Tom Tivnan reveals the whirlwind fortnight which took Lady Thatcher’s authorised biography to market
Do you remember where you were when you heard Margaret Thatcher died? For Penguin Press’ publishing director Stuart Proffitt, news of the former PM’s death meant the beginning of the busiest fortnight in his three-decade publishing career.
As it was, he was told the news by a friend he was meeting for lunch near St James Street, around 100 yards from The Ritz, where Lady Thatcher spent her final days. With remarkable sang-froid, Proffitt continued his lunch—“in the spirit of Sir Francis Drake finishing his game of bowls before the Armada”—but soon hurried back to the Penguin offices. He says: “By 2.30 that afternoon we had all the heads of department together; it was all hands on the pumps from that moment onward.”
The urgency was in order to rush-release Charles Moore’s Margaret Thatcher, Volume One: Not for Turning, the authorised biography 16 years in the making which Thatcher agreed to co-operate on if it was released posthumously. Commissioned in 1997 by then-Penguin Press m.d. Andrew Rosenheim, former Telegraph editor Moore had full access to Thatcher’s personal and governmental papers, and to her friends, family, civil servants and colleagues.
Somewhat fortuitously for the Allen Lane team, Moore says he had been signing off the final proofs “pretty much as [she] was dying”. He adds: “It was a surprise. We all knew she was ill, but the extent of how frail she was had been kept secret.”
Yet even with Moore checking off his final proofs, it was a monumental task to get the 860-page book (which includes 100 pages of notes and indexes) through the production process. Penguin sent the content to printers Clays nine days after Thatcher died. “We uploaded our final files on Wednesday evening,” Proffitt says. “By eight a.m. on the Monday we had copies in our warehouse with direct deliveries to all the major customers.” The initial print run was 50,000 copies, and Proffitt says Penguin has allocated enough paper stock for “any reprints we may need in the foreseeable future”.
Not for Turning is both the story of an instant book and one of the longest-gestating titles in British publishing history. Moore was approached by Thatcher’s advisers to write the biography in 1997. Moore’s agent Gillon Aitken sold the book shortly thereafter—for a reported £750,000—to Rosenheim.
Rosenheim, who left Penguin to write novels in 2001 after he survived the Paddington rail crash and is now the Kindle Singles editor for Amazon.co.uk, took a bit of a gamble. Though early sales suggest this will be money well spent—Not for Turning has shifted 5,325 copies for £112,437 through BookScan in its first four days—one should remember Rosenheim signed up Moore when Britain was at the height of its love affair with New Labour—the popularity of Thatcher, always a divisive figure, was perhaps at its lowest ebb.
Moore, after working for a few years at both the Telegraph and on the biography, decided to leave his day job in 2003 to fully concentrate on the book. “I am not a historian, I had never written a book before. And like most journalists I need immediate deadlines or I’ll get bored. Plus the major difficulty with all this information was what to put in, what to keep out—indeed, where to start?”
Moore is “pretty advanced” on the follow-up (Not for Turning ends after the Falklands War), though neither he nor Proffitt will put a timeframe on delivery. Proffitt, though, is not looking to the future just yet. He says: “What Charles has written is, I think, one of the handful of truly great political biographies. Interest in [Thatcher] is greater than it has been since she left office. I think we have the wind at our backs.”
PROFFITT ON LADY THATCHER
“When I was at HarperCollins and worked on her memoirs, it was like being in close proximity to a force of nature. She was very determined to be clear and accurate about events, but she had very little capacity to reflect on her own life. Which is why so many things have turned up in Not for Turning that weren’t in her autobiographies”