Johnson departs Bonnier Publishing with immediate effect

Johnson departs Bonnier Publishing with immediate effect

Richard Johnson is stepping down as group chief executive of Bonnier Publishing with immediate effect, after nine years in the role. He is being replaced by Jim Zetterlund, current chief operating officer and chief financial officer of Bonnier Books in Sweden.

Zetterlund, who will be acting chief executive of Bonnier Publishing, said it was “now time” to establish the firm as a “fully-fledged publisher” after it has grown over the past few years from a small portfolio of imprints into a “major player in the UK publishing industry”.

He added the publisher would increase its focus on fiction and narrative non-fiction.

“The company has reached a pivotal point in its history,” said Zetterlund. “It has secured a strong foothold in the market and now it’s time to increase our focus on fiction and narrative non-fiction and we will establish Bonnier Publishing as a fully-fledged publisher. Commercial non-fiction and mass-market publishing will continue to be an important part of our portfolio.”

He added that Bonnier Books had a “proud” literary heritage in the Nordic countries and in Germany. “We’re looking forward to gradually creating a similar setting in the English-language book market,” he said.

Bonnier Books encompasses Bonnier’s overall book publishing activities, with a variety of publishers and publishing houses both in Europe (Sweden, Finland, Norway, Germany, England, France and Poland) and in the US and in Australia.

Zetterlund (pictured right) will be working in the UK on a daily basis, but still be based in Sweden while the publisher focuses on growing its fiction and narrative fiction offering, but the firm is not actively looking for a replacement chief executive, The Bookeller understands.

Johnson's background is as an accountant in corporate finance. He helped Bonnier buy Autumn Publishing in 1999 and was “asked to hold the fort for six months” while Bonnier Books “found someone who knew something about publishing,” he told the Bookseller in an interview in 2015. “After a few months it became apparent that the businesses needed a lot of restructuring and I was the right person for that,” he said during that interview.

Since his time at the helm, the company has undergone rapid change. It made several acquisitions of other publishers, such as children’s publisher Igloo Books and romance publisher Totally Entwined, while launching new businesses such as Blink Publishing, Hot Key Books and Bonnier Zaffre. The firm has gone through several reorganisations and restructures—in 2015, Johnson estimated that “probably over 80% of employees [based] in the UK” were not in the group 18 months earlier. 

Most recently, it consolidated its UK divisions under Perminder Mann, who was promoted to head of the UK group last year.

Johnson consistently maintained Bonnier Publishing was the “fourth-biggest publisher in the UK” in terms of sales while he was chief executive, and while that was not borne out by Nielsen BookScan data, its print revenue has grown 113%, to £10.848m, since 2009—the year Johnson took charge—according to TCM figures. Meanwhile, the publisher made waves in the publishing world with a number of recent high-figure poaches from rival companies, including of Wilbur Smith, who moved from HarperCollins to Bonnier Publishing in an eight-figure deal for eight new books, following in the footsteps of Lynda La Plante, who joined the firm from Simon & Schuster a year earlier.

Known as an outspoken character in the industry, Johnson told The Bookseller in 2012 that he was not afraid to “look ridiculous... Don’t get me wrong, we are a serious bunch [at Bonnier] and we work really hard. But we do like to have fun and the website is part of that,” he said at the time, referring to a cartoon iteration of himself on the site.

Speaking at the FutureBook conference in December as the keynote speaker, Johnson blasted the industry’s “obsession with targets and quotas” around diversity; instead he championed publishing as an industry “for everyone”, demonstrated by his own presence as a working-class man who made it to the top despite being branded a "philistine" for quitting his degree after just one day at university.

Zetterlund has worked at Bonnier Books for eight years, and was previously chief operating officer for Bonnierförlagen, the leading publishing group in Sweden.

Bonnier Books said it had a global sales turnover of £724m, while Bonnier Publishing’s groups sales are £128m.