He has published some of the biggest books of the past 25 years — from Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections to Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize winners. Yet that was not enough to keep Nicholas Pearson at the helm of Fourth Estate, the imprint owned by HarperCollins, as the winds of change sweep publishing.
Pearson, whose redundancy this month has shocked the industry, is not alone: Philip Gwyn Jones exited Picador in July; Rachel Cugnoni left Vintage Books last September; and Alan Samson moved on from Weidenfeld & Nicolson a year ago. The shift started with the retirement of Dan Franklin from Jonathan Cape in 2019, after 26 years at the Vintage imprint.
These are all editorial authorities. Gwyn Jones was the first British editor to sign up Anna Burns, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Arundhati Roy, Zadie Smith and Jhumpa Lahiri. Samson published memoirs by Keith Richards, Dame Julie Andrews and Arsène Wenger, and Cugnoni set up Yellow Jersey, the first literary sports writing list.
The clearout comes as the industry focuses on youth. “They have perhaps forgotten that the most successful book of recent years was set in a retirement village [Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club],” said one senior editor.
Jeanette Winterson called Cugnoni “top class”, adding: “She was a victim of the triumph of marketing over content. She was of a generation who believe in literature. That isn’t in fashion anymore; it’s all about storytelling no matter how awful the prose. Our obsession with hits and likes and algorithms [is] turning writing into a tick-box product.”
“They have perhaps forgotten that the most successful book of recent years was set in a retirement village.”
Clare Alexander, the agent who chairs Aitken Alexander and whose authors include Pat Barker and Sebastian Faulks, pointed out: “Most readers are women over 40, but most editors are now women under 40. There is a disconnect between the market and the gatekeepers.”
UK and US publishing have diverged. “In America this isn’t so,” she said. “I’m nearer 70 than 60 and I have many, many friends in American publishing who are still in post — my age and older. In England, there would just be a handful of editors of my generation left.”
In part this reflects a broader shift: that hit books can come from anywhere. Agents and publishers who once had a stranglehold are no longer so dominant. This is bringing diverse voices to the fore — a change that the publisher Margaret Busby pioneered, and has been led more recently by agents such as Elise Dillsworth and Natalie Jerome.
“Our obsession with hits and likes and algorithms [is] turning writing into a tick-box product.”
Some of the shift is cultural as publishing grapples with issues around diversity and freedom of speech. Many feel that Gwyn Jones, seen as a principled editor, was scapegoated for the furor over Kate Clanchy’s memoir, which was accused of having both racist and ableist tropes. Gwyn Jones was neither the editor, nor was he at Picador when the book was bought, but he defended Clanchy.
There is also an element of cost. “Anyone who is on a hefty six-figure salary needs still to be delivering hits and success, and so many of them simply aren’t,” said the managing director of a big publisher. “There are some examples of those older statesmen who are still pulling up trees, but others are just used to a certain lifestyle and believe the industry owes it to them to keep them in the manner to which they have become accustomed.”
One departing editorial director is said to have been told that the company could afford two younger editors for his salary. “Why would you want two inexperienced editors, [instead of] a highly experienced editor who edits a lot of their most important literary authors?” asked one senior publisher.
“Most readers are women over 40, but most editors are now women under 40. There is a disconnect between the market and the gatekeepers.”
There is a risk that departures unsettle high-profile authors, suggesting that the author-editor relationship is no longer sacred. Douglas Adams had a clause in his contract stating that if his left, he could follow them.
Mantel is said to be particularly aggrieved by Pearson’s departure. “The word is that she is absolutely furious,” said a publishing source. “Such moves can backfire — if successful writers vote with their feet, profitability will suffer.”
This change shows how editors are losing ground to colleagues in marketing and sales. Alexander noted that this was exacerbated by the pandemic. “During Covid, acquisition meetings were held remotely, and the problem with that is that the best publishing decisions are led by editors,” she said. “But in a Zoom meeting, they are only one voice among many. The sales and marketing voices would have been louder, and the editorial voices perhaps less loud in many places. That means editorial experience is less valued.”
One editorial director says the departures point to a schism again worsened by Covid-19, when junior staff worked from flat shares, while some seniors had garden offices. “One of the nicest things about publishing used to be seeing editors in their sixties buying from agents in their 20s,” he said. “That generational crossover is disappearing.”
Rosamund Urwin is the media editor for The Sunday Times