Gail Rebuck and Victoria Barnsley: The dethroned queens of the publishing industry

It's just like when Thatcher was toppled - only nobody is cheering.

Recent times have felt like publishing’s equivalent of the week Margaret Thatcher was toppled, but with fewer cheers. On 1 July Gail Rebuck abdicated after 22 years as queen of Random House UK. The following day the chief executive of HarperCollins UK, Victoria Barnsley, was dethroned after 13 years. Suddenly, women have a lot less power in publishing.

Rebuck’s move from chief executive to chair was a not unexpected consequence of the merger of Penguin and Random House, announced last October and cleared by regulators with remarkable speed. The new UK head of the combined group is Tom Weldon, whose hunger to lead Penguin led to the premature retirement of Helen Fraser in 2009. It’s a big job for Weldon, a 47-year-old whose success owes less to literary distinction than to the sales of Jamie Oliver, Jeremy Clarkson and Paul Burrell, Diana’s butler.

Still, the publishing world consoles itself, at least Weldon has spent his life in books. At HarperCollins, the new chief executive, Charlie Redmayne, cut his teeth at BSkyB and has lately led J K Rowling’s Pottermore website.

The two dethroned queens were inevitably seen as rivals, and when a nanny ricocheted between them it upped the ante. Rebuck’s damehood in the 2009 Birthday Honours took the shine off Barnsley’s OBE, awarded six months earlier.

Rebuck was always regarded as the heavyweight – her portfolio included Chatto & Windus and Jonathan Cape, arguably Britain’s most literary imprints. Yet her roots are commercial. She first made her mark with Susie Orbach at Hamlyn, and life came full circle with the publication in 2012 of Fifty Shades of Grey, as she began her career with Ralph Stokes, who published erotica.

Meanwhile, Barnsley was just 30 when she founded the determinedly upmarket Fourth Estate, where she presided over the publication of Carol Shields (whom everyone had turned down) and Dava Sobel’s Longitude. Fourth Estate never made any money, but HarperCollins bought it in 2000 to instal Barnsley as CEO and it has since thrived.

Inevitably, the focus this past week has been on how two powerful women who care passionately about books are being succeeded by two young(ish) men fixated on celebrity, brand and technology – on product, a word too tidy and businesslike to describe a proper book. Moreover, Penguin – that most British of companies, founded by Allen Lane in 1935 to bring high-quality books to the mass market – will now be headquartered in New York City, a mere imprint of Penguin Random House. Markus Dohle, the global head of Penguin Random House, comes from the printing business and when he was appointed five years ago the New York Times observed that it was “roughly akin to putting the head mechanic in charge of an entire airline”.

Liz Thomson is co-editor of bookbrunch.co.uk

Book of Dave: Victoria Barnsley, ex-chief executive of HarperCollins, pictured in 2004. Photograph: Harry Borden/National Portrait Gallery.

Liz Thomson edited, with Patrick Humphries, the revised and updated edition of Robert Shelton’s “No Direction Home: the Life and Music of Bob Dylan”

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Machiavelli

Picture: STAVROS DAMOS
Show Hide image

Jonathan Safran Foer Q&A: “I feel like every good piece of advice boils down to patience”

The author on delivering babies, Chance The Rapper, and sailing down the Erie Canal.

Jonathan Safran Foer is the author of the novels “Everything Is Illuminated” and “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”, and the nonfiction book “Eating Animals”. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

What’s your earliest memory?

Falling asleep on my dad’s chest on a swing at my grandparents’ house. But the memory is a bit suspicious because there is a photograph and I remember my mum taking it, so I guess I wasn’t really asleep.

Who are your heroes?

The only person I have ever been nervous to meet, or whose presence felt larger than life, is Barack Obama. I don’t think that makes him a hero but there are many ways in which I aspire to be more like him.

What was the last book that made you envy the writer?

Man Is Not Alone by Abraham Joshua Heschel. It’s a meditation on religion – not really organised religion but the feeling of religiosity and spirituality. I can’t believe how clear he is about the most complicated subjects that feel like language shouldn’t be able to capture. It really changed me.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

There was a period of about two years when my kids and I would go to an inn every other weekend so maybe the inns of Mid-Atlantic states? I’m not sure Mastermind would ever ask about that, though, so my other specialism is 20th century architecture and design.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I would be very happy to return to my childhood in Washington, DC. In a way, what I would really like is to be somewhere else at another time as somebody else. 

What TV show could you not live without?

I really like Veep, it’s unbelievably funny – but I could definitely live without it. Podcasts, on the other hand, are something that I could live without but might not be able to sleep without.

What’s your theme tune?

I don’t have a theme tune but I do have a ringtone, which is this Chance The Rapper song called “Juice”. Every time it rings, it goes: “I got the juice, I got the juice, I got the juice, juice, juice.” I absolutely love it and I find myself singing it constantly.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

It isn’t really delivered as advice but King Solomon says in the Bible: “This, too, shall pass.” I feel like every good piece of advice I’ve ever heard – about parenting, writing, relationships, inner turmoil – boils down to patience.

When were you happiest?

I took a vacation with my two sons recently where we rented a narrowboat and sailed down Erie Canal. We were so drunk on the thrill of hiring our own boat, the weather, the solitude, just the excitement of it. I can’t remember being happier than that.

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?

An obstetrician. No obstetrician comes home on a Friday and thinks: “I delivered 20 babies this week, what’s the point?” The point is so self-evident. Writing is the opposite of that. I managed not to fill any pages this week with my bad jokes and trite ideas, flat images and unbelievable characters. Being a part of the drama of life in such a direct way really appeals to me.

Are we all doomed?

We’re all going to die. Isn’t that what it is to be doomed? There is a wonderful line at the end of Man Is Not Alone, which is something along the lines of: for the person who is capable of appreciating the cyclicality of life, to die is privilege. It’s not doom but one’s ultimate participation in life. Everything needs to change.

Jonathan Safran Foer’s latest novel “Here I Am” is published in paperback by Penguin

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem