UK: Facts about fiction at Random.

UK: Facts about fiction at Random. - A best-seller which disproved many publishing theories was a particular triumph for Gail Rebuck, UK head of Random House.

by Chris Blackhurst.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

A best-seller which disproved many publishing theories was a particular triumph for Gail Rebuck, UK head of Random House.

Once Gail Rebuck, the head of Random House UK - the publishing group that embraces Jonathan Cape, Chatto and Windus, Bodley Head, Century Hutchinson and Arrow paperbacks - starts talking, there is no stopping her. Some matters, such as her husband, Philip Gould, the Labour Party political adviser, and Random House's profits - it is a private company so does not have to disclose them - are strictly taboo.

Others, like the way she emerged from a boardroom bloodbath in October 1991 (the one that saw the demise of Anthony Cheetham, her boss and mentor), to take charge of the company, she will not discuss in detail. But if you get her on to the subjects of her two infant daughters, the advantages Random holds over its rivals or the aspect of publishing that highbrow literary critics find anathema, namely, making money, she is away.

Her attitude is understandable. In an industry that is still firmly rooted in the past, she is an outsider: she is a woman in a male-dominated world; she went to Sussex University rather than the publisher's usual finishing school of Oxbridge and she avoids, if at all possible, the media party circuit. There is the frequently-heard sniping that she is "too American". True, she works for the British arm of a huge, global, American owned empire - not a small, venerable, British house. But the criticism is also directed against her work rate. In an industry not noted for its productivity, Rebuck works hard.

She knows that there are some within publishing who would like to see her and Random knocked off their perch. Her job, as she views it, is to make sure they do not get that chance. Her offices are in Vauxhall Bridge Road, near London's Victoria Station. All glass, steel and chrome, they are a million miles from the marble fireplaces of Bloomsbury.

Her choice of best deal illustrates everything that is different about Rebuck. Deliberately ignoring the move that saw her become a millionairess when Cheetham, her fellow founder, sold Century to Random in 1989, she reflects on the publishing of one of three books, before plumping for one.

The first was in 1978. She had just joined Hamlyn Paperbacks from Robert Nicholson Publications, where she was responsible for reviving the London Streetfinder guides. Her job at Hamlyn was to start a non-fiction list. The first thing she did was splash out £10,000, "a fortune in those days", on Fat is a Feminist Issue by Susie Orbach. "It was the first proper book I had ever bought. I remember it vividly. I bought it and then found out that nobody else had bid for it." The feeling that she had made "a ghastly mistake" was compounded when WH Smith rejected the book, a feminist examination of eating disorders. In fact, the book became a classic, selling over 400,000 copies.

Then there was Hannah Hauxwell, the Yorkshire Dales authoress with a unique, simple view of the world. The public, even in America, cannot get enough of her. The critics may mock but Hauxwell's work fits the Rebuck definition of a good book: "A commercial success enjoyed by a lot of people."

But her best deal was the publishing of Robert Harris's Fatherland, a best-selling thriller about a world where the Germans won the last war. Non-fiction writer Harris - his previous works were Selling Hitler and a biography of Sir Bernard Ingham - wanted to write fiction, so Random, with Rebuck taking a personal interest, took him under its wing.

Fatherland has sold 250,000 copies in hardback alone. The book's triumph has disproved many theories: that the full-price hardback market is dead; unknown, relatively cerebral British authors won't sell in the US (it entered the New York Times bestseller list); Random House is too unwieldy to produce new talent; and Gail Rebuck can't publish good fiction.

Orbach, Hauxwell and Harris "were very different". She related to Orbach as a fellow feminist and published her book "out of naivety". Hauxwell was a runaway commercial success. Harris was a case of "spotting a potential best-seller and making it happen". Of the three, Harris wins. "It is a very important book," she says.

Chris Blackhurst writes on business for The Independent on Sunday.

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