A revenger’s return

Two weeks ago Laurence Orbach returned to the helm of Quarto, the business he founded more than 40 years ago and was unfairly ejected from in 2012. Now the rebel (with a stake of 20%), Orbach moved back in having removed half of Quarto’s board, precipitating the departure of chief executive Marcus Leaver. Shareholder Chuk Kin Lau will now act as interim c.e.o., though we can be under no illusion who is really in charge.

It would be unfair to personalise this, but one rival publisher suggested I re-acquaint myself with The Revenger’s Tragedy for further insight. Orbach has had six years to stew on the sidelines, while Leaver has refashioned Quarto as a publishing-led business, with a strong interest in the growing children’s market—a far cry from Quarto’s origins as an adult coedition business. Orbach once boasted that Quarto was not a name you’d see on the spine of one of its books, preferring to license to other publishers; Leaver took a different view, he wanted to build the Quarto name (as well as brands such as Frances Lincoln and Wide Eyed Editions), hoping that the benefits of having direct control over sales and marketing would improve the group’s performance. With debt still high (a legacy left to him by Orbach), it was seat-of-the-pants stuff, but in more closely engaging with the UK and US trade, and giving editors a connection with the books they created, Leaver improved the atmosphere at the business. You can smell a book that comes from a happy publisher, he once told me.

Orbach told staff in a memo last week that his reputation was not as bad as they may have heard. He is probably right. He ran the business for 36 years, successfully if a little on the Gradgrind spectrum. Many of its 400 employees will have been there when he left the business in 2012. It is not a given that under Orbach the group will reverse out of the publishing strategy put in place by the departed c.e.o., a course Orbach had already embarked on. Neither is it impossible that the dynamics Leaver saw in the non-fiction marketplace will not also have been seen by Orbach.

It is clear from this week’s Lead Story that the non-fiction market is facing challenges, with the collapse of Parragon indicative of how tough the sector can be for generic non-fiction, with printing costs, paper prices and currency fluctuations adding to an already tricky coedition climate. Quarto also faces two challenges rivals do not: the level of debt that is costing the business $3m a year, and its share price, which is now at an eight-year low.

"Book publishing is a mature business facing significant change," said Orbach in 2012. If his return is not to end in tragedy, he will need to engage with Quarto as
it is today in a market that has already changed.