Thursday, November 10, 2011

Penny Vincenzi: My life in publishing

Penny Vincenzi has published fifteen books since 1989. All are bestsellers. Her latest novel, The Decision, was just published in Canada. She will be guest editing The Afterword all this week.

If I ever wrote my autobiography, it would be extremely boring; only just one chapter would be quite interesting, indeed exciting and that is the one that tells the story of the foray my husband Paul and I made into the world of publishing on our own, and consequently into the word of high finance.

It was in the early 70s and had won a contract with Boots the Chemist to publish a fashion and beauty magazine; I was an ex fashion and beauty editor at that time, and working in the cosmetic industry and my husband was an adman. Boots were very keen and although they didn’t put any money in, they contracted to distribute it, and to display it in all their stores and that was worth mega bucks. The only problem was we didn’t have any money to put in either…
So we sold our very nice Victorian house, bought a modern box and used the spare change to finance the early stages. Paul, was confident that once the advertising started rolling in, so would the backers. We both gave up the day jobs and he spent all his days in the boardrooms of various investment bankers, doing his presentation about the wonderful opportunity they were being offered in backing us while I sold advertising space, hired a couple of staff and we set up office in the spare bedroom of our house. It all went swimmingly; and as the launch date approached, we had sold forty pages of cosmetic advertising, no small achievement. The presses were about to start rolling, and the TV commercial we had contracted to make to sell the magazine was in the can; only problem was we still had no backers. It was terrifying: and then out of the blue, came a small team who said they would back us and would only require 20% of the equity in the company. We attended lots of meetings, feeling rather grand and high powered reached Heads of Agreement—a sort of interim contract—and pressed the button on the printing process. A very large sum of money had now been spent—but we still didn’t have the cash. We didn’t even admit to one another how scared we were.

And then—five days before launch, our backers suddenly demanded 80% equity and full editorial control. We knew this was impossible and we were being held to ransom; and we refused to sign.

At which point, we could very easily have gone bankrupt—in fact our lawyers took us into their boardroom and told us what to do when the bailiffs came. It was terrifying; we couldn’t sleep, we couldn’t eat. We would lose our house, our car, everything; we were in debt to the tune of several hundred thousand pounds. And it wasn’t just our own future we had gambled with so recklessly, we had two little girls who would be on the street with us. How, we asked ourselves, could we have been so stupid?

The only way was forward; so we dispatched the copies of the magazine to Boots’ warehouse and watched our commercial on the TV. “There goes our future” I said as it flashed across the screen…

Publication day came and went and two days later we went to check out on the magazine in the stores. I sent my husband in while the girls and I did some (very meager) shopping. He came back looking ashen; “it’s not even on display” he said. I sent him back to see the manager; we stood in the middle of the supermarket, frozen with terror.
Then “there’s daddy” said Polly, our older daughter, “he’s crying” I turned round to look—and he was, but he was smiling too.

“They’re all gone” he said, his voice odd and strained; “it’s a sell out.”

Which it was; and not just in that store, but right across the country…

Paul was right and the backers came running; on the Monday morning we had three to choose from.

But I never got over it, the terror and the despair; and I remain terminally cautious to this day.

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