Last week Joel Rickett, the deputy editor of this fine publication, filed his last copy for The Bookseller and turn off the lights. Joel will resurface next month at Viking, a Penguin imprint, as an editor. Joel is a gifted person who understands the book publishing industry and has transferable editorial skills. So it doesn’t look to us (are you listening, Joel?) a high-risk appointment. Yet it is striking how rarely book publishers take even this much of a gamble on talent from outside the industry.
I arrived in book publishing late in my career and was amazed to discover that every other head of house (itself a term that helps to define book publishers as a race apart) had been in the industry for decades.
So, too, had almost everyone else. Across the Atlantic, reservations have been expressed about the appointment of a Bertelsmann executive to the top job at Random House. Well, yes, he may have worked for an international media company for his entire career, but he hasn’t worked in trade publishing, so the odds are stacked against him.
Why do we appear to place such a premium as an industry on internally acquired skills and resist the recruitment of relevant outside experience? Money is a factor, no doubt. This is not the country’s best-paying industry, particularly at entry and middle management levels, so you won’t find many former investment bankers line-editing copy for Penguin or anyone else. But we could always try to recruit from outside and, for the most part, we don’t.
The honest answer, I fear, is that we’re a conservative bunch, we trade publishers. We know what we like and we like what we know. We all acknowledge the need to develop new technology skills—though even key digital appointments are often made from within. But, as the basic process of publishing a book has not altered much in decades, we don’t feel under pressure to recruit people headhunters fondly call "agents of change".
We all recognise the importance of recruiting from a more diverse pool of talent, and we have been making collective progress. The corridors of publishing houses are not as predominantly white and middle-class as they were five years ago.
But our industry still projects a forbidding image to potential recruits. We need, within our limited means, to find ways to make this wonderful business appear accessible and inclusive. We must want to recruit people from more interesting and diverse backgrounds but, by the same token, they must want to come and work with us. The water’s warm once you get in.