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From Hackney to the Ivy
15.10.09 | Tom Tivnan
To discover what makes Luigi Bonomi tick, you need to go back to his hard-scrabble childhood. His parents owned a café in Stoke Newington (this was long before the London district's gentrification), but money was scarce. The family lived in a tiny two-room flat above the café, Bonomi, his parents and sister all sleeping in one room. His parents worked long hours, and he and his sister (Maria Stebbings, now managing editor at Oxford Univeristy Press) would spend the bulk of their free time reading in the bookshop across the street or the local library. He says: "Our only escape was fiction. It is what attracted me to publishing, what excited me: the power of storytelling to move people's lives, to move them into different worlds."
Bonomi has come a long way from those humble roots. We are nestled in plush chairs in a corner of the Ivy Club, the private members part of the London celebrity hang-out. He is obviously at home, cheerfully acknowledging greetings of fellow members as they pass. The venue fits with Bonomi's reputation as agent to the stars. His eponymous company, which he founded with Amanda Preston in 2005 after working for eight years at Sheil Land, represents Alan Titchmarsh, Richard Hammond, Terry Wogan, Fern Britton and Richard and Judy, to name but a few.
Though the celebs often get the headlines—and eye-popping advances—Bonomi has plenty of "regular" authors and novelists including mega-brand Josephine Cox. Yet what excites him is finding new talent. He has had a number of slushpile discoveries—including Matt Hilton, David Gibbins, Simon Kernick, Jamie Becker and Sean Black—both as an agent and in an 11-year publishing career. He says: "We receive 6,500 manuscripts a year, and not a single one can leave the office before I see it. What we're looking for is a kernel of real spark of excitement and imagination. You can see it a mile off."
Celebrity or not, he is looking for resolutely commercial books, a billing even in this mass market age that he still finds many publishers snobby about. "When the Richard & Judy Book Club first started, so many people were sniffy about it. When it became a success they all wanted to jump on the bandwagon. This shows there are still people in our industry who continue to have real problems with commercial books. It is slowly going, but there are still those who resent the celebs, resent the supermarkets, and frankly look down on the readers."
He leans forward, growing more animated. "‘X-Factor' and ‘Top Gear' are the two most popular shows on TV because that is what the public wants. The celebrity market is there. We mustn't pretend it isn't, or bemoan the fact that it is. We should celebrate it. These authors are opening the market up, bringing huge numbers of readers into bookshops, and more people are reading books now than ever before."
As a "wild teenager who messed about", Bonomi was unsure what he really wanted to do. When he finally decided on literature, the UCAS period had passed, and it took a "begging letter" to A S Byatt, who was the admissions tutor at the University College London English Department, to help get him in. There he became close friends with Joanna Briscoe and Claire Calman—now both successful authors. Bonomi's first publishing job was at Macdonald Futura where he worked on the Enid Blyton estate and helped set up one of the UK's first teenage fiction lists. He later joined Mills & Boon which was "like another planet, but I was working with some terrific writers." M&B's boy meets girl formula worked in real life for Bonomi; he and his wife Alison, who was in the M&B copy-editing department, met there and still work together today. "She is an obsessive thriller reader and has a real eye for finding them in the slush pile".
His next move to Penguin was more trying. He was brought in to run a mass market paperback commercial list, but "Penguin was not committed to doing it . . . Penguin was successful commercially, but still had a big hang-up internally about commercial publishing. A bit ironic considering the origins of the brand, think how Allen Lane would have embraced supermarkets."
Made redundant after Helen Fraser was brought in to streamline things, Bonomi says he is grateful that Sheil Land c.e.o. Sonia Land took him on. It didn't hurt that he had Alan Titchmarsh, having just signed the then relatively unknown TV gardener from the Penguin slush pile for a two-novel deal for £5,000—"a bit mean". When Bonomi was made redundant, Titchmarsh cancelled his contract with Penguin and followed him to Sheil Land. In one of his first deals as an agent, Bonomi sold those two books at auction for £170,000.
While he does sometimes despair of what he deems the industry's lack of commerciality, Bonomi remains optimistic, and happily name checks a number of senior publishers who are on his same page, such as Louise Moore, Jane Morpeth, Malcolm Edwards, Selina Walker, Rowena Webb and Belinda Budge, and "the new blood" like Carly Cook, Wayne Brooks, Sarah Emsley, and Amanda Harris. He would still like to see the elitism and complacency of some of publishers shaken up. "Publishing is going through a lot of change, maybe it needs to go through a bit more," he says, then adding with a smile, "Maybe it needs a cultural revolution, a bit of Mao-like re-education."