Hachette’s new order

In The Bookseller magazine this week we tackle the issue of generational change in publishing, questioning whether publishing’s recent promotions of a more youthful brigade of executive means that the old guard is being left on the shelf. So today’s news of the planned retirement of Tim Hely Hutchinson, long-time chief executive of Hachette UK and before that Hodder Headline, and his passing of the chalice to the youthful David Shelley, c.e.o of both Orion and Little, Brown in the UK, is timely (at least for us). 

For make no mistake, this is a generational shift: and a fundamental one. So striking in fact, that one could suggest it even skips a generation. From 2018 Hachette UK will have gone from having the oldest chief executive among the big publishing groups to the youngest.

Shelley is also one of the youngest members of the Hachette UK board, and though he has been at Hachette since 2005, he only took on the top jobs at Little, Brown and Orion in 2015. His rise to the top has been steep. He is younger than fellow HUK executives such as Jamie Hodder-Williams, c.e.o of Hodder & Stoughton, and less experienced—in terms of management responsibility—than many. Hodder-Williams has been c.e.o. of Hodder & Stoughton and Headline since 2010, and was managing director of Hodder before that. Similarly, Alison Goff, c.e.o. of Octopus has been in that role since 2005, while Lis Tribe has been m.d. of Hodder Education since 2012.

Rivals to the throne have been given an enhanced role after Tim’s retirement, with Hodder-Williams becoming director of Trade Publishing of HUK from 1st January 2018 and taking on responsibility for the group’s world rights adult publishing. Commercial director Richard Kitson becomes deputy c.e.o. of Hachette UK; while Tribe will join the executive committee of HUK.

The move suggests, as does The Bookseller’s piece this week, that youth now has the edge over experience - and that will disappoint some who we spoke to as part of the analysis. Agent Clare Alexander of Aitken Alexander for example told us: “I am very aware that my peer group in UK publishing is disappearing. Some are going to three–day weeks, some are retiring, some are being pushed. Why is vibrant US publishing not pushing people out, and British publishing is?” In America, she says age is still seen as an asset, citing Knopf’s 70-year old chairman and editor-in-chief Sonny Mehta.

Hachette is keen to dispel such talk. It used to be true that age brought with it experience, but not any more, I was told today, “Experience brings experience”. It is also the case that it is not only chief executives who wield the power within publishing groups, with Hachette employing two of the most senior editors in the business—Hodder & Stoughton consultant editor Roddy Bloomfield, who is in his 80s, and Maclehose Press publisher Christopher Maclehose, in his 70s.

There may well also be some criticism that yet another c.e.o. position has gone to a man. But Shelley’s rise should be judged on its (and his) merits. He is a leader of rare skill, with a talent for management that keeps both his staff and authors on-side. Like Penguin Random House UK c.e.o. Tom Weldon, he has reached the top job via an editorial route, and his coup in bringing J K Rowling to the Little, Brown lists is immeasurable. The division only narrowly missed being named Publisher of the Year at the British Book Awards last week. His decisions to promote Charlie King at L,B, and to bring in Katie Espiner at Orion have also been widely praised—even if Orion remains a work in progress. He has also been lauded for his work behind the scenes on Hachette’s diversity initiative, Changing the Story. His talent is to combine the hunger of a commercial publisher with the sensibilities of a literary one. Or as Hodder-Williams put in the prepared statement: “David is . . . a true publisher who sees and creates opportunities both for writers and for the business.”

Shelley is also of the new world. Like me, he began in this business around the late 90s when Amazon was just getting going, and the publishing sector first started to think seriously about digital. Hely Hutchinson’s role in creating this new world has been pivotal of course: his instincts to bring about the end of the Net Book Agreement paved the way not just for Headline’s rise as a commercial publisher, but for the age of supermarket-led discounting and online retailing. It is notable that one of this last acts will have been to acquire the digital specialist Bookouture, exactly the kind of business that Hely Hutchinson would once have founded.

A few years ago I would have said that Hachette looked the least modern and the most fusty of all the big publishers, its regular scraps with Amazon a distraction and a drain, but in the wake of the Penguin Random House merger, the remarkable performance of Pan Macmillan under Anthony Forbes Watson, and the appointment of Charlie Redmayne as c.e.o. of HarperCollins, it has quietly gone about an internal overhaul with the recruitment of some of the brightest publishers in the sector and a realignment of the divisions now securely housed within Carmelite House. Before the merger of Penguin and Random House, Hachette was briefly the UK’s biggest trade publisher, a position Hely Hutchinson would once have wanted to regain. My sense now is that this is no longer the ambition: that being the best is a more attainable goal than being the biggest. 

It may come across as a little brutal, but for all the talk of a print renaissance, publishing is not the same business that it was 20 years ago, and it will continue to change rapidly as is the case for any sector where the biggest player is also the biggest disruptor. Rather than a business looking backwards at how the markets used to be, or over its shoulder at rivals, Hachette has become a group looking to the future with a c.e.o. who will be part of that future.