Richard Johnson's memoir of his nine years at the helm of Bonnier Publishing, Show Me Your Medals, is an uncomfortable tale of how one man took on the publishing establishment—and didn't win.
It is about what happens when a "philistine" (as he was once described) is put in charge of a publishing business by a monied parent that, in Johnson's telling, wants to "smash" its way to the top. The caricatures of senior staff, the summer parties, the high advances, the stunts, were all part of a plan concocted with his boss, the former head of Bonnier Books in Sweden, Jacob Dalborg to "create the hype". Surprisingly, it almost worked.
Johnson revels in the drama of it—the man from the outside leading what he calls the rebel alliance as he seeks to subvert the publishing status quo. As he writes: "For a period of time we were totally unstoppable in our determination to break our way onto the top table and sit there with our middle finger firmly pointed at the others."
The performance was not without its critics. After a particularly bruising period for the children's business Templar Publishing, he writes: "I dug in and took every bit of abuse they could throw at me month after month and pretty much took that alone on behalf of everyone." The fight, he says at one point, had begun.
Following Dalborg's departure in 2017, the strategy inevitably got lost in translation, and he was pushed out in February 2018, with Bonnier announcing its intentions to move away from the mass-market. "It was like Custer’s last stand for me in early 2018," recalls Johnson.
Six months on from his ousting, Johnson feels slighted, undervalued and betrayed. He has written the book to counter all this. A fair account? The dedication, to an unnamed former friend and presumably past colleague, gives the game away. It ends: "Fuck you for all eternity."
On Johnson’s telling, the idea it was a runaway train is farfetched: he delivered on his 10-year plan. Extraordinarily, we learn, Dalborg wanted the results faster. The pressure was intense. He tried to resign a year earlier than his departure, writing in his parting letter that he was "physically and mentally gone". Emotionally he is fraught, having missed his child’s birthday because of work. Nevertheless, he returns, and persists. He was, he argues, protecting his staff.
Johnson believes he was kicking against the "pricks" (the "pricks" being everyone else in publishing and occasionally his own staff); that in building the house of fun he was undermining the elites, pursuing "the ideal of publishing for everyone". He was, he writes, the "disruptor in chief of a whole industry". He was cruel, sure and sometimes wrong (belatedly apologising to two former executives), but the ends justified the means.
And what were the ends? To break into the top tier of UK publishing, having agreed to a target of £100m in sales. In the book, he writes: "There was absolutely no logic to the £100m other than it sounded like a good number." And Bonnier knew all about it, the Swedish group ignoring the very many letters and warnings about him. "Sweden didn’t care, they already knew what I was like."
Despite his oafish reputation—overplayed, he now says—Johnson is not a bad writer: funny and self-deprecating, if a little discursive. He wants to tell a "different story" to the official version, and largely succeeds. He steers an uneven course between bathos and pathos—a father who left when he was six; an early job cleaning floors at Tesco; his reaction to being called "Richard Who?" by his own employees.
Then there is Cleughie (who features in many of the videos that are linked to in the book), Johnson's stunt-man, someone ever-ready to jump into a tutu to entertain the troops, and to whom Johnson devotes a whole chapter. "The Cleughmeister, Useless Geordie Idiot (said affectionately) and 400 other nicknames, 399 of which are not printable. He was our mascot, our lucky charm. An employee of ours, but no one was exactly too sure what he did. Something in sales I think. He was the cheekiest chappie, a battle hardened northern man but with a heart of Gold." For all of the hetero-jostling, there emerges a genuine bond between the pair.
There are some decent gags too. "You know the ape evolution picture," he writes, "Well, in the publishing industry it is like they got close to evolution and then thought bugger that and all turned around to run back to 1974." There is some publishing 101—"if you work in mass market every sale is a fight, if you work in sales in high end trade, you just keep demanding more marketing budget".
Yet as publishing memoirs go, it’s hardly up there with Tom Maschler’s Publisher, Jason Epstein’s Book Business, or even Christopher Davis’ neglected The Rise and Fall of Dorling Kindersley. This is less a different story, more a different planet. And there will be some who believe that we have seen enough of Johnson already; that his attempt to "correct the utter nonsense" written about Bonnier Publishing since he left neglects to atone for the missteps, the staff departures, the businesses upended. Regrets? He has a few, but mostly too few to mention.
Amid the bombast, the insults and the jibes, there is something fascinating about this book and what it tells us about how publishing is today, how the sector is perceived by outsiders, and how those who come into the business from different backgrounds are treated. How money is the real disruptor. It is about us too. We all enjoyed the show, even though occasionally it resembled a blood sport.
The book, a limited edition priced at £9.99, and available only off his website ShowMeYourMedals.com, is publishing this week. His detractors will have a field day (not least looking for the literals). Johnson will maintain he doesn't care what people think ("I simply don’t give a fuck one way or the other"). And Bonnier must wish it would all go away. But Johnson has his medals, and he has a story to tell. A thriller for some, a horror story for others. Just as he would want.