Two months ago, Alison Lowry, the highly regarded former chief executive officer of Penguin Books South Africa and personal editor of two key authors at the global publishing house, raised the possibility of someone succeeding her.
But what started out as a routine exercise in good corporate governance with Andrew Phillips, Penguin International’s chairperson in New Delhi, resulted in Lowry (58) suddenly leaving at the end of July, resigning from the company she joined in 1989 and has headed since 2002.
“Perhaps the company and I were at slight cross-purposes about the timing of how much longer I wanted to be at Penguin,” said Lowry, a University of Cape Town English literature graduate, in a telephone interview. “I wasn’t really planning to hand over so suddenly, to be honest. But it seemed like a good idea after the conversation to make the move quickly.”
Lowry’s departure, a month after appointing a new publisher, has prompted speculation that the succession issue was a disguised way for the company to save costs by replacing her with junior editors, although Penguin rubbished the suggestion.
“We are actively searching for a replacement for Alison,” Tracey McDonald, Penguin’s sales and marketing director, said. “Alison had been thinking for some time about moving on from Penguin, and also about the next phase of her working life. After having spent 23 years with Penguin, she decided to make the shift now.”
Lowry’s explanation differs more in tone than over issues.
“I had been thinking for some time about taking a different direction and moving out of the corporate world. I just didn’t think I would do it this year. The conversation led to that point, and my own personal choice was to rather cut the tie. It is very hard to leave Penguin.”
A sudden loss
Lowry’s sudden exit has left author Damon Galgut “bereft”. He first met Lowry when he was 17. A teacher at his high school in Pretoria submitted the typescript of A Sinless Season (1984), his first novel, to Jonathan Ball Publishers, a company Lowry helped to found after she and Ball both left MacMillan.
“My shoes broke in the lift and I had to approach her with my footwear in my hand, which in retrospect seems appropriate,” said Galgut, whose novels The Good Doctor (2003) and In A Strange Room (2010) have both been shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize.
Galgut, who has worked with Lowry as editor on all his books — but for The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs (1991) — denies the rumour that key authors are refusing to be edited by anyone else at Penguin.
“It’s not exactly true, no,” he said in an email interview. “But I have asked for Alison to be my primary editor, which means that I deal mostly with her, and the input from other editors [from other publishing houses] is channelled through her. This is partly because I know and trust her very deeply after many long years of working together, but also as self-protection: it’s not helpful to have five or six people clamouring for you to work in different directions.”
John van de Ruit, whose Spud series has been a commercial boon for Penguin, said: “I imagine moving on will be difficult, if not impossible, for those authors who, like me, have developed an understanding and strong working relationship and friendship with Alison.
“I would dearly hope that we can work together again because she really does have a unique gift and the lightest of touches.”
Unlike Galgut, Van de Ruit’s first encounter with Lowry was distinctly this century: she sent him the email accepting the manuscript of Spud (2005), and she has been his primary editor on the three spin-off novels.
“It was just a very merry dance through publishing,” said Lowry of the Spud phenomenon. “Nobody, least of all me, envisaged that this would be half a million sales in a market that is supposedly tiny.
“Fiction remains small unless you get something that is a blockbuster, like a Ken Follett or JK Rowlings. For a debut novel by a local author, selling 3 000 copies is good. If you can sell 5 000, that is very nice. If you can go up to 10 000, that is a bestseller. It is unusual to sell more than that.”
Lowry’s brief when she joined Penguin was to develop a local list.
“The difficulty with publishing fiction in a small market like ours is that at exactly the same time your debut novel comes out it is competing with the 400 other books that have been released that week in English in fiction all over the world,” Lowry said.
Speaking at the Franschhoek Literary Festival in May, author Imraan Coovadia, who also heads UCT’s creative writing programme, lamented the “sketchiness” of much current South African fiction, which, he said, was published too quickly, with too little editing. In a panel session at the same event, he likened most new South African fiction books to sperm cells: they were all destined to die.
“There is great deal of truth in that,” said Leon de Kok, a novelist and professor of English at Stellenbosch University, who shared the stage with Coovadia. “As a judge of prizes over the past few years, I have seen lots of books that I would have said no to as a publisher.”
But De Kok is generous in his praise of Lowry, describing her and Penguin’s recently appointed publisher, Frederik de Jager, as a “writer’s publisher”. De Jager was poached from rival fiction publisher Random House.
De Kok first dealt with Lowry in the mid-1990s, when he and Ian Tromp approached her with an idea for a new poetry anthology. “Alison stuck her neck out and agreed to a publishing contract with two unknown people because we were passionate and had a good idea,” De Kok said.
The Heart in Exile (1996) was criticised when it appeared, notably by Stephen Watson, who dismissed the editors as “incapable of writing basic, clear English prose”.
Selling the passion
But, as Lowry repeatedly said in her interview, publishing is about passion and belief, and also about making unpopular decisions — as when she published Michael Cawood Green’s historical fiction, Sinking: A Verse Novella (1997). The book was a commercial disaster — Penguin’s top brass asked her what she was “smoking” — but De Kok said it was “an important book”.
The critical and financial successes of authors Galgut and Van de Ruit in the new millennium have been a personal vindication for Lowry, demonstrating her finely wrought sense for literature and lucre.
“I love making money out of books,” she said. “It is enormously rewarding when people put a value on somebody’s creative idea or adventure story or cookery book and want to acquire it.”
During the past few years, Lowry steered several initiatives to encourage the writing and reading of African literature. In 2010, she oversaw the launch of the Penguin Prize for African Writing, which coincided with the launch of the Penguin African Writer Series, an update of the iconic African Writers Series published by Heinemann since 1962, which Pearsons, Penguin’s parent company, acquired.
“It was successful marginally,” Lowry said, which is a corporate euphemism for a sales flop.
This disappointment reflects a possibly bigger personal one. “Alison sacrificed her career as a novelist to publishing,” De Kok said, referring to her two novels, Natural Rhythm and Wishing on Trains.
But this might be ungenerous. Possibly, it is Lowry’s grounding in the mechanics of literature that has made her such a good editor, easily able to “slip into an author’s head”, as she phrased it. Galgut certainly appreciated her respectful tiptoeing around in his imaginative worlds.
“A good editor, essentially, will call you on your own attempts to bullshit yourself. The times that Alison, or others, have put their fingers on faults or failures in my work, I’ve always had the sensation of being found out, of being caught in those little moments where you think, ‘it’ll do, it’ll pass’. It’s a sort of shaming relief to find out that isn’t the case.
“This, incidentally, is the reason I believe that conventional publishing will survive the firestorm of self-publishing that the internet has let loose,” he said.
“It’s less the whole publishing machine that matters than its editing component. A book that has been through an intelligent, considered editing process is nearly always markedly better than one that’s been left to the author’s own judgment.”
Lowry has no plans about what to do with her free time. “Hopefully, I will remain within the publishing world and look after certain authors and continue to guide their careers, not necessarily for Penguin but for other houses as well.”
This marked change in the daily routine of one of the country’s leading editors and publishers possibly underscores Galgut’s bewilderment. “I’m staggered that Penguin would let somebody of her calibre go,” he said. “It shows an inability to comprehend that she was the glue that held Penguin SA together, and they should have fought to keep her. They’ll be paying the price for a long time to come.”