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

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In the age of podcasts, the era of communal listening is over

Where once the nation would listen to radio events together, now, it is the booming podcast market that commands our attention

It’s a moment so celebrated that no TV drama about the Second World War is complete without it. At 11.15am on 3 September 1939, Neville Chamberlain made a live radio broadcast from Downing Street announcing that “this country is now at war with Germany”. A silence fell over the nation as people rushed to the wireless to hear him. The whole country was listening, but crucially, it was listening together.

Nearly eight decades later, it is difficult to imagine a communal audio event like that ever happening again. The arrival of the Walkman in 1979, since superseded by the iPod and then the smartphone, turned listening into a personal, solitary pastime. It was no longer necessary for families to get a radio on a hire-purchase arrangement and gather round it in the sitting room. The technology that delivers audio to us is now small and cheap enough for each of us to have one in our pocket (with headphones tangled around it, of course).

At the same time, the method of delivery changed, too. “Radio” ceased to indicate simply “programming transmitted by electromagnetic waves” in the late 1990s, when conventional radio stations began to make their output available on the internet. Online-only radio stations sprang up, streaming their shows directly to computers. Free from any regulation and with the internet as a free distribution platform, these early stations echoed the tone of pirate radio stations in the 1960s.

The idea of “audioblogging” – making short voice recordings available for download online – has been around since the early 1980s, but it wasn’t until 2004 that the word “podcasting” was coined by the technology journalist Ben Hammersley in an article for the Guardian. He was looking for a name for the “new boom in amateur radio” that the internet had enabled.

Thanks to technological advances, by the early 2000s, a podcaster could record a sound clip and upload it to his or her feed, and it would arrive automatically on the computer of anyone who had subscribed. Apple began to include podcasts as a default option on iPods; in 2008 iPhones offered a podcast app as standard. The market boomed.

Apple is notoriously reluctant to provide data on its products, but in 2013 it announced that there had been more than a billion podcast subscriptions through its iTunes store, which carried over 250,000 podcasts in 100 languages. In 2016, Edison Research released a study suggesting that 21 per cent of all Americans over the age of 12 had listened to at least one podcast in the past month – roughly 57 million people. Audiobooks, too, are booming in this new age of listening; the New York Times reported that
although publishing revenue in the US was down overall in the first quarter of 2016, digital audio sales had risen by 35.3 per cent.

The vast share of this listening will be solitary. This is because audio is a secondary medium. For all the talk about the rise of “second screening”, it isn’t really possible to do much more than idly scroll through Twitter on your phone as you watch television, but you can easily get things done while you listen to a podcast. Put on a pair of headphones, and you can go for a run or clean out the oven in the company of your favourite show. In this sense, the medium has been a game-changer for commuters and those doing repetitive or manual work: there’s no longer any need to put up with sniffling on the train or your boss’s obsession with Magic FM.

Though podcasts are an internet phenomenon, they have managed to remain free from the culture of trolling and abuse found elsewhere. It is difficult to make audio go viral, because it’s tricky to isolate a single moment from it in a form that can be easily shared. That also deters casual haters. You can’t just copy and paste something a host said into an insulting tweet.

Our new and solitary way of listening is reflected in the subjects that most podcasts cover. While there is the occasional mega-hit – the American true crime podcast Serial attracted 3.4 million downloads per episode in 2014, the year it launched – most shows exist in a niche. A few hundred listeners who share the host’s passion for pens or for music from antique phonographs can be enough to sustain a series over hundreds of episodes (there are real podcasts on both of these topics).

This is also where the commercial opportunity lies. It costs relatively little to produce even high-quality podcasts, compared to TV or conventional radio, yet they can ­attract very high advertising rates (thanks to the dedication of regular listeners and the trust they have in the host). The US is far ahead of the UK in this regard, and podcast advertising revenue there is expected to grow 25 per cent year on year, reaching half a billion dollars in 2020. Where this was once a hobby for internet enthusiasts, it is now big business, with venture capitalists investing in new networks and production companies. The US network Gimlet attracted $6m in funding in 2015. However, in the UK, the BBC crowds out smaller, independent operations (the trade-off is that it makes undeniably outstanding programmes).

There is even a movement to make listening a communal activity again. The same hipsters responsible for the resurgence of vinyl sales are organising “listening parties” at trendy venues with high-quality sound systems. Live shows have become an important source of revenue for podcasters. Eleanor McDowall, a producer at the Falling Tree radio production company, organises subtitled “screenings” for podcasts in languages other than English. I even have a friend who is part of a “podcast club”, run on the same lines as a monthly book group, with a group of people coming together to discuss one show on a regular schedule.

The next big technological breakthrough for audio will be when cars can support internet-based shows as easily as conventional radio. We might never again gather around the wireless, but our family holidays could be much improved by a podcast.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times