Scottish publisher who discovered Alistair MacLean and ran HarperCollins

Scottish publisher who discovered Alistair MacLean and ran HarperCollins

Born: October 26, 1925;

Died: November 7, 2019

IAN Chapman, who has died aged 94, began his career in book publishing as an editor in the Bible department of William Collins, the renowned Scottish publisher. He read a short story in The Glasgow Herald by the unknown Glasgow-born author Alistair MacLean titled Dileas about the sea and sailors which had won first prize in a competition run by the paper. Chapman found it finely written and totally compelling.

Chapman contacted MacLean, who was then a teacher at Gallow Flat School in Rutherglen, and invited him to join him and his wife for lunch in the grand Royal Restaurant in Nile Street. The Chapmans found MacLean to be a wee bit dour with a strong Highland accent and showed little enthusiasm when Chapman suggested that he should write a novel for William Collins.

However, the Chapmans persisted at the lunch and probed MacLean on his war experiences in the Royal Navy when he sailed on the Murmansk Convoys to north Russia in terrible weather conditions and experienced savage bombardment from the German navy. Chapman instantly recognised the potential for a thrilling adventure story. Maclean left without any agreement to write even an outline and the Chapmans presumed the lunch had been a useless exercise.

A few weeks later Chapman’s office phone rang and MacLean’s strong accent asked, “So, do you want to come and collect that thing?” Chapman dashed to MacLean’s tenement in Rutherglen and was handed a bundle casually wrapped in brown paper and tied with string. MacLean simply commented, “Ach, any idiot can write a book.”

As Chapman hurried home he held the manuscript of HMS Ulysses which told of the Russian convoys and the crew being pushed to breaking point. Chapman read the book overnight and immediately recognised a best seller. It was published in 1955 and sold a quarter of a million copies in six months. It has continued to sell in both hard and paper back.

Chapman’s decision to take MacLean to lunch that day ensured that MacLean would go on to write several blockbusters that were made into films – including The Guns of Navarone, Ice Station Zebra and Where Eagles Dare.

Francis Ian Chapman, always called Ian, was born in Saint Fergus, Aberdeenshire, the son of Frances (née Burdett) and the Rev Peter Chapman. He was educated at Shawlands Academy where he displayed a talent as a musician and read music at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland concentrating on the violin. His studies were interrupted by the war and Chapman served in the RAF (1943-44) but poor eye-sight meant he did his national service down the pits.

Chapman joined as a trainee at Collins’s headquarters in Glasgow. Within three years he was sent to America to sell Bibles but was called back to head the Bible division back in Glasgow. His career prospered and Chapman guided MacLean’s career both as publisher and agent until the author’s death in 1987.

The success of HMS Ulysses certainly ensured that Chapman did not remain long in Collins’s Bible division. He moved in 1955 to London and rose to become, in 1968, joint managing director and chairman from 1981-89. He was managing director when Rupert Murdoch (chairman of News UK, of which HarperCollins is now a subsidiary) bought 41.7% of Collins. Chapman resigned in 1989, setting up Chapman Publishers with his wife Marjory which was later bought by Orion.

Chapman, who was much respected and admired by all his colleagues, at Collins maintained a close and understanding friendship with MacLean. The author never wanted to live the celebrity-author lifestyle and it took all Chapman’s tact and persuasion to get him to attend the 1961 royal film premiere of The Guns of Navarone, when he was presented to the Queen. Similarly, in 1969 for the London premiere of Where Eagles Dare, Chapman eventually got MacLean not only to attend the film but organised a private table at the after-premier banquet at the Savoy at which he and MacLean sat amongst the stars, Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood.

Chapman maintained close links with Scotland and was the founding chairman in 1973 of Radio Clyde (now Scottish Radio Holdings) and was on the boards of Independent Radio News, United Distillers and Scottish Opera. He was chairman of the Advisory Board of Strathclyde University Business School 1985-1988 and was made an honorary doctor of literature by Strathclyde University in 1990.

Chapman, who was made a CBE in 1988, was a keen golfer (he was a member of Royal Wimbledon and Walton Heath) and skier. He maintained a keen interest in music.

He is survived by his wife Marjory (nee Swinton) whom he married in 1953 and their daughter and son.