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Farewell Felix Dennis, deal-maker supreme of tech publishing

When it comes to getting rich, he really did write the book

By John Lettice, 26 Jun 2014

Obituary There's quite a bit that comes to mind when you think about Felix Dennis: the Oz mag obscenity trial, Maxim, drugs, women and dodgy poetry… But we're not going to do these here - at least, not yet.

Felix Dennis, who died last weekend aged 67, was a pivotal figure in tech publishing: a super-smart dealmaker whose judgment and timing was usually (but not always) impeccable. Way before Maxim he had conjured a small fortune and several leading IT magazines - Personal Computer World, MacUser and Computer Shopper among others - from a dubious collection of kung fu, skateboarding and royal souvenir poster magazines.

Did I say Computer Shopper back there? The one-time doormat-destroying blockbuster owned by Ziff Davis? No, I am not wrong, and we'll get to that in good time.

I was hired by Felix for the first of three times in 1983, shortly after he'd made his first serious deal by selling PCW to VNU, a Dutch company that was then setting up a UK magazine publishing arm. Felix hadn't founded PCW – that was Angelo Zgorelec – but Felix certainly saved the magazine and was able to sell it to VNU for £3m in 1982. That would provide seed money for a number of titles, with MacUser turning out to be the most durable.

So what was Felix doing at VNU interviewing me? Well, VNU had been planning the launch of a weekly title, Personal Computer News, and the powers-that-be had freaked when they saw the first dummy. So they called in Felix as consultant launch publisher and he turned the whole thing upside down and re-interviewed all the staff. I hadn't been there for the dummy, and was merely the last minute emergency extra sub-editor, but everybody working there needed to be approved by Felix.

Oddly, at the same time as he was launching VNU's weekly computer title, he was launching his own. I'm sure someone knows how that played with any no-competition agreement he'd done with VNU, but sailing that close to the wind was always the man's style. Me, I found myself editing that very title, MicroScope, four years later - but we'll get to that too.

Around that time, Felix was dividing his time between London and New York, where he'd acquired a brownstone as part HQ, part investment. His UK companies (which had not yet become Dennis Publishing) were expanding through a couple of small offices just north of Oxford Street, and they were rolling out new titles: some that worked, some that didn't. Anybody remember Soft, for example? But MacUser was a first, did work, and was to become the next big deal.

Ziff, the US publishing market and customer-free shops

Felix had begun to switch ideas back and forth between the UK and the US, noting things that were working in one market then swiftly setting them up in the other, so he kicked off a US version of MacUser. Shortly afterwards he sold it to the late Bill Ziff, at that time the boss of hugely powerful (oh yes it was) tech publisher Ziff Davis. Note that Ziff did not buy the UK version of the magazine, which Dennis continued to run. Some of that might have been because there was still money to be made out of it and Ziff wasn't, at the time, that interested in the UK, but alleged ruthless publishing baron Felix Dennis was a sentimental man, and I'm sure that came into it.

Similarly, he held onto the Goodge Street offices he'd started out in for years, acquiring the freehold with an "offer you can't refuse" type deal*, setting himself up in a flat above, and turning the retail space into the largely customer-free Countryside Bookshop. He was proud of his sharp deals (I thought too proud, but I'm not a multimillionaire), and sentimental about how he'd got where he was, up to and including bankrolling daft hobby projects.

The Ziff deal was rather more serious money than the VNU one, and Felix was able to co-found MicroWarehouse. It was that company's IPO, not publishing, that moved him into the multimillionaire category.

Now, about Computer Shopper. I was back working for him in the second half of the '80s, and after it turned out I could do a fairly reasonable job (I'd been hired against Felix's wishes) Felix decided employing me had been his idea after all, and in between being hauled round to the flat for a good shouting at, I'd get told about some of his sharp deals and cunning plans. Shopper was founded by Glenn Patch who, seeing the deal Felix had struck over MacUser, had approached Felix and asked for an introduction. Felix said he could arrange this, and in consideration for his trouble he would like the European licence to Computer Shopper.

This deal, Felix told me proudly, was verbal, the idea being that American corporate lawyers faced with a complete absence of paperwork would be entirely flummoxed. Was this entirely true? I do know that there was a certain amount of tension in the Dennis offices as the company prepared to launch Shopper UK without Ziff clearance, but Dennis did end up running the title and not getting sued, and I've used the verbal contract gag several times myself since. Trust me, it works.

He did WHAT with a flock of sheep at his country pile?!

Felix now had an awful lot of money, and had acquired a manor house and his first Rolls Royce. He told me he'd gone into the showroom, asked how much that one was, been told if sir has to ask then sir can't afford it, and had therefore bought it on the spot.

Sheep

Baaa: Felix Dennis reportedly had a flock of these outside his gaff

The manor had initially been set in working farmland but - it was alleged to me by high-level Dennis executives - Felix was being disturbed in the mornings by noisy tractors. So he bought the surrounding farmland. Then one morning he woke up, looked across his empty acres and thought “Something's missing - I know, sheep!” Few financial directors of major publishing houses have ever been tasked with securing an emergency sheep transfusion.

It turns out most of the period I worked for Felix coincided with his cocaine period, but although he later claimed he'd spent improbably large amounts of money on drugs, I got the impression he was spending mad amounts of money on mad projects as well, and it was still coming in faster than he could cope with. But drugs or not, he always seemed perfectly lucid to me, albeit often in a shouty-sweary kind of way.

He'd parachute into the new corporate HQ (proper offices at last), where the casualties in the reception fish tank would have been replaced, copies of The Tree (no, really, he did launch that) had been put back out and the painting of him and the other Oz defendants, nude, had been hung back up in preparation for his visit.

But these were flying visits, and by the time Dennis Publishing was launching Maxim he wasn't the one who was really driving. Felix may or may not have been involved with the introduction of the pair of ur-hipsters who came up with the original idea, and I suppose he might later have been involved in tossing most of their plans and launching the product that actually worked. But most of the pre-launch work was done in his absence, and the Dennis management of the time (myself excepted - I reckoned we shouldn't get into areas we knew nothing about) deserve credit for developing and launching one of the company's biggest successes.

Whichever way it was it made lots of money for Felix, of course, but he had lots of money already. The Week, however, was Felix. He didn't launch it, but he spotted its potential, and it's now huge. I could mention - OK, I will mention - that I didn't like this one either. Jumped-up news aggregator for people too self-important to read stuff, I may have said at the time.

Going down guns blazing - and the first germ of El Reg

My parting of the ways with Dennis Publishing was sort of Shopper related. Felix was making a ton of money out of the UK edition but was worried about competition. Ziff Davis was belatedly interested in the UK, and given that it couldn't launch Shopper, it was likely to launch against it. Felix had taken MacUser fortnightly in an expensive and painful process, and told me he was never going to make that mistake again. So… launch against yourself. Two monthly titles publishing two weeks apart, no space for the opposition to get in: sorted.

This lost a great deal in the execution, not helped by most of the principals probably not having got what it was they were supposed to be producing and why. As a Shopper equivalent it failed, and what came out was an under-resourced me-too computer monthly. Cue one of the Dennis Publishing cashflow crises (possibly the last - the company was going legit), cue me getting the job of doing something about it, but there's no more money. Suicide mission.

So a little shy of a year down the line, the numbers have picked up, but not - predictably - where I'm sitting. Felix had decided I'm it, no amount of firing facts back at him is going to change that, and I go down all guns blazing at a board meeting while the board apart from Felix becomes strangely interested in their fingernails. Afterwards, Felix comes up to me and congratulates me for sticking to my guns.

I know that's a bit too much about me, but it's very Felix as well. He decided what (or indeed who) he was going to do, facts immaterial, did it, but he liked people who didn't roll over. I didn't get fired, but I did get relieved of command and I reckoned it was probably time to go. Which is possibly why you find me here. But farewell, Felix, you taught me a lot. I've ignored most of it, and that's entirely my own fault. I still have trouble with the forest stuff, and how you transformed from a fire-breathing hippy entrepreneur into some bizarre combo of twinkly grandad and edgy version of Pam Ayres. But hey, you seemed happy enough. ®

* In a number of areas this obituary may not be entirely accurate. Some of it I was told by Felix himself, whose talent for embroidery was well-known, while other anecdotes will likely have been embroidered by other hands before they got as far as me. But a lot of it's too good to check anyway. And anyway, what's wrong with a bit of embellishment? It's what he would have wanted.

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