Publishers still ruled the literary roost when I joined the publicity department of Collins in the autumn of 1967. With the sole exception of Norah Smallwood, the terrifying boss of Chatto & Windus, its leading practitioners were men in late middle age, invariably clad in tweed or chalk-striped suits and housed in elegant, rather ramshackle Georgian buildings in Bloomsbury or Covent Garden. Some companies – Hamish Hamilton, André Deutsch, Weidenfeld & Nicolson – were still run and owned by their founders, while Billy Collins, Jock Murray and Mark Longman headed long-established family firms: all of them paid their staff and their authors as little as they could get away with, and disguised professional competence and steely self-interest behind a facade of conviviality and amateur bumbling. Publishers still attracted the column inches: Allen Lane’s death in 1970 was front-page news, while whiz-kids like Tom Maschler of Jonathan Cape loomed large in the gossip columns and the colour magazines.
Although publishing had traditionally been a lower-middle-class business, in which men like Allen Lane and Jonathan Cape left school early and worked their way up from the bottom, it had become an occupation for gentlemen between the wars. Many of the chalk-striped fraternity were well-heeled Oxbridge graduates, and