Nigel Newton conceived the idea of Bloomsbury in February 1984 whilst on leave from Sidgwick & Jackson Publishers following the birth of his first daughter, Catherine. He decided to start a new, independent, medium-sized publisher of books of editorial excellence and originality with high standards of design and production. It would publish literary authors of the highest quality and sales potential.
During the London Book Fair in March 1985, David Reynolds, a publisher with Shuckburgh Reynolds, joined Newton and the two of them began meeting early each morning to plan the detail of the company that was to be, before going off to their day jobs elsewhere in publishing. By May 1986 and with plentiful advice from Mike Mayer, a venture capitalist who later became a non-executive director on the Board of Bloomsbury, they wrote a business plan which served initially as a fundraising document and, to this day, as an operating manual for the company. It incorporated several unique ideas, including the creation of the Bloomsbury Authors’ Trust, which was to own 5% of the company on behalf of the future authors of Bloomsbury whose books were to be published between the founding of the company in 1986 and its flotation on the stock market in 1994.
Newton chose the name Bloomsbury not only as Bloomsbury Way was the street where his previous company was based and because he liked the name, but also as it was the neighbourhood of London associated with traditional publishing at a time when the industry was being taken over by foreign owned multinational conglomerates, who were moving out to more distant parts of London. An intimation of the Bloomsbury Group was not the idea, but did no harm.
Newton and Reynolds approached the first investors in May 1986 and one of them, ECI, was to come through with £500,000 of the £1.75 million which they were seeking to raise. At this time, Newton approached Alan Wherry of Penguin, who was to become the first Marketing Director of Bloomsbury, also responsible for sales and publicity, and Liz Calder of Jonathan Cape, who was to become Editorial Director in charge of all fiction publishing and some non-fiction. David Reynolds would commission the main non-fiction list.
After some hiccups along the way, three investors, being Caledonia Investments, who were the lead investor, ECI, and Legal and General Ventures came on board. The four publishers set about conceiving a logo for the new company. Liz Calder suggested Diana, Goddess of Hunting, and a brief was given to Newell & Sorrell, the designers, who came up with our colophon and a specially designed typeface for the company’s name. During August 1986, the four resigned en masse on the same day from their existing jobs. By late September, a day was chosen when briefings about the new publishing house would be given in secret to Louis Baum, Editor of The Bookseller, and Rodney Burbeck of Publishing News, and also to journalists from The Times and The Guardian. All four stories appeared on the same day and the existence of Bloomsbury was thus announced to a surprised publishing industry. The same day, Baring Brothers Hambrecht & Quist, the fourth and final investor, was secured, and they were most impressed that the company they were expected to help start had already been launched earlier that day.
Newton had booked a stand at that October’s Frankfurt Book Fair in the name of Bloomsbury three months previously and the company simply had to exist by the following week when the Book Fair was to begin. Five days after the press announcement, the four were standing on their beautifully designed stand in Frankfurt with not a single book on it. At the same time, Liz Calder signed up Bloomsbury’s first book, Trust by Mary Flanagan, and David Reynolds signed up the first titles in the company’s non-fiction programme. The industry came to visit the Frankfurt stand in fascination that the five-day-old publisher had only quarter bottles of Bollinger to offer, but no books yet.
Premises were found above a Chinese restaurant in Putney near where Newton and Reynolds lived and the new company was based there for three months as they began to recruit future colleagues, ranging from Kathy Rooney, who was to found the company’s reference list, to Nigel Batt, who was to become the first Finance Director. Caroline Michel became the first Publicity Director and Lucy Juckes the first Sales Manager. Alan Wherry and Lucy Juckes began recruiting a sales force and their choice of Northern Sales Rep was David Ward, later Sales Director of Bloomsbury. They negotiated discounts and opened accounts with some 2000 booksellers around the world and stockholding agents in the Commonwealth such as Allen & Unwin in Australia. Ruth Logan was recruited into the Rights Department and Sarah Beal into the Publicity Department, with Penny Edwards later joining the Production Department. All three rose to head their departments in later years. Mary Tomlinson became Assistant Editor to Liz Calder.
The company entered a mode of vertical take-off with tremendous conviction as it commissioned its first year’s list and at the same time prepared to publish it only six months later, on 2 April 1987, when Trust came out together with The Land That Lost Its Heroes by Jimmy Burns, a book about Argentina and the Falklands war which went on to win the Somerset Maugham award. There was a tremendous launch party that night at the Braganza restaurant in Frith Street in Soho. Trust went straight into the Sunday Times bestseller list in the number 5 position.
A number of design innovations made the look of each Bloomsbury book quite distinctive, ranging from a reading ribbon in each novel, which was Reynolds’ idea, to wide flaps on the jackets, and the high standard of paper, typography, and book production. Newton chose the ISBN prefix 747 as £747,000 was the company’s profit target in its 5 year business plan.
Highlights of the company’s first Christmas season in 1987 were the launch of Presumed Innocent by the new author Scott Turow and Marilyn Among Friends by Sam Shaw and Norman Rosten. At this time, Liz Calder also signed up Jeanette Winterson, as well as Margaret Atwood and, in short order, John Irving, Joanna Trollope, Brian Moore, Jay McInerney, Nadine Gordimer, and Michael Ondaatje. These authors – old and new – were to win literary prizes from the Booker Prize to the Pulitzer and the Nobel in the years ahead. Calder’s list of brilliant literary authors was to become the soul of the new Bloomsbury. By December 1987, the company finished its first full year with a staff of 26, a turnover of £2,231,198 (which rose to £163,000,000 by 2019) and a vibrant new presence in world publishing. The company is now one of the world’s leading independent publishing houses.