Last week I announced I was leaving Biteback Publishing, the company I founded back in 2009. It marked an end to twenty years in publishing. Back in 1998 I started Politico’s Publishing, having spotted that there was a real gap in the political publishing market. My colleagues Sean Magee and John Schwartz and I published some brilliant books, but 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 more than 600 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.
I’ve worked with some brilliant people over the years at Politico’s and Biteback. James Stephens has been with me from day 1 at Biteback and I truly couldn’t have done it without him. Hollie Teague and Olivia Beattie have been fantastic managing editors. They both send me cards when I announced I was leaving with the most lovely sentiments, which I have to admit brought more than a tear to my eye. I’m also very proud that we have given jobs to many people who started with us as interns and after getting a grounding with us have gone on to achieve great things in the publishing industry. Nam Kwan Cho is the best cover designer in the business, and on the PR and marketing side Suzanne Sangster (now at Head of Zeus) and Katy Scholes (now travelling the world after a successful stint at Sky News) were brilliant to work with. I’ll never forget their outstanding work in creating and running the Political Book Awards. Isabelle Ralphs, who currently handles the press side at Biteback is a star in the making and really stepped up to the plate at a difficult time. Andy McNab is inheriting a talented team.
So, to get to the point, given it’s unlikely I will ever return to publishing books, I’ve decided to choose the best 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…
Coalition by David Laws
When David Laws approached me about this book, it took me a nanosecond to say yes. His previous book on the Coalition negotiations back in 2010 was one of the first books I published, and it sold very well indeed. One reason why I was so quick to say yes was because David told me he would have full access to Nick Clegg’s diaries. He was obviously keen to get the LibDem version of the coalition out there before anyone else did, and he knew we could publish quickly. The book came out only 10 months after the coalition ended. It got rave reviews and sold well in both hardback and paperback, which is a rarity nowadays. Last autumn I also published his Coalition Diaries, and next year he’s got a biography of Lord Kitchener coming out with Biteback. And he’s been an absolute pleasure to work with.
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.
The Alastair Campbell Diaries
Biteback, 2016 & 2017
Random Hous epublished the initial four volumes of the Campbell diaries, but they seemed to lose interest. I read every one of them and thought they were fantastic. I had got to know Alastair over the years, mainly through my LBC show, and I had told him I’d happily publish the diaries if ever Random House didn’t want to continue. When that moment came I instantly signed up the next four volumes. Volume 5 and 6 have now been published, with Volume 7 coming out this autumn, covering the Brown years. Alastair is an absolute pleasure to publish. He’s a perfectionist and knows how to sell books. Some authors think their job is over the moment they deliver the manuscript. Alastair knows the most important bit is yet to come.
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.
Clean Brexit by Liam Halligan & Gerard Lyons
Liam Halligan approached me at the beginning of 2017 with an idea for a co-authored short paperback on how Brexit could be achieved cleanly and quickly. His idea was to write 50,000 words to be published on the first anniversary of Brexit in June 2017. Well, it quickly became a much larger project as Liam and Gerry really got into it. It quicly transformed itself from a short £8.99 paperback into a £20 140,000 word long hardback. But it was the right thing to do. It’s the best researched and best written book on Brexit on the market. Even Remain supporters have acknowledged what an important book it is.
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!
Betting the House by Tim Ross & Tom McTague
Tim Ross wrote a superb account of the 2015 Tory election win called WHY THE TORIES WON. When the 2017 election was called we were delighted he decided to team up with Tom McTague. We were determined to beat Tim Shipman and get this book out first. In the end though, it didn’t appear until early November despite the serialisation occuring in mid Septemer. They kept getting new information, which meant that at Biteback Towers we were tearing our hair out. But that’s often the case with instant books. Anyway, the end product spoke for itself, and I still believe this was one of the best books of 2017.
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 Kerri 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 published a sequel ‘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.
Exceeding my Brief by Barbara Hosking
It’s this kind of book which I am most going to miss. Back in the middle of 2017 one of my other authors, Martin Stanley emailed me to put me in touch with a 91 year old former civil servant, who had written her autobiography. Despite my initial sceptism Martin was insistent that she’d have a fantastic tale to tell, not least because she had recently outed herself as a Lesbian. So off I toddled to meet her at her Westminster flat. She had only uttered a few sentences before I knew Martin was right. Her book is truly captivating and tells the story of an incredibly poor childhood in Cornwall, moving to London and getting a job with the Labour Party in the 1950s and then moving into the civil service and working for Harold Wilson and Ted Heath. The book is in its second reprint, and the look on Barbara’s face at the launch was on its own worth publishing it.
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.
Journeyman by Ben Smith
This book topped the Amazon football charts for three weeks, and it’s one of Biteback’s all time bestsellers. Ben Smith was a lower league footballer who playd for more than a dozen clubs. He approached us saying he wanted to tell his story, which would be an antidote to all the celebrity footballer books. It was certainly that, mainly because he tells how it really is as a lower league footballer. He promised me it would sell at least 10,000 copies. I didn’t believe him, but it’s actually now sold more than 15,000.
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 political reporter for 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.