The one that got away

posted by Nick Hornby May 5, 2005 at 4:19 pm Books ,

Tony Lacey, Nick Hornby’s current editor, confesses his top editorial mistake of all time – turning down Fever Pitch…

Every publisher who’s been doing the job for a decent spell is bound to have skeletons in his cupboard; the wrong decisions that still make you wince in the middle of the night. After the initial pain I tend not to be overly bothered by the books that didn’t sell or weren’t critically admired – it’s easy to tell yourself that the public or the critics were just plain wrong, and that history is littered with great books that had a rough ride at first.

It’s the ones that got away that continue to hurt. I once told an agent who had rejected my offer that the book he was selling was “a piece of American whimsy”; I now think, and perhaps even thought then, that it is an American masterpiece. Fever Pitch comes firmly into this category. Penguin were the runners-up in the auction, which was concluded at a not-very-high price. The puzzle, ten years later, is why on earth we didn’t go the full distance. It’s a book for which I’m the ideal reader – I can still remember the thrilling shock of recognition when I read it later as a finished book, that feeling which is rare but wonderful when you get it from a book, that it was describing something of my life to me in ways I hadn’t read before.

So why didn’t we? A fellow publisher once said to me that he thought publishers subconsciously found it difficult to publish books they really, truly loved. It’s a weird, almost charming thought, but I don’t really believe it. I guess the real reason is down to a terrible old publishing cliché – believe it or not, and it’s hard to now, there was a general belief that football books didn’t sell. Never mind that there was a burgeoning generation of male readers who’d grown up on football; never mind that anyway the book was really about families, and adolescence, and class, and … well, a lot of things besides football: football books, it was said, just didn’t sell. But even here there’s a puzzle: my very first acquisition as an editor when I came into publishing in the 70s had been Eamon Dunphy’s Only a Game?, a now-classic account (still in print in Penguin), of playing the professional game. So I knew football books could sell, and I had already taken the professional plunge…

I guess there’s no point in picking over old bones. The book was published fantastically well by Gollancz, and became a huge bestseller as I watched with envious admiration. But there’s an odd coda to the story. After the publication of Fever Pitch, Gollancz and Penguin jointly commissioned Nick to write a book about the American World Cup. The idea was that he would follow England’s fortunes around the States. Like Fever Pitch, of course it was to be about other things besides football – how would someone who’d grown up with American culture through music, films and books react to the reality of the country itself? Unfortunately, England failed to qualify (I have an irrational dislike of Graham Taylor to this day, way beyond that felt by millions of other Englishmen who suffered with me) and the book was called off.

It seemed pretty clear that we were fated not to publish Nick Hornby. Imagine my misery when the then marketing director of Waterstones, John Mitchison, pressed a proof copy of High Fidelity on me, and I discovered it was a masterpiece: original, funny, true, defining of a generation, and so on – all those things you read about in blurbs but usually turn out not to be true.

Top five mistakes of all time: Fever Pitch, No. 1 every time.