Obituary: John Hitchin

Obituary: John Hitchin

Obituary: John Hitchin

Born 26th May 1933
Died 8th August 2021

Former publisher and bookseller John Hitchin died in August, aged 88. He is remembered by Tim Godfray and Dotti Irving.

Tim Godfray, former c.e.o. of the Booksellers Association, writes:
John Hitchin passed away peacefully in his sleep at home in Hereford on Sunday 8th August, aged 88. He was in his garden the previous afternoon when, no doubt, he was contemplating his many interests: family (whom he doted upon), local history, the importance of public libraries and bookshops, vegetable garden pests (!), and the books he was currently reading. There were four of them by his bed the night he died: The Odes of Horace; The Palliser Novels by Trollope; People, Power & Profits by Joseph Stiglitz; and Keats’ Selected Poems. Typical John.

John joined Penguin Publishing in 1959. He worked at Penguin for 31 years. He was Penguin’s first European rep, working his way up to become marketing director in 1976. He was by temperament an innovator who loved breaking new ground: he introduced the Penguin paperback book set and also the display dumpbin. Then in 1980 he became retail director, taking over responsibility for Penguin’s new retail bookshops. It was a challenging time. Penguin had published Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, a fatwa had been placed on the author and the Penguin bookshops were being firebombed. At one time, John was under 24-hour police protection as the shops continued to sell the book; he demonstrated personal courage and quiet resilience throughout. 

Then in 1990, Penguin seemingly wanted to sell the retail side. John put together a management buyout of the bookshops and became c.e.o. of the renamed Phoenix Bookshops. He liked selling books as much as publishing. When he left school, he had first trained to be a retailer and worked at Harrods. 

John loved books and the industry, and he wanted to give something back and bring benefits to others. So in 1992 he became president of the Booksellers Association (BA) for two years, and president of the European Booksellers Federation between 1993 and 1999—during which time he was able to put to good advantage his ability to speak German and French. 

In these last two presidential positions, I got to know John extremely well. He was always buzzing with new ideas. This was a period when technology was being introduced within bookshops, and John embraced wholeheartedly EPOS and developed EDI relationships with the main suppliers. For the BA, it was extremely beneficial to have a president and council member who could see issues not only as a bookseller but also as a publisher. 

He leaves behind Ute, to whom he was married for 59 years, a son, Martin, a daughter Megan, and three grandchildren.

Dotti Irving, chief executive, culture, at Four Communications, writes:
John Hitchin, “Hitch”, was the marketing director of Penguin when I first got a job there as a lowly assistant in the then-Schools Unit at Harmondsworth. Although he was The Big Boss, he was a modest man and seemed genuinely to value the opinions of the entire team.

Having left school at 16, he was rightly proud of the fact that his education was founded on his having read the entire Pelican list. He was an avid reader, curious, always asking questions. There was nothing he wasn’t interested in and he came up with totally off-the-wall ideas, many of which were spot on, others less so.

Hitch was a wonderful ambassador for books and reading. As John Mason, my immediate boss at Penguin at the time, remembers: “John inspired us to think of our job at Penguin as a mission to bring books to a wider audience, as a force for good in society. John was a great champion of the bookshops-in-schools concept, which opened up the world of reading to children by giving them direct access to books—children who otherwise might not have had much opportunity to own their own books.”

A perennial optimist, John always looked on the bright side of life. That could be quite uncomfortable at times. When I was head of PR, working with our big-name writers (Peter Ustinov, Lesley Thomas, Shirley Conran, Richard Adams), Hitch would arrange for us to have a “get-to-know-you” lunch to discuss our plans well before publication. No matter how many times I begged him not to, he would invariably finish off by saying: “Well, it’s been a pleasure to meet you. I look forward to seeing you again once Dotti has got you to the top of the bestseller lists!”

John was a real inspiration, not just to me but to many other people he came into contact with. Crucially, he taught me to have the crazy ideas and try them out—the many that work out are well worth the few that don’t.