In the 1970s the independent book publisher André Deutsch sold 40% of his eponymous company to Time-Life. Diana Athill, who edited for André Deutsch, wrote a wonderful memoir Stet: An Editor’s Life in which she described the experience as odd and comic: “They made no attempt to intervene in any of our publishing plans. And they drove André mad.”
Athill recalls an early meeting that purported to establish the mutual benefits of the deal. Puzzled by the corporation’s apparent altruism, she asked what was in it for them.
After a fractional pause, a gentle blast of pure waffle submerged the question, and I was left believing what in fact I continued to believe: that they didn’t know. Shrewd predatory calculations might be underlying all this, but it seemed unlikely. ‘Can it be,’ I asked André after the meeting, ‘that they are just silly?’ To which he answered crisply: ‘Yes.’ I think he had already started to wonder what on earth he was doing, but couldn’t see how to back out of it.
Despite their lack of interference, Time-Life naturally expected progress reports, every so often asking André Deutsch for details about, say, their publishing plans for the next five years. But given the unpredictable, even chaotic nature of independent book publishing – and maybe especially given the nature of the firm being asked, and of its owner – this request was also seen as a bit daft.
At a party in New York, Athill met the person who functioned as the link between the two companies, and she inferred that Time-Life just wanted some figures to satisfy their accounts people: the figures didn’t even have to make sense. Relaying this insight to André made him “even madder. It was their silliness that was getting to him, not their asking for information.” How then to respond? Athill quotes from accountant Philip Tammer’s letter to Time-Life:
What we will be publishing in five years’ time depends on what’s going on in the head of some unknown person probably sitting in a garret, and we don’t know the address of that garret.
I don’t know what Philip Tammer looks like – Athill describes him as “the dearest, kindest, most long-suffering, most upright and most loyal accountant anyone ever had” – but I can imagine his expression of consummate deadpan as he composed this reply. Ask a silly question…
Deutsch was, to his relief and delight, able to buy the shares back a couple of years after selling them. He talked about the experience, and a good deal more, in an interview with Naim Attallah.