Everyone who had worked with Simon Master at Random House (now Penguin Random House) was truly shocked and desperately sad to hear of the news of his sudden death while on holiday last week.
Simon retired from Random House in April 2006 at the age of 62, determined to enjoy his third age. He became a non-executive director of the Random House Group and chair of the advisory board of the London Book Fair, but he was also looking forward to many days at the cricket, driving his vintage cars and great holidays with family and friends.
I think most people in publishing would have recognised Simon from the 1970s and ‘80s, a tall distinguished figure with impossibly thick-rimmed glasses. He and Sonny Mehta became legends from their time at Pan and Picador; Simon was first publishing director at Pan, then chief executive—the youngest head of a major publishing company at the time—from 1979 until 1987. Patrick Janson- Smith once summed up the Golden Age of paperback publishing as “Mehta & Master”.
In 1987, Simon had become chief executive of CVBC, around a year after Sonny departed Picador to go to the US to run Knopf. CVBC, which included Jonathan Cape, Chatto & Windus, The Bodley Head and Virago was a company backed by Si Newhouse’s Random House, with a hugely distinguished list of authors, a lot of armchairs and two iconic publishers in Carmen Callil and Tom Maschler.
In 1989, perhaps sensing the need for an ally, Simon invited me for lunch and rather unbelievably offered me a job running The Bodley Head—unbelievably, not because I was particularly useless, nor even because someone else was already in that job, but because I was seven months pregnant with my second child. When I declined to leave Century and Ebury (where I was a shareholder), rather like Victor Kiam in the shaving ads in the 1980s, on behalf of Random House, he simply bought the company: Century Hutchinson.
Return of the native
By 1991, Simon had spent a year touring the world and sorting out Random House’s overseas companies. He was back in London, focused on Century and Arrow, and building up Vintage, an imprint he had launched to publish paperback literary fiction and non-fiction.
When I took over Random House in October 1991, Simon’s hand could be detected in the background. For the next 15 years we worked closely together, Simon’s wisdom and experience as my deputy tempering my more undisciplined energy.
In helping to build the Random House Group to a position of pre-eminence in the market, Simon exhibited all these qualities on a daily basis, but never more so than in the acquisition of Reed Trade Books in 1997. I had invited John Holloran in for lunch, after he had been put in charge of Reed Consumer Books to prepare them for sale. We were interested in some, but not all of, the company.
Simon approached John a few months later about a particular author. It was a fortuitous meeting, as it was the day that Helen Fraser had privately announced to John that she was leaving. Simon spotted an opportunity immediately and a bid was lodged the next day. But what should have been a simple acquisition turned into the most complex, time-consuming negotiation. For eight weeks with little sleep or food, fortified by coffee and cigarettes but uncharacteristically no alcohol, Simon led a negotiation that he described later as like being in the front row of a scrum. After several all-night sessions, he emerged with a deal which effectively transformed Random House.
Simon had succeeded in doubling the size of Vintage, in the first year bringing us Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and Mr Nice, the biggest selling Vintage fiction and non-fiction titles in 1998—as well as the backlists of Roddy Doyle, Irvine Welsh, John Coetzee, Peter Ackroyd and Umberto Eco. The most significant book we acquired later on the commercial front was Hannibal by Thomas Harris, which went on to sell almost a million copies in hardback.
Simon was also known to all at Random House for his habit of filling the car park at Vauxhall Bridge Road with amazing vintage sports cars and—much to the consternation of German media group Bertelsmann, who became our new owners in 1998—by his endless supply of risqué German jokes.
Simon’s contribution to the wider publishing industry has been remarkable. He is the only person to have been president of the Publishers Association twice (in 1996 and 2001), and he led the PA through turbulent times.
I think his greatest contribution came in 1995, negotiating a settlement with EMI on the collapse of Pentos on behalf of all publishers. Colin Southgate of EMI came in to see us, and he and Simon got on well. He noticed a copy of Lauren Bacall’s autobiography on a shelf and said he had long admired her—and that if we could arrange a meeting, it might be worth another 10p in the pound. Colin duly attended a signing in Hatchard’s, after which Simon speedily agreed a settlement on behalf of all publishers.
Simon was also PA president at the end of the Net Book Agreement, during the BBC online curriculum debate and through two anti-piracy campaigns. The whole industry owes him a huge debt.
Simon King called Simon “the best boss ever . . . a self- effacing giant”. He spoke of Simon’s rapacious appetite for work, which never spoiled his enjoyment of “the pissy lunch”—”I suppose,” he would often say, with a sigh, “we had better have the other bottle.”
Simon has also been extremely generous in helping a new generation of publishers. I have, of course, learnt so much from him, as have so many others now running our largest groups.
At Simon’s retirement party I tried to sum up his special place in our hearts; a great friend and supporter, a guru, a pathfinder and facilitator, a problem solver, friend to the creative, enemy to bullshit, a true original thinker and the perfect colleague.
He was a unique publishing figure who helped shape the industry we all love. He launched so many careers—of both authors and publishers—and he will always be remembered as one of the greats of our industry.