In the second year in which we have nominated a Bookseller 101st, the spot goes once again to a woman who is leaving one of British publishing’s most pivotal roles. Yet while there was a sense that last year’s 101st, Pearson’s Marjorie Scardino, was truly riding off into the sunset, many observers believe there may well be a big job or two left in Dame Gail Rebuck’s future. It may not even be in books: at the moment Paddy Power has her at 10/1 to take over as head of the BBC Trust when Chris Patten steps down in 2015.
Still, it must be underscored that even though Tom Weldon has assumed command at the combined Penguin Random House, Rebuck has considerable influence at the company, both in the UK (where she is chair) and in the global group (where she sits on the board of directors).
Additionally, we must note that Rebuck’s selection as this year’s 101st is not a lifetime achievement award—she has had a 2013 to remember. In her last half-year before the merger, RH UK cemented its lead over rivals Hachette as the UK’s biggest publisher, gaining a 12.6% market share through Nielsen BookScan (beating Hachette’s 11.9% and Penguin’s 11.6%). Yes, there was a 7.7% revenue decline half-year on half-year, but 2013’s figures were being compared to an E L James-boosted 2012. Strip out James from both this year and last, and RH had 1.3% growth—and it would have still been the UK’s top publisher.
Dame Gail’s energy—and her rather thick contacts book—also got the trade-wide Books Are My Bag (BAMB) campaign off the ground, with Rebuck convincing M&C Saatchi to come on board. BAMB, Rebuck herself acknowledged, was not going to stop bookshop closures, but she argued it “changed the atmosphere from one of dejection to one of optimism”. It also did something for sales; participating BAMB shops had an 18% year-on-year sales boost in the week the campaign launched.
Rebuck has long had a role outside the walls of RH’s Pimlico HQ. Literacy has been a passion. It was her force of will which created World Book Day in 1998; she chairs adult literacy charity Quick Reads; she is a trustee of the National Literacy Trust; and is the chair of the Cheltenham Literature Festival.
The first book Rebuck ever published was Susie Orbach’s trailblazing Fat is a Feminist Issue; apropos given Rebuck’s own glass ceiling-shattering career. Though gender bias is arguably still prevalent, it is not a patch on what it was when Rebuck became RH boss in 1991—the Times ran an infamous “Woman Takes Top Publishing Job” headline, and Private Eye called her “a woman who crunches diamonds in her teeth”. Rebuck’s tenure has done much to extinguish that clichéd sexism.
A Rebuck fan is Quick Reads’ project director (and The Bookseller’s fiction reviewer) Cathy Rentzenbrink: “I’m looking forward to whatever Gail does next; she’s a role model and mentor for so many women. I’d bet a fiver that what she does next will be surprising, and considerably more that it will be successful.”