Profile: Anthony Cheetham and Head of Zeus

Profile: Anthony Cheetham and Head of Zeus

The Head of Zeus offices certainly look like a start-up. The company moved to its Clerkenwell HQ a couple of weeks ago and there is a burnished feel to the place: the furnishings and computers seems box fresh, nothing as yet has been hung on the too-bright white walls, the staff bustle and beaver away. Standing amid it all, like a relaxed-looking lion in winter, is boss Anthony Cheetham.

Yes, he is doing it again. The founder of Century Hutchinson, Abacus and Orion, and a man in on the ground floor at MacDonald Futura, The Friday Project, Quercus and Atlantic imprint Corvus, is starting yet another new venture in his 47th year in publishing.

The obvious question is why? He cites two reasons for start-ups being "congenial. When publishers get to a certain size—about £50m—you lose touch with the books, and all those nice people you hired actually start to resent you when you butt in, they say: ‘Go away and do human resources or whatever it is you do.’ A very flat management chart where you are never more than one step away from the editor is part of the way we can enjoy the business that we’re in.

"And I never really looked at this as a job. If a job is a way to spend your life at a minimum of inconvenience for a maximum of income, you’d never get into publishing. Publishing is the privilege of being paid to read books, have lunch with authors and be part of the success of an author when it works. Why should I give that up to play golf?"

Yet there is a bit more to it for this start-up. "The particular motive for this one is that my experience at Atlantic was not—" here Cheetham pauses with a seen-it-all-before smile, searching for delicate, perhaps legally safe, words—"an agreeable one."

Lasting memory

A recurring part of Cheetham’s career has been the blood on the boardroom floor fall-out. Taking leave from the likes of Century and Orion after he sold the companies was not unexpected—a new owner shedding its previous boss is part of the mergers and acquisitions game. But his last two departures were a bit more fractious.

He moved from Quercus to Atlantic in 2009 after a bitter break with the rest of the Quercus board—including accusations that Cheetham had overpaid for books from authors represented by his agent wife, Georgina Capel of Capel & Land.

The bust-up with Atlantic after just two years is somewhat shrouded in mystery, as neither side has publicly revealed the reason for the spilt beyond press-released banalities. Cheetham acknowledges some bad blood, but will not go into details. Again, the smile. "Let’s just say I didn’t want Atlantic to be my last memory of publishing."

Yet he still retains shares in both Quercus and Atlantic. "Yes. But I retained my shares of Quercus by choice. Not so with Atlantic." It is good that he did retain those Quercus shares, for when I ask how he is funding the new enterprise, he says: "Stieg Larsson. I was able to realise a long-held ambition of going to my bank manager and—by using those Quercus shares as security—asking for a million quid . . . and getting it."

Team building

Cheetham has used that money to assemble the team since HoZ was officially formed in January, starting with son Nic Cheetham (who also worked with him at Quercus and Corvus), who is deputy m.d. and digital publishing director, and Chris Downham, who also worked at Atlantic, joining as m.d. and c.f.o. on 1st August. The team of 11 also includes editorial director Laura Palmer, sales director Amélie Burchell and rights director Lisa Brännström.

About 25 titles will be published this year, including a couple Cheetham was trying to acquire whilst at Atlantic: Robert K Massie’s Catherine the Great—which was released in July—the first of a planned series of "great lives" biographies, and Fay Weldon’s Habit of the House, the first of a "Downton Abbey"-esque trilogy. Another 36 titles will be released in 2013, and the company has already bought almost 120 books—a figure inflated slightly by the acquisition of a number of series, including 19 titles in Dana Stabenow’s Alaskan-set series of crime books.

Cheetham says the list will be two-thirds fiction, the bulk commercial and genre, and one-third non-fiction. He is whole-heartedly a fan of digital, not least because at the moment most customers’ e-book spend is on what will be HoZ’s bread and butter, commercial fiction.

He adds: "Nobody can tell the future, but one thing that we can be sure of is that because there are almost no warehousing or manufacturing costs, the more sales that transfer to ‘e’, the better publishers are going to be.

"I’m very sorry for our colleagues on the bricks-and-mortar side. But not really. They are in the unique position of building that intimate relationship with the customer—‘Hello, Mr Jones, here’s a book I think you would like’—but if all they do is stack the latest bestsellers front of shop, they’ll only do well at Christmas."

Though Cheetham says he is not about to step aside to play golf, he is realistic about the future. "I’m 69 years old; it’s about succession planning. [Downham]’s coming in and Nic is the deputy m.d., so when I do step down there will be a smooth transition."

For a few moments he slips into somewhat an elegiac mood. "This will probably be my last interview in The Bookseller. Maybe I should use it to have a go at some people", he says with a mischievous grin, before—disappointingly for me—he says it would be mean-spirited. He talks of his woods, the 80 acres in north Gloucestershire he bought 30 years ago and planted with oak saplings ("making some amends for all the trees I’ve been responsible for being chopped down over the years").

But in an instant, he is talking animatedly about what is coming up: HoZ’s future—"we’re planning on reaching the £10m mark in five years"; on crime fiction publishing—"you need to build mass with a list because it is about probabilities, if we have 20 series, it means there is more change on finding a winner than with five"; and his joy at seeing a "Game of Thrones"-led fantasy rebirth and the fact that there will be more and more genre to literary crossovers in the coming years.

Last interview? Somehow, I wouldn’t bet on it.