John Blake: Gentleman John
The Bookseller 12 September 2002
John Blake says that if he were motivated by status, the office in which this interview takes place would be more impressive. Instead of two second-hand leatherette sofas, a ring-stained coffee table and one of those bedsit sofa beds that work neither as a sofa nor as a bed, the meeting room of his Fulham headquarters would be decked out in designer flash: Tom Dixon lamps, Arne Jacobson chairs, that sort of thing. But these are suitably downbeat surroundings for the publisher of The Guv’nor, Hard Bastards and the tastefully entitled account of Jill Dando’s murder, Dead on Time.
Blake’s critics say that he put the grub into Grub Street when he set up Blake Publishing 12 years ago. Not that he pays much heed to them. “Thank God there are a few of those types left,” he says when told one publisher described him as a “spiv”. “As long as they are up in their ivory towers, I can carry on in my own little niche. That was the attitude when I started, and it is wonderful.”
The bravura is familiar to those who know him, as one Fleet Street insider points out–”He knows how he is regarded by a lot of the industry, and affects not to be concerned.” But there is a note of uncomprehending pride in Blake’s voice. “These people with trust funds, who don’t make a profit and who just sell 500 copies, I have great respect for them, but what they do is nothing to do with the real world of publishing for me.”
By “real” he means “profitable”, because publishing for Blake is not a vocation, it is a means to a lifestyle. And he has a very nice lifestyle indeed, enjoying a £1m home on the banks of the Thames, yachts, an art collection and long sailing holidays in the Caribbean and the Med.
It is a far cry from his days as the premier pop columnist, jetting around the world in search of exclusives–exposés of Madonna in Tokyo, rolling with the Stones in New York and getting pissed with the Pistols in Baton Rouge.
It would be too easy to see the roots of his determination to make it to Millionaires’ Row in his childhood, which he admits was “shambolic”. Born in Hitchin, one of those satellite towns through which the M1 passes on its way to London, he and his four siblings moved house every other year and watched their army major father lose all his money. Blake fights shy of such attempts at cod psychology. “Perhaps it influenced me a bit,” he concedes reluctantly.
At 10, he had a damascene conversion to journalism after reading Ray Connolly’s interviews in the London Evening Standard, though he claims that his career “stumbled” along the traditional path to Fleet Street: local papers, doorstepping for a news agency, regional dailies, then Fleet Street. On the now defunct London Evening News, he wrote Ad Lib, a proto-pop column, which was picked up by the Evening Standard when the News was closed.
Blake’s account of his career is peppered with vivid anecdotes, as one would expect from a man who understands good copy. Run-ins with the rich, spats with the Hello! pack and colourful tales of media moguls. He portrays himself as an accidental tourist. But you do not get to be editor of a top selling tabloid by accident, nor to run a successful publishing company.
Blake claims not to be an opportunist, but he has taken risks others would balk at. Even a spell as head of marketing at Fox Films following an approach to Rupert Murdoch in a Kensington pub, after his journalistic career was cut short by Robert Maxwell. Within a week of approaching Murdoch, Blake had been flown to Los Angeles and offered the marketing job. He says he was out of his depth, with no knowledge of films or marketing, but he took the job anyway.
Given his brash professional background, one might expect Blake to be a caricature of self-made vulgarity. He is not. Instead he is softly spoken, disarming and understated in dress, nearer Murdoch than Maxwell in manner. If one of his East End authors were to give him a gang name it would be Gentleman John.
His first brush with Murdoch was at the Sun, which he joined in 1982 at the height of editor Kelvin McKenzie’s reign. There he launched Bizarre, the groundbreaking pop column which spawned a host of “me toos” and more than one Fleet Street editor–one of Blake’s successors was Mirror editor Piers Morgan.
Among the imitators was the Mirror’s White Hot Club column, which Blake edited after being poached by Maxwell. Resisting approaches from Murdoch to return, he remained with Maxwell to become editor of the Sunday People, a job he had long coveted but soon despised. “As a journalist you think the editor has tremendous power to manage the paper and make it what they want it to be.” The truth was far different. “The first thing Maxwell did was sit me down and say: ‘Right, I want you to prepare a plan to cut your annual budget by £500,000.’
“So the very first job I did wasn’t some great creative story or hiring a columnist, it was to make a hit list of people I was supposed to fire.” It was not journalism, he says, it was accountancy.
Maxwell’s notorious capriciousness cost Blake the job after the mogul was caught out by an interviewer from the Wall Street Journal who questioned Mirror Group Newspapers’ bid for the National Enquirer. The journalist asked why there was not a c.e.o. for MGN’s US operation. Blake was in the room with Maxwell, who was floundering. “He always tended to say the first thing that came into his head, so he looked at me and replied: ‘I have today announced that John Blake is president of Mirror Group Newspapers USA.’ He just winked at me, but that was my career gone.”
The experiences soured Blake’s taste for power management, which is, he says, one reason he has not acquired more companies since starting in publishing. “I have had opportunities to take over more companies, and we have the finance. I have thought very seriously of doing it, but the problem is that you come back to how I felt when I was an editor: you end up sat in your office worrying about money.”
In the past 12 years, Blake has bought Smith Gryphon and Metro, and failed in a bid for André Deutsch, which went to Carlton. In March came the announcement that the Blake Publishing founding partnership of Blake and his brother David was dissolved. John Blake Publishing was created, with John as sole proprietor. JBP commissions frontlist, while the Blake Publishing name has been retained to publish and sell backlist. Sales at JBP in the 11 months from February 2000 to end-December 2000 were £1.1m. Sales at Blake Publishing fell from £2.6m to £1.6m in the year to end-December 2000.
The usually loquacious Blake becomes noticeably tight-lipped and subdued when asked about the split with his brother. It was acrimonious, and though they were once very close, they do not talk now. “It was the nastiest thing that has ever happened to me,” he says, though quite what “it” is remains a mystery. He will not reveal details “for legal reasons”. “All I can say is that our accounts were in a terrible mess and we fell out after that. It was like a divorce.”
The bitterness of the break is made all the more poignant by the fact that David Blake, who owned a directory publishing business, initially funded John’s publishing start-up. Unhappy at the prospect of returning to Fleet Street after parting company with Murdoch, John Blake was asked to ghost books, and decided to publish them himself. “Blake Publishing was born out of desperation,” he admits.
Those early days sound astonishingly naive. He worked alone in his spare bedroom for the first six months, before being joined by Rosie Ries, an old colleague from Fleet Street, now Blake’s deputy managing director.
A complete novice in the book trade, he found out about printing by phoning printer Cox & Wyman after he discovered the company’s name in a paperback similar to the ones he wished to publish. “I asked what the cost would be to print a book like the one I had, and they said £4,000 or something along those lines. I asked if that was absolutely everything I had to pay for, if all I had to do was give them the manuscript and they would do it all? They said yes, except of course for typesetting. I thought this typesetting was a trick to charge me extra.”
Within the year, they had a Sunday Times bestseller, Wensley Clarkson’s Hell Hath No Fury, about women killers. It could have been a number one, he says, but “no one knew who we were and the shops couldn’t reorder it”. The company’s success was helped by W H Smith’s then adult books product manager Chris Rushby, who, Blake says, “was fantastic”.
“I really believe I wouldn’t have got through my first year without Chris’ help. He was brilliant.” He adds: “There is not that sort of support for new publishers now, certainly not from the big chains. They haven’t the time. It is much more budget driven.” A cloud of nostalgia passes across his famously boyish face.
Journalist at heart
From the first, Blake used his Fleet Street contacts to the full. He is regarded by hacks as one of their own. “He knows a lot of people, because he was around for a long time. He is a former journalist, so he knows what works for us, and is a pleasure to deal with,” says Marilyn Warnick, who buys serial for the Mail on Sunday.
Though Blake admits he “wouldn’t be in business without serial deals in the early days”–in the first year a biography of actor David Jason netted £80,000 from the MoS–he has weathered the collapse of this market. “We don’t even take serial into the equation now. The biggest deal we have had in the last six months is for £20,000: a front-page story and four pages inside. It was the kind of story that would have got £80,000 six or seven years ago.”
Blake rarely takes agents into the equation. Claims that he hates them are, he maintains, untrue, but his hostility is barely disguised when he says most agents think they are “scraping the barrel” when they submit to JBP. About 10% of Blake Publishing’s books are agented, more than 50% of its titles are commissioned, based on ideas generated inhouse, the rest are unsolicited mss, often from journalists. “I am the only publisher most journalists know.”
Asked whether he regards himself as publisher or journalist, he is unequivocal: “I am a journalist at heart.” And he describes the veiled hostility that exists between the two professions. “Publishers don’t really like journalists by and large. They don’t trust them, they are wary of them. And all most journalists get from publishers is dull press releases. There is no interchange.”
Blake’s unashamed pursuit of the mass market is firmly rooted in Fleet Street, and he gives short shrift to publishing sensibilities that regard the commercial as vulgar. “When we started, there were a lot of publishers who were more concerned about prestige than profit. It was a weird attitude that doesn’t exist in other industries.”
There is little he would not publish– he draws the line at killers’ memoirs. “We had a treatment from Ian Brady. We wouldn’t touch it. Dennis Nilsen approached us too, and we wouldn’t do that.” An admirer of Michael O’Mara, he says he would have thought twice about publishing one of O’Mara’s recent hits, The Little Book of Farting. “Hats off to him for doing it, though.”
There have been well documented run-ins with authors (see “Pyramid selling” box, page 21), most notoriously with Eton-educated crook Darius Guppy and with Princess Diana’s former lover James Hewitt, although Blake claims he has patched up his differences with Hewitt.
He has no qualms about publishing the memoirs of criminals, preferring to see them in a long, romantic tradition that stretches back to Robin Hood. “Dick Turpin was essentially a mugger. These are just a modern extension of that.”
Blake’s reputation has created problems of typecasting. His list is dominated by the gritty and the strange-but-true, yet there are a handful of upmarket titles in the catalogue, such as The Harry’s Bar Cook Book. He plans to publish the more upmarket titles under Metro in future. “People have this image of me doing blue-collar books, so we can’t get Blake books reviewed in the press, whereas they haven’t quite realised that Metro is part of us yet.”
Noel Botham’s widely reviewed Valentino: The First Superstar, published in the spring, is an early beneficiary of the change. “I have a feeling that if it had been a Blake book, it wouldn’t have had that kind of coverage.”
The arrival of Metro has forced Blake to take the top floor of its Fulham offices, previously leased to a software company. The move upstairs will involve buying new furniture. But he will not be splashing out on designer names. Looking at the piles of books and the second-hand furniture around him, Blake laughs and says: “We are thinking of buying the new desks from Ikea, but even after all this time, I am asking whether we can really afford to go there. They keep teasing me about it, but it still seems extravagant to me.”