOR'S NOTE: NEW GOSSIP HAS THESE DATES EACH POSSIBLY PUSHED BACK A YEAR, WITH THE LAST HARD-BACK NOT TILL 2008. (JUST GOSSIP, SO FAR). the company has just three more years of mega-bucks revenues. Of course, Harry Potter will be a fantastic backlist asset, still worth millions of pounds a year, but the £100m-plus turnover figures and double-digit profits are going to have to come from elsewhere.
"They are actively planning for the post-Harry future," says Rickett, "because they're under pressure to bolster their non-Harry Potter list: they've decided they have to increase their scale in trade publishing."
One way to increase scale quickly is simply to buy other publishing houses - agglomeration. That is the route many have followed over the years (take Hachette's recent rolling together of Orion, TimeWarner Books and Hodder Headline) - but with the result that, actually, there's not much left to buy. So the only alternative is to take a course of steroids and get bigger yourself. Hence the recent announcement of a £15m investment in a new "music, film, TV and sport" list (Newton doesn't like it when I refer to it by way of shorthand as the entertainment list). A couple of editors from Bloomsbury's bigger rivals have been headhunted to build the new list, notably Richard Atkinson from Hodder, who has not even started at Bloomsbury yet but has already secured the Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall deal, and Michael Fishwick, a legendary non-fiction editor who published both John Major and Margaret Thatcher in his time at HarperCollins. Clearly, they are saddled with delivering the big-name projects that will boost turnover to the levels City investors will want to see. But even with its new expertise, does it have the know-how to make these work?
There is still much in its favour. While Bloomsbury, as an independent, is a long way short of the scale of the big four multinational conglomerates that dominate UK bookselling - Random House, Hachette, Penguin and HarperCollins - it punches way above its weight. Globally, it is still dwarfed by a company like HarperCollins (itself merely part of a much larger media empire - Rupert Murdoch's) which makes £120m profit in the US alone. But Bloomsbury, as owner of the Harry Potter brand, is considered so valuable that analysts estimate it could command a price three times its annual revenue. It has also stayed small and kept overheads modest - unlike the big four, with their gigantic corporate headquarters and staff of hundreds, Bloomsbury has stayed in its Soho Square Georgian townhouse. "It's very much a team effort; everyone is involved," says Calder. "We are less hierarchical and bureaucratic than the conglomerates."
And this shows, according to Joanna Briscoe, in the experience they can offer to authors. "Even though they're quite large, they've still got a family feel - there's a personal touch. You don't get the feeling of being part of a corporation."
Then there is Bloomsbury's awesome buying power. There is no rival publisher who is not envious of Bloomsbury's £53m war chest. "We're very much aware of how much money they have," says an editor at Penguin, through gritted teeth. "We, and others, have been losing out in some big auctions recently."
With huge advances being paid, though, it is no wonder authors' agents speak more kindly of Bloomsbury. "They use the freedom of being an independent very well," says literary agent David Godwin. "They can make very swift decisions, and publish more creatively - they don't have the bureaucracy of the big multi-nationals, and, unlike them, Bloomsbury has editorial people at the heart of the business."
Multinational it isn't, but Bloomsbury has turned itself into an international player in the past five years. It has invested heavily in two big acquisitions - Berlin Verlag in Germany and Walker Books in the US - giving it real presence and a platform in the two most important markets outside the UK. Newton's ambition, he says, is to be where he is in the UK - in the top five in both countries. That means a lot of hiring and buying and risk in a business where very big corporations are already battling for share in a tight market. Some observers are sceptical.
"They're not known for doing the sort of books that make massive autumn leads," comments an editor at Penguin. "It remains to be seen whether they can pull it off." EDITOR'S NOTE: BITTER?
"It's always a challenge - there's always a mountain to climb," says Calder. "But one of the prime requirements for a publisher is optimism, and I believe Bloomsbury's future is bright."
But in the soon-to-be post Harry Potter future, an occasional hit like Hancock's The Two of Us won't do. The plan has to be to supply the trade with a steady stream of "bankers" every season - books like Jamie Oliver's Italy, John Peel and Sheila Ravenscroft's Margrave of the Marshes and Sharon Osbourne's Extreme (published by Penguin, Transworld and TimeWarner respectively). These big "leads" may be more predictable in the sense that they usually sell, but the problem is that they cost such vast sums to buy in the first place and even more to promote - precisely because they're a rare commodity.
"Scale is driven by retail," explains Joel Rickett. "To get books into Tesco's, you need a regular supply of blockbusters to have a relationship with the mass-market buyers."
Will Bloomsbury succeed? Newton is not contemplating failure. I ask if the prospect of shareholders breathing down his neck ever makes him nervous: "Not remotely. It's what makes the job exciting. I'm enjoying every minute of it ... Shareholders are receiving high levels of growth from us. And they will go on getting it." EDITOR'S NOTE: MAYBE THEY SHOULD TEACH THE SHAREHOLDERS NOT TO BE SO GREEDY. BOOK PUBLISHING IS NOTORIOUSLY FLUKEY, AND SURELY EVEN THE GREEDIEST OF STOCKHOLDERS DOESN'T EXPECT EVERY BOOK TO BE HARRY POTTER. (THAT'S BEYOND GREED; THAT'S JUST STUPID).
He does not acknowledge the scenario that, in a few years' time, investors might decide that they've had Bloomsbury's best years and take their funds elsewhere. Or that, with slowing growth, shareholders might begin to look with interest at a takeover offer. Either scenario is, in Rickett's view, "a clear and present danger".
But perhaps there is one trump card Bloomsbury still holds in its hand: its relationship with its most famous author. The Harry Potter series may be coming to an end, but does anyone seriously believe the seventh volume will be the last book Rowling ever writes? Given the success she has shared with Bloomsbury, it seems unlikely she would move - and as the Penguin editor observes, "No one can afford her in the way that Bloomsbury can afford her."
What will Bloomsbury do next? It might all depend on what JK Rowling does next. EDITOR'S NOTE: I CAN'T WAIT TO SEE WHAT SHE DOES NEXT!
Beyond Potter: Bloomsbury's other hits
The children's list may be dominated by a certain Master Potter, but Bloomsbury has had other successes with children's books. Holes, set in a detention centre for juveniles, has sold over a million copies, found a place in the BBC Big Read's top 100, and was made into a well-received movie.
The Blind Assassin
The story of Iris, an octogenarian looking back on her life, and Laura, an author of pulpy romances, it won the 2000 Booker prize - which had to happen, eventually. Atwood had been nominated three times before, for The Handmaid's Tale, Cat's Eye, and Alias Grace.
The Two of Us
Bloomsbury won this in a major auction, and, coming just after Pamela Stephenson's book about Billy Connolly, The Two of Us helped give birth to a new genre of wives writing about their husbands. Along with Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, it contributed to a 64% rise in sales in the adult division in 2004 - and has also attained the status of most-borrowed library book about the performing arts.
The Kite Runner
A first novel that Bloomsbury likes to see as an example of its commitment to new writers. The story of an orphan growing up in pre- Soviet Afghanistan, it has been a massive word-of-mouth and reading-group success.
Schott's Original Miscellany
An idiosyncratic phenomenon, which Schott initially self-published in 2002, making only 50 copies. A friend persuaded him to send it to a publisher - and Nigel Newton picked it up. It was an instant Christmas bestseller, and an obvious candidate for spinoffs. The three volumes of Miscellanies have sold more than 2m copies worldwide.