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

JESSICA NELSON/MOMENT OPEN
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The fisher bird that unites levity with strength

We think the planet's fish are rightfully ours. But the brown pelican is known to snatch fish from other birds in mid-air.

If ever there was a time when I was unaccountably happy, it was the day I first saw the Pacific. I had just started working at an office near San Jose and, three days in to my first week, a colleague drove me south and west on a back road that seemed to run for hours through dense stands of Douglas fir and redwood, not stopping till we were just shy of the coast, the firs giving way to wind-sculpted specimens of California cypress and Monterey pine.

Here we parked and walked the rest of the way, coming over a rise and finally gazing out over the water. The Pacific. The idea of it had been part of my mental furniture since childhood, though I didn’t really know why, and what I saw both confirmed and confounded the image I had of that great ocean. But the thing that struck me most, the true source of my unaccountable happiness, was a long flight of brown pelicans drifting along the waterline, just ten yards from the shore, more elegant than I could have imagined from having seen pictures and captive specimens in zoos. This is not surprising, as what makes the brown pelican so elegant is how it moves, whether diving from astonishing heights in pursuit of fish or, as on this first encounter, hastening slowly along a beach in groups of thirty or forty, head back, wings tipped up slightly, with an air of ease that would give the term “laid back” a whole new definition.

The brown pelican: it’s a slightly misleading name, as the predominant colour varies from cocoa-brown to near-grey, while the breast is white and the head is brushed with a pale citrus tone, rather like the gannet, to which it is related. The birds breed on rocky islands off the Central American coast and travel north to hunt. In recent years, concern has been voiced for the species’ long-term safety: first, because of an observable thinning of the eggs, probably caused by pesticides, and second because, as recently as 2014, there was an alarming and inexplicable drop in the birthrate, which some observers attributed to huge fish-kills caused by Fukushima.

On an everyday level, though, pelicans, like cormorants and other coastal dwellers, have to be protected from those among the human population who think that all the fish in the ocean are, by some God-given right, unaccountably ours.

But none of this was in my mind that day, as I stood on that white beach and watched as flight after flight of pelicans sailed by. Out over the water, the sun sparkled yet the sea was almost still, in some places, so the bodies of the passing birds reflected in the water whenever they dipped low in their flight. What did come to mind was a phrase from Marianne Moore’s poem about another member of the Pelecaniformes family – the “frigate pelican”, or frigate bird, which she describes as “uniting levity with strength”. It’s as good a description of grace as I know.

Yet grace takes many forms, from the absolute economy with which an old tango dancer clothes her unquenched passion at a Buenos Aires milonga to Jürgen Schult’s world-record discus throw at Neubrandenburg in 1986, and we have to learn from birds such
as the pelican what we mean by “levity”, and “strength”.

How else to do that, other than by closely observing how the natural world really operates, rather than how we think it does? Later, in her poem about the frigate bird (an accomplished flier and an even more accomplished thief, known to pluck fish from another bird’s grasp in mid-air), Moore extends that notion of levity: “Festina lente. Be gay/civilly? How so?” and adds a quote from the Bhagavadgita that, to my mind, gets to the heart of the matter: “If I do well I am blessed/whether any bless me or not . . .” The lesson we learn from the noble order of Pelecaniformes is exactly this: of the many prizes we may try for, grace transcends all.

Next week: Nina Caplan on drink

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