30 Dec 2015 at 12:00
Back in 1998 I started Politico’s Publishing. I made a very big mistake in 2003 by selling it to Methuen. I thought I had taken it as far as I could and the list would benefit from being part of a bigger company. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Within two months I knew I had done the wrong thing and I left the company. The new owners ran it into the ground and within a short time it ceased to exist in any meaningful way. It is now totally defunct. Five years later I started Total Politics Magazine and within a year we had decided to revive the art of political publishing. There was a gap in the market and I decided to fill it. Again. And so Biteback Publishing was formed. Since then we have published nearly 500 books. I don’t know how many we published at Politico’s in the five years I owned it, but it must have been around 100.
So, to get to the point, I’ve had the bright idea of choosing the top 20 books I have ever published. These aren’t necessarily the best selling ones, or even the best, but they are books which I got a huge satisfaction out of publishing and many would not have made it onto the bookshelves without me taking them on, seeing as virtually all the large publishers have dumbed down to such an extent that they ignore political books nowadays…
When I started Biteback in 2009 part of our mission was to become a monopoly political publisher within five years. We may not publish every political book on the market, but we’ve come pretty damned close in a very short time. So here goes (in no particular order).
Power Trip by Damian McBride
Bearing in mind my history with Damian (I was one of those smeared in ‘Smeargate’ in 2009) many thought it was deeply ironic I published Damian’s story. But I chased him for around 18 months before pen was put to paper on the contract. Damian was an absolute model author. He delivered the cleanest manuscript we had ever received. It almost didn’t need an edit. It has so far proved to be our second best selling book ever, selling more than 25,000 copies.
Here Today Gone Tomorrow by John Nott
John Nott hadn’t been seen in politics for more or less twenty years but when he approached me to publish his memoirs I was very keen indeed. He proved to be a difficult negotiator on the contract and I remember spending two hours going through it with him line by line. At the end I said to him: “You do realise I haven’t agreed to a single change, don’t you?” “Yes,” he said, “but it’s been good fun, hasn’t it?” I realised he really missed the cut and thrust of politics and business. It was a very honest book and very odd in some ways in that the first chapter was all about his ancestor taking part in the Afghan Wars of the 19th century, and the last was all about his views on supermarkets. But it sold very well, and despite being a cantankerous old bugger, he was a pleasure to deal with.
Fourth Among Equals by Bill Rodgers
We had a lot of trouble over the title of this book. Bill Rodgers was the least well known of the so-called Gang of Four who launched the SDP, but Bill is a very proud man and took a bit of convincing. It remains one of the best political autobiographies I have ever published and as an author he was a delight to deal with.
Getting out Alive by Roger Mosey
This book was published in July 2015 and I’d class this as one of the most elegantly written books I’ve published. Roger has held virtually every senior post there is to hold at the BBC without actually becoming DG. Given his career path I am astonished that he is one of the nicest people I have ever met. I’d have thought 30 years in the higher echelons in BBC management would have turned him into an egotistical narcissist, but not a bit of it. He hasn’t sought to diss the BBC at all, but despite that this book is a real page turner for anyone who has worked in the media.
Tory Pride & Prejudice by Michael McManus
This history of homosexuality and the Conservative Party remains one of the best books I have published. I wanted to call it QUEER BLUE WATER but Michael wouldn’t have it, and I have a policy of never forcing a title on an author, although this is the closest I have come to it! When I read the manuscript for the first time I rang Michael and told him: “Even if this book never sells a single copy, you should be very proud of writing it.” Its sales figures were very disappointing, but I stick to the view that this book is a fantastic piece of work, which anyone interested in gender politics or the modern history of the Tory Party should read.
Breaking the Code by Gyles Brandreth
I remain of the view that this was the best political book of the 1990s and that’s why I republished it last year in hardback, with a couple of up to date chapters. Even as a £25 hardback reprint it did amazingly well so we then brought out a paperback version this year. Gyles has a brilliant way with words, and these diaries are massively indiscreet and brilliantly written. If you want to understand the Major government, this is a book you simply have to read.
Second Term by Simon Walters
Politico’s Publishing, 2001
I love reading novels with a Westminster based plot, which is why I agreed to publish this book. I don’t really normally publish political fiction because it is a very difficult genre to sell into bookshops and it’s easy to catch a financial cold. But this book was so good – and prophetic as it turned out – I took a big risk with it. In the end it sold out in hardback (2000 copies, which is great for hardback fiction) and Simon went on to get a five figure advance from a publisher which sadly soon went out of business – mainly because they kept paying five figure advances!
You Alone May Live by Mary Blewitt
Back in 2007 I went to Rwanda to report on a Conservative Party social action project. Before I went I met Mary Blewitt, originally from Rwanda but now living in London. Many members of her family had been killed in the 1994 genocide. She accompanied us to Kigali and her story really affected me. In an interview with her we both broke down. Hers was one of the first books I published at Biteback, and although sales were disappointing, her story is incredibly powerful and it is a book I am proud to have published.
When my Husband Does the Dishes by Kerry Sackville
I met Kerry Sackville on a trip to Australia in June 2011 when I interviewed her at 4 in the morning when I was broadcasting my show live back to the UK. She made a real impression on me and her book, which was a bestseller in Australia was brilliantly funny. I signed a two book deal with her, for what was a massive amount of money for us at the time. Sadly neither book did the business for us, but I remain of the view that they deserved to do much better. Somehow the British media just didn’t want to support the book, which is all about the life of a woman with two young children and a husband who does the dishes only when he’s after a bit of rumpy pumpy. One of the lowlights of my publishing career was when Mumsnet demanded £5000 to run an interview with Kerry on their website. They were told where they could stick it.
Prime Minister Portillo & Other Things That Never Happened ed Duncan Brack & Iain Dale
Politico’s Publishing, 2003
I’ve always loved counterfactual history so in 2003 Duncan Brack and I commissioned fifteen or so writers to write a series of essays on political events that might have turned out differently. I wrote the title chapter and wrote it as fiction, rather than an alternate history. The book did reasonably well and it was followed by President Gore and Prime Minister Boris. In mid 2016 we’re publishing Prime Minister Corbyn and Other Things That Never Happened.
Out in the Army by James Wharton
James Wharton was a soldier in the British army, and he was gay. I met James at a function in London and he told me he was writing a book. I was like a rat at a trap and was delighted when he signed up with Biteback. It’s a warts and all story, very moving at very emotional. There’s little doubt that James played a big role in encouraging the upper echelons of the army to think seriously about gay equality and his subsequent celebrity is a mark of the importance of him blazing a trail for others.
Jim Bleat for Prime Minister by Margaret Woodhouse
Politico’s Publishing, 2001
I signed this book up at the 2000 Frankfurt Book Fair from a New Zealand author. She uses the story a sheep to explain politics to young readers. I thought it was a brilliant way of doing it, but sadly British bookshops just couldn’t see it, and nor could schools. We recorded a CD with politicians reading different chapters (including John Redwood, whose ‘baaing’ was magnificent.
Hate by Matthew Collins
Matthew Collins used to a self-confessed racist. He even took part in a violent racist attack. But he then saw the light and renounced his previously held views and became an evangelist for anti-racism views. When he came to see me to suggest the book I was in two minds as to whether it would work, but work it did. His story is very rough and ready. I think in the original manuscript there were 94 ‘fucks’ and 10 ‘cunts’. I insisted they all stayed. Indeed, until I had met Matthew I had never called an author a ‘cunt’ – well not to their faces anyway. His reaction demonstrated to me we were going to get on. And we did. It’s a really important book for anyone wanting to understand and combat racism.
Inside Out by Peter Watt & Isabel Oakeshott
This was the biggest book in terms of serialisation and publicity that Biteback published in its first twelve months. It was a very personal story by the man who Gordon Brown effectively sacked as General Secretary of the Labour Party. It was a very quick turnaround. From the day I first met Peter and Isabel to the day of publication was about eight weeks. I love books for which time is the essence. Secrecy was also very important because we knew that the Brown spin machine would burst into action very quickly. When they eventually found out about the book, the day before the serialisation started, they were completely wrongfooted.
Stand Up for Your Manhood by Peter Lloyd
I’ve always thought it was about time someone wrote a book defending men, masculinity and all that goes with it. This is that book. It’s not an anti-feminist book, and it’s not anti-women but what it is is pro men. It’s also very funny. It looks at all sorts of issues men have to cope with and it’s a book that ought to be required reading for any woman wanting to understand men. But then again, so few do!!! Controversial! Peter Lloyd is now editing a new ‘Male’ section of MailOnline. All power to his elbow!
The Welfare State We’re in by James Bartholomew
Politico’s Publishing, 2004
I commissioned this book in my final days at Politico’s and it remains a book I am really proud to say that without me it probably wouldn’t have seen the light of day. It’s sold very well and we’ve now reissued it at Biteback. To question the very essence of the welfare state is considered almost beyond the pale in this country but in this book James Bartholomew cites the evidence which he says proves that many aspects of the welfare state have merely accentuated society’s problems rather than helped solve them. Whether you agree or disagree with his conclusions no one could deny that this is a hugely important book.
When One Door closes by Peter Sissons
Peter Sissons has always been a bit of a broadcasting hero of mine so when he came to me asking me to publish his memoirs I was very keen. I was even keener after I read the draft manuscript as I knew it would create many waves in the media sector. Peter has had a stellar career as a news reporter and news reader. He also has very strong views about how the news sector works, or often doesn’t. He made some very critical comments about the BBC and how it works, and how its news judgement can be defective and at times biased. He knew he would get it in the neck from liberal traditionalists and sure enough, that’s what happened. But they all knew he was right, even if they couldn’t admit it.
Project Fear by Joe Pike
All publishers dream of discovering talented new authors who are brilliant writers, and I feel this is what has happened with Joe Pike. Joe interned at Total Politics and I then worked with him at LBC. He’s now a reporter with Scottish ITV. He approached me with an idea for a retrospective book on the Scottish referendum. To be honest I wasn’t keen and almost turned it down outright, but in the end I asked him to send a couple of sample chapters. They were brilliant. Joe writes non fiction as if it were dramatic fiction. He really knows how to tell a story and his sources were fabulous. This is without a shadow of a doubt the best book I published in 2015.
Call me Dave by Michael Ashcroft & Isabel Oakeshott
For reasons I needn’t explain, this book attracted more publicity and sales than any other in my 17 years of publishing. The four weeks following its newspaper serialisation were somewhat surreal. I was attacked from all sides for publishing a book with a couple of single sourced stories. I mean, the crime. Journalists who should have known better didn’t seem to understand the difference between a book and a newspaper article. Most biographies contain countless stories that are not double sourced, but it seemed this book was always going to be judged in a different light to others.
In My Own Time by Jeremy Thorpe
Politico’s Publishing, 1999
In late 1998 I got a call from someone who said he was Jeremy Thorpe.‘Yeah, right,’ I thought. He was barely audible and spoke in a whisper. Anyway, it did turn out to be the former Liberal leader, a man my mother considered a bit of a hero until the trial of 1979. Thorpe hadn’t ever written a book and had been a bit of a recluse for 25 years. He invited me to his home in Orme Square and we discussed his idea for a book. Truth be told, the book wasn’t that good or revelatory, but the fact he wrote it was news in itself. It also put Politico’s Publishing on the map. John and I became friends with Marion and Jeremy and the six months I spent working with him on the book were fascinating. Despite his advancing Parkinsons Jeremy had lost none of his interest in politics and we had some fascinating conversations. I still treasure those memories.