Game of thrones

UK publishing took on a new hue this week with the creation of the supergroup Penguin Random House, and the loss of two senior chief executives in Gail Rebuck and Victoria Barnsley.

Three key themes emerge from this: a shift in power to the US, a generational change at the top of UK publishing, and the loss, after Marjorie Scardino last year, and Kate Swann last month, of more powerful female executives at the top. Whatever happens next, this is new—troubling for some, exciting for others.

Ascension is important in publishing. At Penguin Random House, after an eight-month run-up, the management switches were deftly handled. Dame Gail Rebuck, after two decades in charge, stays on as chair of the new UK entity. This is an advisory role but when I interviewed the new PRH management team this week, hers was the voice that guided the conversation. It is a rare skill to lead from the front, rarer still to be able to lead from the back. My hunch is that she will be a key player in this merger as it evolves even if, as she admitted, she won’t be running the group that emerges.

The contrast with HarperCollins could not be more stark, and its chief executive Victoria Barnsley deserved better after 13 years at the helm. Like Rebuck, Barnsley is a skilful operator: charming, tough, witty and an ebullient champion for books. Within HarperCollins she was described as a “mother figure”. She changed what was once seen as a macho publisher into one more creative, agile and open.

But if ascension is important, who ascends is doubly so. In Tom Weldon Penguin Random House has a “publisher c.e.o.”—as he was described by his former boss Helen Fraser—but one who embraces change, and has a clear understanding of how digital alters the landscape. Crucially, he is backed by a strong publishing and commercial team that offers both continuity and a hint of something new.

Charlie Redmayne is equally skilled, though perhaps not a publisher. His launch of Pottermore (even bringing customers from Amazon to buy e-books), remains unparalled in publishing in its vision and execution. Yet for all that, I don’t agree entirely with Sam Husain of Foyles, whose view is that Redmayne’s appointment will lead to a “greater emphasis on digital publishing”. Every publisher in the land is placing a greater emphasis on digital, and rightly so. But those who succeed will look beyond digital, and be unbowed by it: platform neutral and author-centric.

Despite its successes, publishing can often appear diffident in the face of all this: power has shifted, not from London to New York, but to Seattle and the East Coast. What Weldon and Redmayne share is a desire to build publishing’s place in this new world. If it can be said that Rebuck and Barnsley defined British publishing for a generation, then Weldon and Redmayne are the natural heirs for the next.

Yet both take smaller roles than their predecessors. Ian Hudson has the international brief at PRH, reporting to Markus Dohle; at HC Australia, New Zealand and India have gone to the US, and to its c.e.o. Brian Murray. There is a view that this signals a shift away from the UK, towards the US. Talk of stateside hegemony overstates this but as the Association of American Publishers recently noted, US publishers are exporting more and getting better at it, driven by their own challenging print markets and expanding e-book platforms. US publishers were burnt by the “turf wars” of the past decade: if they come back, the battle will be intense and bruising. It may, however, be unavoidable.

That Rebuck and Barnsley are women seems immaterial to me, as it does that Weldon and Redmayne are not. Yet appearances are important, and a modern media industry should not be so dominated by one gender at the top. It’s uncomfortable, and, with many female executives working in publishing at all levels, unnecessary. If we learned one thing from this week, it is that publishing needs talented people, and needs to treat them well.

Ascension is important, who ascends is key, but what they do is what really matters.