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John Hitchin obituary

·2-min read

My father, John Hitchin, who has died aged 88, was a marketing and publicity specialist in the publishing industry who spent three decades with Penguin Books, where he was responsible for a number of innovations, including the first paperback gift set and the first display “dump” bin. As Penguin’s development director in the early 1970s he also launched the Puffin school book club and persuaded Sainsbury’s to start selling books.

John initially trained in retail at Harrods, becoming the haberdashery department manager there before joining Penguin in 1959. He started in Penguin’s publicity department, becoming the company’s first European representative (under Allen Lane), and then publicity manager in 1962, after which he was its first educational marketing manager, in which role he launched the Penguin Education division. It was after he became development director in 1973 that John launched the Puffin school book club.

In 1974 he went to New York as vice-president of Penguin Books USA with a brief to reorganise the sales and marketing operation. Not long after his return to the UK in 1976 he was appointed marketing director, opening the first Penguin Bookshop in Covent Garden in 1980 before adding nine other shops and becoming retail director of Penguin in the process. In all, he spent 31 years with the company.

John was born in Finchley, north London, to Albert Hitchin, who worked in insurance, and Jessica Wilkins, a draughtswoman. He was educated at Haberdashers’ Aske’s school, leaving shortly after his 16th birthday with minimal qualifications. He completed his national service in the navy, was commissioned in 1952 and was later promoted to lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve.

He joined Harrods in 1956. Appointed to the council of the Booksellers Association in 1986, he served as its president (1992-94), later becoming an honorary life member of the association, as well as of the International Booksellers Federation. As president of the European Booksellers Federation (1993 -99) he worked closely with the European Commission, MEPs and the Council of Europe.

Still active and enthusiastic after his retirement in 2006, John moved to Hereford, where he became involved in the Hereford Civic Society, the Twinning Association, the Hereford Nature Trust, the Fabian Society and the Society of Bookmen (now the Book Society). A lifelong member of the Labour party, he campaigned for them, as well as for a new library for Hereford. Always a voracious reader and a promoter of literacy and the arts, he supported local and national galleries, museums and theatres.

In 1959 he met Ute Schwardt at a publishing exhibition, and they married three years later. She survives him, along with their children, Martin and me, and three grandchildren.

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