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18 July 2013

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

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

By Liz Thomson

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.

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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