‘The King of British publishing’: Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes and more pay tribute to Tom Maschler

The world of books would look very different without Tom Maschler, who died this week. His authors and former colleagues remember him.

Dan Franklin
Tom Maschler
Tom Maschler. Image: Getty/Penguin

Tom Maschler has died aged 87. He joined Jonathan Cape in 1960 as editorial director and was chairman when he sold the company to Random House in 1989. For four decades Tom Maschler was the most important and most talked about figure in British publishing. A brilliant talent-spotter, he brought to Jonathan Cape an extraordinary range of literary talent – from Gabriel García Márquez to Philip Roth to Martin Amis to Thomas Pynchon to Tom Wolfe to Ian McEwan – and transformed it into the most exciting publisher in London.

Fifteen of his authors won the Nobel Prize for Literature and he launched the careers of John Fowles, Edna O’Brien, Clive James and Bruce Chatwin. He published Doris Lessing and Nadine Gordimer, Kurt Vonnegut and John Lennon. He persuaded Desmond Morris, then working at London Zoo, to write The Naked Ape and his publishing of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 became the stuff of legend.

Tom could do high literary and popular commercial with equal flair (he published Jeffrey Archer’s first book and Len Deighton thrillers), he could publish adult books, children’s books, poetry, illustrated books such as Jonathan Miller’s The Human Body, popular science such as The Naked Ape, total originals such as Kit Williams’ Masquerade and Heathcote Williams’ Whale Nation.

In 1969 Tom invented the Booker Prize. This was quintessential Maschler.

With Graham C. Greene, then chairman, he brought a formidable team to Cape’s office at 30 Bedford Square. He hired Liz Calder from Gollancz as editorial director and she brought to the list Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes and Anita Brookner. Cape’s editors and readers included Philippa Harrison, Susannah Clapp, Paul Bailey, James Lasdun, Xandra Bingley and Sally Sampson. Each year Cape threw a Christmas party in their office; it became the most desirable invitation in literary London.

In 1969 Tom invented the Booker Prize. This was quintessential Maschler: a brilliant way of marketing literary fiction. For this is what really made Tom stand out. There were many publishers who could find brilliant new authors, or do wonders with their editorial pencil, but no one could market and sell a book like Tom could. At his side as publicity director was Tony Colwell, who later turned into a formidable editor himself.

The final chapter of Tom’s publishing career was spent as a children’s publisher. He was, of course, brilliant at it, especially at illustrated books. It was Tom who introduced Quentin Blake to Roald Dahl; Tom who spotted that Posy Simmonds would write stunning children’s books as well as her adult cartoons. 

The last time I saw him was at Sonny Mehta’s memorial service on 9 March, just before lockdown. These two men, Sonny and Tom, reinvented how literary books were published and sold in Britain. I feel privileged to have known them.

Tom Maschler (right) attends the wedding of playwright Arnold Wesker and his wife Dusty. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty
Tom Maschler (right) attends the wedding of playwright Arnold Wesker and his wife Dusty. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty

Tributes to Tom from those who knew him:

“In the long, high plateau of his career, from the Sixties almost to the new century, Tom Maschler was the most exciting and forceful publisher of his generation. He was famous as well as notorious for his relentless, untameable energy. Brilliantly, he knew everyone, he went everywhere and did everything. Once he had made up his mind, he pursued authors and books with the dedication of a fighter pilot. He blew much of the dust off the time-worn, gentlemanly art of publishing. Tom had instinctive good taste and also understood commerce - a rare combination when he started out. It was gratifying to witness the joy he had in publishing books. It was a tactile, almost sensual thing with him. His cultural influence has been immense. Over the years, millions of people have read good books in which Tom had a hand, a big, generous hand at that.”

Ian McEwan

"Tom was a whirl of a publisher, fun, noisy, smart, always zealous for books and writers; he loved running the coolest publishing house in London, and it enjoyed it too."

Julian Barnes

'A genius, a maverick, a legend, he published some of the greatest writers of the last century'

"Tom Maschler was one of the publishing greats, a maverick force of nature, perfectly at home with literary fiction and launching many of our greatest contemporary writers’ careers which he combined with astute, innovative commercial publishing such as Masquerade by Kit Williams and The Human Body by Jonathan Miller and David Pelham.  Tom will be remembered through the legacy of the extraordinary books he published from Doris Lessing, Joseph Heller and Gabriel García Márquez to Posy Simmonds and Roald Dahl and the unique Cape quartet of Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, Julian Barnes and Salman Rushdie not forgetting the Booker Prize which he invented. He had such a stunning impact on modern publishing it is hard to imagine the world of great literature without him."

Gail Rebuck, Director, Penguin Random House

"Tom was, without doubt, the most brilliant British literary publisher of his era. He could not only spot great writing, but he knew how to package it and to market it. He was a brilliant salesman. And by inventing the Booker Prize, he created a market for literary fiction that has persisted to this day. Márquez, Pynchon, McEwan, Fowles, Dahl, Amis, Roth, Heller, Chatwin – who else has ever had a list like it?"

Dan Franklin, former Publishing Director, Jonathan Cape

"Tom Maschler was the King of British Publishing. A genius, a maverick, a legend, he published some of the greatest writers of the last century. His influence and his brilliance will be felt in British culture for decades if not centuries to come. It’s such a sad loss that he has gone, but I am immensely grateful to him for everything he did to make Cape the great imprint it is, and to all the joy he has brought to so many readers around the world through the books and authors he published."

Michal Shavit, Publishing Director, Jonathan Cape.

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