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Publishing has gone mad

5 July 2013

From The London Evening Standard:

Not a good week for women is how one leading literary agent described it. This week two of the most powerful women in the London books trade, Dame Gail Rebuck and Victoria Barnsley, stepped down from their posts within 24 hours of each other. On Tuesday night, Barnsley abruptly departed as UK and international chief executive of HarperCollins after a brutal management shake-up by proprietor Rupert Murdoch. A day earlier, Dame Gail Rebuck stepped back from day-to-day control of Random House after the merger with Penguin was completed.

Rebuck, 61, will remain with the publisher as UK chairman but it is understood to be a part-time role. Some are tipping her for a peerage. Barnsley’s plans are unknown, though she will not stay on as an adviser.

Barnsley was tearful when she told her staff she was leaving and last night’s annual HarperCollins summer party at the Orangery in Kensington Gardens was an emotional farewell after 13 years at the helm and more than 200 literary prizes on her watch, including double Booker winner Hilary Mantel.

. . . .

British publishing has now reverted to being a largely public school, male-dominated business (at least among the upper echelons). Barnsley is being replaced by Charlie Redmayne, Eton (and half-brother of actor Eddie), while Random Penguin UK is being ruled over by new CEO Tom Weldon (Westminster and Oxford). “Four years ago there were four women heading up British publishers,” says Liz Thomson of BrookBrunch. ”On Sunday we had three, and today we have one.” Ursula Mackenzie remains the only female CEO of a major UK imprint (Little Brown).

More significantly, power and influence has shifted overnight to America. Barnsley’s international responsibilities have been moved to the head office in New York, where Brian Murray has been appointed as president and CEO of HarperCollins Worldwide. Until recently, book deals were agreed on a country-by-country basis and England’s historic link to “the Colonies” like India and Commonwealth territories like Australia and New Zealand mattered. Not any more. Likewise Penguin, with its history dating back to 1935, when Allen Lane founded the paperback imprint in Marylebone, will no longer be headquartered in The Strand.

. . . .

The other major development is that the man at the top of HarperCollins UK does not come from a publishing background.

. . . .

Print publishing is under pressure and books companies — which could be more accurately described as content owners in the new digital age — need better negotiating muscle against Amazon, with its 90 per cent market share in e-books.

Link to the rest at Evening Standard and thanks to Jules for the tip.

Big Publishing, Non-US

27 Comments to “Publishing has gone mad”

  1. For the Yanks reading this, “public school” in the U.K. is private school in the U.S.

    The elites are running Britain’s publishing houses. And this is a change because…?

  2. You can’t hide the face of the Gorgon forever.

  3. Naturally, they are doing the exact wrong thing.

    First of all, any management change, especially of management that were loved and respected, means inner choas for at least a year. Chaos not just for staff, but it shakes the loyalty of authors.

    Alienating authors is exactly the wrong way to go. This:

    “…publishers like Barnsley were in the “people” business and knew how to get the best out of sensitive creative types. The rise of self-published e-books might make it easier for authors to reach an audience but it is no substitute for the editing and curation skills of experienced publishers. Alas, new technology means there is no room for sentiment in the books trade these days”.

    is probably the exact stance they are taking.

    They are thinking: We have to get all tough and domineering with those ‘sensitive, creative’ types since:

    1) they are p****** us off,
    2) authors are a dime a dozen
    3) authors still need us,
    4) we can do without them anyway. There’s always another Snookie.

    After all, this is WAR. We need hard, tough, dominant males who take no B.S. and have ties to the entertainment industry (rather than actual authors). It’s a new world out there, and we need CONQUERORS, not namby pamby softie female types.

    There’s nothing like anxiety to reveal that the Men’s Club is still alive and thriving.

    Again, this exactly the wrong direction. The only thing that will really ‘save’ Publishing at this point is for Publishers to ally with authors. I don’t see this as moving that way.

    Then again, I’ve always had the sneaking suspicion that the big-wigs don’t really want to save Publishing. I think they just want to make as much money as they can before it goes…..and give Amazon a hard time on their way out.

    • “…publishers like Barnsley were in the “people” business and knew how to get the best out of sensitive creative types.”

      I wonder if the 70% royalty rate is attracting talented and experienced people who aren’t sensitive types. What if successful and confident people are now writing good books, and don’t give a hoot about self-identifying as sensitive and tortured souls?

      • As Ms Rusch has been hammering for years now, economic success at writing has for years now required a hard-nosed business sense. Or massive amounts of luck. Luck you can’t control but business savvy is something that can be learned.

        In the world of the multinational publishers, “sensitive and tortured” souls are just feedstock to be juiced: squeeze all the value you can get and throw them away at the first whinge.

  4. Handing digital development to public school boys who can barely use a computer – what could possibly go wrong?

    • The Etonians, et al, have “servant class” assistants who do that computer stuff for them.

  5. I don’t think it’s possible to “save” an industry from the people who own it.

    Witness the Auto Industry of the 1980’s and the Music Industry of the 1990’s.

  6. “books companies — which could be more accurately described as content owners in the new digital age”

    I cry foul! They do NOT own content – or any content unless it is written for hire. They are leasing content from their authors.

    This is precisely their problem – they don’t want to be a service industry.

    Just as well they’re learning the hard way.

    I quote from my favorite childhood book, by British writer Meriol Trevor:

    “That’s the way of the Lord of the Heavens,” said Ael Melassin. “He sends trouble to those who can learn from it. For the others, fear is the only pain they can understand.”

    • I had the same problem. It seems that publishers believe that they own books and that authors are just some annoying thing attached to the books.

      • After an author signs away rights for the life of the copyright, that’s what he is.

        • To the writing pros on here:
          Could an author (with a book the publishers really wanted) license the book for say 10 years for a lot of money upfront instead? The way Marvel Comics licenses use of their characters to companies for a limited time? Then after the 10 year period (or whatever period) the license expires.

          Or could an author sign a copyright agreement (advance, royalties arrangement etc) for a limited time instead with rights reverting back automatically after a set period?

          (Just a newbie here! and I’m curious thanks)

          • I am an attorney, this is not legal advice.

            The short answer to your questions is that absent statutory restriction, an author can make any deal with a publisher they damn well please, and the publisher can take it or not. Of course, until recently that always worked exactly the other way ’round, and still does for almost everyone who hasn’t hit the Amazon Top 50 as a self-published author. But sure, you could do any of those things.

            I will add, though, that if I’m a publisher who’s investing in content, I’m at the very least going to insist on some sort of threshold where the license will renew automatically if a renewal payment or guaranteed minimum royalty is met. This can be anything from Mystery Date levels of absurd (“We sold six copies in Costa Rica during the last five-year renewal period. License renews.”) to quite reasonable (“We paid you $150,000 last year, here’s $50,000 against the next year’s royalties. License renews.”)

            • Ah got it. Thank you Marc for the detailed response, very kind– I appreciate it!

              PS “we sold six copies in Costa Rica…” classic! lol

    • I agree ABE.

      “:… they don’t want to be a service industry”

      Nicely put.

      And Elka – “…authors are just some annoying thing attached to the books”. Also nicey put. 🙂

      • I agree too.

        From their point of view, they are making diamonds from the coal the author gives them. Their content and line editing, plus packaging and marketing, turn otherwise unsaleable manuscripts into saleable books. We are just a raw material being mined.

        • They view writers as fungible commodity “units” that are cookie-cutter replaceable and disposable.

    • I wish to know the name of this book! That quote was astonishing.

  7. That was an interesting article, with equal parts The Usual Spin and things that do indeed make me a little (more) leery of what tradpub may try to do next.

  8. Dear women scratching out an existence in the Sudan! Your lives and dignity have been cheapened. How? Today, two women – yes, two! – have lost their jobs.

    Call me blind, but I don’t see how this is anything other than publishing people whining about how they’re being forced to change.

    This might get a little ranty. Should you ever refuse to fire someone just because they’re a woman? Doesn’t that cheapen women, by saying that they can’t stand on their own merits? I learned the term “white knighting” earlier this year. Isn’t it an example of “white knighting” to moan about how two women were replaced with men? Can’t those two women stand up for themselves?

    • If two powerful MEN left their jobs, would any article in the world start with “Not a good week for men”? WTF?

      I think it’s valid to bring up concerns about fewer women in leading roles in the publishing industry, but that opening line … ugh.

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