- Can you tell us about your career and the history of Biteback Publishing?
I started Biteback in 2009 having sold my previous publishing company, Politico’s, in 2003. There seemed to be a gap in the market again for a niche political publisher so I decided to fill it. We publish around 80 titles a year, but we’re a small company. While politics and current affairs are our staples, we also publish some gay related titles and some football books too. My other job is presenting LBC Radio’s Drivetime show every day between 4pm and 7pm. It’s primarily phone-in based and we cover quite a lot of gay and equality issues. I’ve always been involved in politics and the media in some way. I started out as a researcher in parliament after I graduated from UEA in 1985 with a degree in German. I then went into lobbying, consultancy and conference organisation before opening Politicos, a political bookshop in 1997. I tried to be a Tory MP but the electorate fought back! I’ve been on LBC since 2010 and it’s the best job I’ve ever had.
- You’ve made a real commitment to publishing books on LGBT themes, why is that important to you as a book publisher?
I suppose I like publishing books in areas I know something about. I’ve actually only published 11 gay themed books, it has to be said with mixed success. There are very few bookshops in this country that make a conscious effort to promote gay titles. We’re grateful to Gay’s the Word, but it’s disappointing that mainstream bookshops haven’t targeted a gay customer base in the same way that American bookshops do.
- Which are your personal favourites from the LGBT collection?
The most successful one is James Wharton’s OUT IN THE ARMY, which told the story of him being the first ‘out’ member of the armed forces. His second book, SOMETHING FOR THE WEEKEND: LIFE IN THE CHEMSEX UNDERWORLD came out in July and has one of the best covers I think we’ve ever done. It depicts a gay threesome and a line of coke. Look it up on Amazon!
- Why was it important to publish Lord Fowler’s book on HIV and AIDS?
This was one of those books which I decided to publish even though I wasn’t convinced it would actually be profitable. I rarely decide to offer a publishing deal if I know the book will make a loss, but Norman Fowler was so passionate in wanting to write this book that I decided to give it a whirl. In the end it sold far more copies than I had predicted.
- What personal impact did the HIV and AIDS epidemic have on you as a gay man?
To be honest, not a lot. I didn’t do anything sexually with another man until 1990, when I was 28. I didn’t fully come out until I was 40. I always knew I was gay but never sought out opportunities to act on it. When I did eventually discover the delights of gay sex (!) I suppose I made up for lost time in the first few years. Ok, I was a bit of a slapper. I became slightly addicted to the London sauna scene. In those days saunas became what would be known nowadays as a bit of a ‘safe space’ for gay men. Some saw them as breeding grounds for disease and places of real ill repute. I must admit, I thought they provided a social service in some ways.
- Have you had much controversy from James Wharton’s books on being a gay soldier and the chemsex scene?
James is a great writer and tells a good yarn. SOMETHING FOR THE WEEKEND is both deeply moving and deeply shocking, especially to someone of my age and background who has always had a rather puritanical approach to drugs. When I read his sample chapter I knew he had an important message to impart and I know the book will be a big success. Perhaps not one to buy your grandmother for Christmas, though.
- You have another big job as an LBC phone in presenter, have you faced any trouble on air because you are gay?
I remember a phonein where a lady from Glasgow was telling me how sinful it was to have gay sex and how disgusting it was and all homosexuals were going to hell. Eventually I had to put her out of her misery and said: “You do realise you’re talking to one, don’t you?” There followed a couple of seconds of silence and then she said: “Oh I don’t mean you!”
I don’t obsess about doing gay related subjects but when they’re in the news I’ll happily cover them. I remember doing an hour long phone-in on male rape a few years ago. I did wonder whether we’d get a single call, but within ten minutes the switchboard was rammed full. Once one person talks about it, it gives others licence to. I like to think that our discussions have enabled many gay men to be much more open about who they are and talk about issues which would previously have been regarded as taboo.
- What other books from Biteback would you recommend to our readers for Christmas gifts?
Caroline Paige’s book TRUE COLOURS is an inspirational autobiography of her experience as an openly Trans member of the armed forces.. NOT GUILTY is a collection of queer stories from a century of discrimination and is a riveting read, while Lynne Featherstone’s first hand account of how equal marriage came about in EQUAL EVER AFTER perhaps shows that contrary to popular rumour, individual politicians can make a difference to all out lives.