Penguin Random House UK chair Gail Rebuck has paid tribute to Stephen Johnson, the former m.d. of Exclusive Books and Random House South Africa, who died earlier this week, as "a larger than life figure" in South Africa’s publishing industry who will be "greatly missed".
Johnson, born in Cape Town, was dubbed a "writer's publisher" by his authors and had a career in the book trade spanning 40 years. He started out at educational publisher Maskew Miller before becoming m.d of the South African book chain Exclusive Books. Subsequently he became m.d. for Random House South Africa, a role he held for two decades until in 2008 he was made the founding m.d. of Random House Struik. After this, from January 2013 to June 2014, he served as c.e.o. for Penguin South Africa for two years, before going on to work for South African discount book retailer Bargain Books. He died on Tuesday (1st January).
In tribute, PRH SA c.e.o. Steve Connolly hailed him "a true leader in the industry". Meanwhile Rebuck recalled Johnson's exuberance and said he would be "greatly missed".
Connolly wrote as part of an email to staff in the South African office: "In his time as a publisher, Stephen worked closely with many great writers and was an active and larger than life figure in the local publishing industry. Stephen was renowned for his erudition and remarkable eloquence, making him much in demand as Master of Ceremonies for many events. He was an active and highly involved figure in the Publishers Association of South Africa for many years and has been a true leader in the industry. Our thoughts go to Louis, his partner, and to his children and family."
Rebuck said: "It is with great sadness that I heard the news of Stephen Johnson’s untimely death. He was a larger than life figure and the face of Random House in South Africa for many years.
"I shall never forget an incredible visit to South Africa to launch Umuzi in 2006, when Stephen had arranged a surprise and truly remarkable tea with Nelson Mandela. Mandela responded so warmly to Stephen’s size and exuberance that he started calling him The Boxer – a nickname we adopted for Stephen ever after.
"Stephen was known in South Africa as the ‘writer’s publisher’ and will be greatly missed."