Guest post by Alison Jean Lester
There’s a joke about comedy that goes like this:
“Ask me what the most important element of comedy is.”
“What’s the most imp—”
I love that joke—comedians making fun of comedians.
It’s great that timing can be practiced and improved upon in comedy, as it can in the flying trapeze and the effective use of the clutch when changing gear.
In our careers, though? Not so much. Where to be and what to do when is rarely signposted. When people say they were in the right place at the right time, they usually do so with a happy shrug. It’s never because it was part of their cunning plan.
The cashier’s desk
For Chris Newson, now running Newson Wallwork Media Ltd, a literary agency specialising in professional and academic nonfiction, the right place was a cashier’s desk in Dillons bookshop on Gower Street in London, the Christmas before he graduated from Middlesex University with degree in humanities and fine art. It was the right time, because when he graduated, Tim Waterstone was developing his bookstore chain, intent on hiring highly read staff, favouring people with arts degrees. With both a degree and a tiny bit of experience taking money for books, Chris went for an interview and “blagged himself a job” at the store in Hampstead.
The heavily stocked Waterstones was not only “groaning under the weight of books,” it also served literate and often celebrity readers, and hosted huge-name writers—a really fun introduction to commercial literature, says Chris, but as there were few other jobs on offer in the early 1980s, “we were paid buttons.”
Setting up a library service
After a few years, he took off for a year in Sydney, where he worked at the university bookshop, setting up a library service. And when he returned to London, he was given his Waterstones job back just at the right time to be sent to Boston and Chicago to open the ambitious outlets there. (Having failed to take the US by storm when he was running WH Smiths, Tim Waterstone was determined to succeed with this second effort in the ring.) The stores were fantastic, multi-level places, says Chris, but “Borders knew how to blow people out of the water, and systematically did so.”
Even so, Chris was in the US at the right time to be taught the new EPOS (electronic point of sale) system, which Waterstones intended to introduce in the UK. His next job was to roll the system out in the London stores, and then, more and more, to shuttle between ‘problem stores’, trying to get people—often people who had been bought out and didn’t feel particularly motivated to toe the Waterstones line—up to speed. Not quite as much fun.
Still, he was in the right place at the right time to say yes when asked by his boss from the Hampstead days, who had moved on to run WH Smith Travel in the US, if he would move to Singapore for a year to get the new WH Smith stores in Changi Airport into shape.
Many of the books on display in those stores were business books published by Wiley & Sons. When his contract was up and he didn’t feel like returning to Croyden from the tropics, Chris went to work for Peter Wiley, “which was lovely, but not very exciting.” So, when the opportunity arose, in 2003, to take on the position of assistant general manager at Marshall Cavendish in Singapore, and then to spend two years in London getting a start-up publishing company they were funding up and running, Chris said yes.
Riding the digital wave
Once back in Singapore, he was made general manager and publisher, “and that’s when the fun really started.” Not only did he have a say in what the house commissioned, but it was the beginning of the e-book revolution, and the Singapore government was funding local content-producers to create digital editions of their offerings. Education material, particularly Singapore Maths, was highly marketable, and Marshall Cavendish was part of the action.
This meant that Chris was now doing the right thing in the right place at the right time to be noticed by Apple, who needed someone in Hong Kong to sort out their Chinese iBooks store, which is to say, someone to travel weekly from city to city to city, getting contracts signed with each and every publisher, most of whom had been moved out to the provinces from Beijing and Shanghai by the government. Although for much of this time Chris felt he was “banging my head against a wall,” by the end of the effort there were 300,000 Chinese books converted into e-books, and the online store was full not only of books but also movies, music and apps.
“One day after it launched, the government closed down the books and the movies because they didn’t like it.” Even though they’d all been through the censorship process? Yes indeed. Two and a half years of work undone in a snap.
Chris decided it was time to go home, and made his way back, not to London, but to Worcestershire, where his elderly parents needed him.
He, his wife and his daughter moved into a house in Worcester. Marshall Cavendish engaged him as a consultant to help them sell Singapore Maths into the Middle East, so he set up his agency . . . and before too long gave up that very frustrating assignment in favour of the much more engaging challenge of helping people he knew in Asia who were looking for UK book deals. Amongst a variety of diverse projects including the odd movie deal, the agency now numbers over 50 active authors from diverse backgrounds such as a former 80’s pop star, an SAS commander, Bloomberg journalists, academics and various captains of industry. Projects have been sold to a wide selection of publishers, most recently Hachette, Penguin Random House and Johns Hopkins University Press.
Chris reflects that the agency is now pulling the many threads of his life together, his way. “You still don’t know one hundred percent what you should be doing and what you shouldn’t be doing,” he grins, “but life is very interesting.”