Penguin Random House UK chief executive Tom Weldon paid tribute to Transworld publicity manager Sophie Christopher, days after news of the 28-year-old’s death left the publishing world devastated, in front of her friends and colleagues at PRH’s annual conference.
“She embodied effervescence… there was always this amazing smile on her face,” Weldon said of Christopher who died suddenly on Monday (3rd June) from a suspected aneurysm. He added Christopher, who was a co-founder of The FLIP, was an “unstoppable force of positivity and enthusiasm”.
For the first time in the company’s history, the Penguin Presents event was opened up to external guests with more than 1,500 attendees. Queues snaked through Argyll Street in London’s Soho ahead of the showcase at the London Palladium on Thursday (6th June) with highlights including artist Ai Weiwei, Grime artist Stormzy - who revealed the winners of the first #Merky Books New Writers’ Prize - as well as author Malorie Blackman who discussed her Noughts & Crosses trilogy and the forthcoming TV adaption. Bill Bryson also discussed his first science book for 16 years while Jeanette Winterson acted out scenes from her AI literary thriller Frankissstein.
Weldon’s keynote speech revealed his desire to bring the whole company together for the conference and his positivity about the state of publishing in general. He said: “It’s been my ambition for the whole company to be represented at Penguin Presents and this has come true today. We have colleagues from all seven sites… and from the Dublin office and around all the world… I’m feeling so proud.”
Meanwhile external guests attending for the first time—from the publishing, creative and media industries—included those from the Reading Agency, Sainsbury’s and W H Smith.
Weldon said: “Ten years ago book publishing felt a little beleaguered and many were swift to write off the book yet the past decade has seen enormous artistic and commercial success and now than ever books are leading the discourse, we’re turning to our authors to help us navigate and make sense of the world,” he said. “We have protected and supported writers by accurately anticipating the cultural and commercial evolution of the book industry, changing our business model appropriately, continuing to take risks and invest millions of pounds in talent even though our business has been severely disrupted. Publishing has never been more alive, exciting and influential and there’s never been a more important moment for Penguin Random House. Our mission is simple but bold: we make books for everyone because a book can change anyone.”
The PRH UK chief described how political and economic turmoil created space for books to shape the narrative of society.
“We are creating books for our society for generations to come as trust in politicians, businesses and the media continues to decline we have the opportunity to shape policy, culture and society,” he said. “We are a proudly commercial company with a social mission at our heart, we are prepared to use our voice to campaign on behalf of what matters to us whether that’s freedom of speech, inclusion or literacy. Now is the time to evolve our narrative and take the inspiration of our past and connect it to the vision of our future, to define our mission so it sits as our anchor for all of us who work at Penguin Random House and is a beacon for our readers, authors, customers and partners.”
Weldon spent much of his speech paying tribute to employees such as Christopher as well as Penguin art director John Hamilton who died in February aged 55.
“While I feel optimistic about the future of PRH and the book industry as a whole, 2019 has actually been a very difficult year for us in some ways. We are a large company but we are very much a family and our family has been struck down in the last four months by three sudden and unexpected deaths. First our beloved Penguin art director, John Hamilton, in February. Then two months later, Susan Gillings, a hugely popular and respected member of our accounts team at Frating [in Colchester] who had been with the company for 12 years.”
Weldon became visibly emotional as he continued. “Then just two days ago, we learnt of the tragic death of Sophie Christopher, our wonderful publicity manager at Transworld.
“She embodied effervescence, an unstoppable force of positivity and enthusiasm, there was always this amazing smile on her face. Her latest brilliant project was the FLIP, a digital project to promote female leadership in publishing. I know how devastated everyone in the Ealing office, and indeed across the company, is feeling. There is nothing I can say to the friends and colleagues of John, Susan and Sophie to take away your pain but my heart goes out to you.”
Weldon also paid tribute to Hamilton, who he had worked closely with him for more than 30 years.
“Just like Sophie and Susan in their different ways, John was a remarkable person and his life and career served as a source of inspiration to me,” Weldon said. “He was not your typical publishing colleague. He probably would have laughed at me for saying this but he was a great example of the power of diversity after coming from a modest Glaswegian background… the first of his family to go to college or university.”
“He found inspiration for his work from everywhere – from tattoo artists, fashion designers and the music industry – this is what made him exceptional.”
Author Markus Zusak, also added his sentiments over the loss before interviewing three mentees of the Write Now scheme. The Australian author had worked closely with Christopher during her time at Transworld.
He said: “Transworld, we love you, and so many of us authors are thinking of you right now and you’re the best of people to be published by.”