The publishing industry was vocally unsurprised on Monday when The New York Times’ Mark Landler reported that Peter Olson, the towering and strange CEO of Random House, had fallen out of favor with leadership at Bertelsmann, the German conglomerate, and would soon be relieved of his duties after 10 years at the helm. “I heard this ages ago!” was the note most tried to sound. Big deal!
Thus, two important publishers exchanged lighthearted e-mails: “Are you getting the job?” “No, are you?” A third explained over the phone, “It finally reveals what we have all kind of known.” Industry record keeper Michael Cader posted a link to the Times story on his Web site, Publisher’s Lunch, with a summary that began, “The NYT’s man in Frankfurt Mark Landler echoes the story (and persistent rumors) we cited recently …”
In other words, everyone already knew everything: about Mr. Olson’s severe double pneumonia, about how last fall it had forced him to put his deputy in charge of the company for two months, about how the illness got so bad at one point that he had to be airlifted from China in a medevac. Most important: about how Random hadn’t produced a big hit in a year.
Yawn! Apparently everybody had already talked about this at the London Book Fair.
And yet there was something haunting about the fact that Mr. Olson’s dismissal was suddenly real, something to be reckoned with instead of gossiped about. The largest publishing company in the world was about to get turned inside out.
Back at the London Book Fair last month, some Random House UK employees were speaking openly at their booth about Mr. Olson’s imminent firing as though it were a done deal. According to an American who was listening, they thought their boss, Gail Rebuck, the glamorous CEO of their company, would definitely replace him.
Such home-team confidence is charming, but Ms. Rebuck’s appointment is by no means a sure thing. Indeed, any prominent publisher or high-ranking executive, within Random House or without, from our own country or a different one, could be in the running. While some surely do consider Ms. Rebuck a favorite, several other viable candidates have emerged over the last three days.
One popular notion on our side of the Atlantic is that Mr. Olson’s seat will go to Chip Gibson, the affable, versatile publisher of the reliably profitable Random House Children’s Book Group. Although his recent successes have been in the vein of The Busy World of Richard Scarry and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Mr. Gibson has worked on adult books for most of his career. From 1982 to 1992, he worked at Crown, returning in 1996 to take the top post. He held it until 2002, and made the division profitable. As a manager intimately familiar with Random House’s inner workings, Mr. Gibson would be a natural choice—although several knowledgeable sources said there are strong indications that is not interested in the job.
That might be a moot point: According to several reports, execs at Bertelsmann are fed up with the entire American operation and might prefer someone from their own backyard. If so, they are probably thinking about 44-year-old Joerg Pfuhl, who has run Random House’s German unit (known as RH Verlagsgruppe) as chairman and CEO since 2002. Mr. Pfuhl has spent time in the States as well: Before he was appointed to his current post, he was the president of Random House Worldwide. Since leaving that post and moving back to Germany, he is said to have succeeded in turning Verlagsgruppe profitable, if not spectacularly so.