In the wake of the death of Lord Weidenfeld, and in light of Penguin Random House’s decision to drop the requirement for candidates to hold a degree, it is worth remembering that publishing has been a good home for people from many different backgrounds for many years. Or at least it once was.
This week’s move by PRH has re-sparked the conversation around publishing’s narrow recruitment and its well-documented problem with diversity. Human resource director Neil Morrison wants PRH to fish in a deeper pond. “To be talented you don’t have to be a graduate,” he said. One need not look too far for evidence, as the trade journalist Liz Thomson reminded me: neither Simon Master nor Ion Trewin had degrees, neither do agents Jane Gregory or Carole Blake. Scott Pack, on hearing the news, tweeted that he could now apply for a job with PRH: “Presumably every English Literature graduate in Christendom has now found a job in publishing so the rest of us can have a go.”
PRH is not the only publisher now looking beyond educational attainment in the hunt for talented staff - Hachette and HarperCollins both said they no longer specified such a requirement, as did Bonnier boss Richard Johnson. The Bookseller’s own recruitment executive Maria Vassilopoulos reckons only a minority of the publishing jobs advertised in The Bookseller recently have listed a degree as a requirement. But PRH is right to make a show of its shift. The move has been widely reported across the media this week and prompted necessary conversations online - not just about who/ how the sector recruits but also what it says about an industry that it no longer demands a university degree as an entry requirement.
This is also a timely gesture for PRH. Unveiling its relaunched consumer website (Penguin.co.uk) this week, c.e.o. Tom Weldon described the company as an “entirely new kind of publisher”. If that is the ambition, then recruitment is a necessary place to start - but it is only the start. As Morrison says: “This is the starting point for our concerted action to make publishing far, far more inclusive than it has been to date.”
The challenges are acute. When Lord Weidenfeld founded W&N back in 1949, book publishing was a respectable trade that rubbed alongside journalism and, thanks to the BBC, broadcasting. Fast forward 65 years and publishing exists within a complex and ever- changing matrix of media businesses that—if we are not careful—will make publishing seem outmoded and regressive. Lord Weidenfeld himself once observed that “the best people no longer go into publishing”.
Perhaps, the trade could ask itself this useful question: if a young George Weidenfeld arrived in the UK now, would he still find publishing the place to be?
Philip Jones is editor of The Bookseller.