Beautiful Books, Great Hair: The Unlikely Publishing Career of Simon Petherick

In Europe by Roger Tagholm

By Roger Tagholm

LONDON: With a fierce mane, a fondness for striped socks and the ruddy complexion of an outdoorsman, 51-year-old Simon Petherick — the MD of Beautiful Books — cuts a striking figure. Increasingly, his books are getting noticed too, a testament to his outgoing nature and openness to new ideas.

Founded in 2006, to publish titles that are “off kilter, but which have the potential to become mainstream,” Beautiful Books, operates from small offices on the edge of Soho. The company got off to a cracking start this year when Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night recently won the Costa First Novel Award and the first reprint of 10,000 disappeared within two weeks.

Beautiful Books’ Simon Petherick uses his background in music and fashion to find online partners (like amazingtunes.com) for his “quirky” titles.

Petherick says he avoids publishing anything “the corporates” would do -– crime and celebrity, for example -– the irony being that Desai’s title, with its jacket that might make some think of Slumdog Millionaire, could easily fit into Random House’s publishing program. On his list you will find good fiction, and non-fiction, and much that is quirky. Beautiful Books started publishing digital versions of its titles in November and Petherick notes that after the Costa award the e-version of Witness was tracking higher on Amazon’s Kindle chart than the physical version.

Though he once worked for Robert Hale, one of the most traditional of UK houses, Petherick is embracing the digital future and open to its multimedia possibilities. He recently signed a deal with the Anthony Burgess estate to republish his out-of-print titles, as both e-book and paperbacks. He’s also partnered with the Web site amazingtunes.com, an online platform for new independent British bands, to produce a downloadable soundtrack album to accompany Beautiful Book’s publication of Abigail Tarrtelin’s debut novel, Flick.

The album will be promoted on the cover of the novel itself via a code that enables readers to use their smartphone to access the amazingtunes.com site where the Flick album can be downloaded. Likewise, the digital version of the novel will also enable readers to access the album. He says: “This is the first time that such an ambitious multimedia project has been proposed exclusively to promote new writing and new music.”

The collaboration takes him back to one of his many previous colorful careers . . .

Born in Cyprus in 1960, the son of an army major, he grew up at various forces bases in the UK. After reading history at Oxford, he joined Robert Hale which is when he wrote The Power of the Mind -– “still in print,” he notes with a smile.

After a year at Michael Joseph and a strange spell marketing Cadbury’s chocolate in Lithuania “when it was so lawless you had to pay the police to drive you home,” his fledgling marketing company won a contract to help London’s royal parks raise revenue. This is when he found himself speaking to musicians such as Bryan Adams and the like, and staging extraordinary events, such as a performance of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells on Horseguards Parade in Hyde Park. He was rather good at it -– so good in fact, that new management wanted to bring it in house.

“We had to look for something to acquire with our money and a friend suggested Hardy Amies who were looking for a buyer.” Based in London’s Mayfair, the Hardy Amies fashion house was famous for designing dresses for Queen Elizabeth –- so, at the end of the Nineties, Petherick now found himself in Buckingham Palace taking clothing orders from the Queen. “She was lovely. It’s all very relaxed back stage, when she’s not in public. Remember, I was just a tradesman. She’d say: ‘I don’t want any of those big hats. The cars they give me to go around in now are so tiny, there just isn’t the room.’ So all that was great fun, but the fashion business in general was awful. Publishing is intelligent and collegiate and generous. Fashion is vacuous and full of superficial sharks.”

beautiful books

He slunk out the backdoor with his money “and went to Cornwall to build a wooden house.” He might have remained there too, if a friend hadn’t said to him “you’re always going on about books -– why not set up a publishing company?”

He still can’t believe that’s exactly what he did, along with his partner Tamsin Griffiths. “We were so naïve. We had no strategy. I had no idea how publishing had changed –- I didn’t even really know the Net Book Agreement had gone.”

Today, Beautiful Books has a staff of four and a turnover of £500,000 ($785,000) with plans to reach £5m ($7.85m) by 2016. Trading in the grip of a recession and against the collapse of Borders and forthcoming closures at Waterstone’s, he explains how he makes it work. “We’re obsessive about controlling costs -– and from the start we decided to be international. I’ve worked hard at building relationships with foreign publishers, so as well as selling rights, we’ve bought in some titles –- it’s good to have the traffic going both ways.”

He praises the Americans for their “open door” policy, saying: “We went to New York when we didn’t know many people and had a very good meeting with Stephen Morrison, Editor-in-Chief at Penguin. Americans will always see you. As a result of that meeting, they took our book 101 Things You Thought You Knew About the Sinking of the Titanic Which Aren’t True.”

Petherick’s default setting is a smile and an anecdote. When you’re at Frankfurt or LBF, you should look him up. It could be mutually beneficial.

DISCUSS: Who is the Most “Beautiful” Person in Publishing You Know?

About the Author

Roger Tagholm

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Roger Tagholm is based in London and has been writing about the book industry for more than 20 years. He is the former Deputy Editor of Publishing News and the author of Walking Literary London (New Holland) and Poems NOT on the Underground (Windrush Press).