In a year already marked by turnover within publishing companies, Penguin Random House, the largest one in the United States, is further shuffling the decks.
On Monday, the company announced that Andy Ward, who has edited books by writers such as David Mitchell, George Saunders and Imbolo Mbue, will become the executive vice president and publisher of Random House.
Ward, a former magazine editor, joined Random House in 2009 as executive editor. He spent the past five years as Random House’s editor-in-chief, and helped to shape bestsellers like Paul Kalanithi’s “When Breath Becomes Air,” Lena Dunham’s “Not That Kind of Girl” and Ed Catmull’s “Creativity, Inc.” He will continue to acquire and edit new projects as publisher.
“Andy’s dedication to our books and authors — not to mention his passionate advocacy for our editors — is central to who he is, and to how he will lead this group going forward,” Gina Centrello, the president and publisher of Random House, wrote in a note to the staff announcing the change.
Ward will ascend to the role previously held by Susan Kamil, who died in September from complications that arose from lung cancer. A beloved figure in the industry, her death left a vacuum at Random House, which is considered to be one of Penguin Random House’s crown jewels. In her announcement, Centrello noted that Kamil had expressed her hope that Ward might one day take over her role.
Robin Desser, the editorial director of the Penguin Random House imprint Alfred A. Knopf, will fill Ward’s role and become senior vice president and editor-in-chief of Random House. At Knopf, Desser was a tastemaker who acquired and edited works by bestselling and award-winning authors like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Edwidge Danticat, Jhumpa Lahiri, Valeria Luiselli, Julia Phillips, Arundhati Roy, Jane Smiley, Patti Smith and Cheryl Strayed. In a note to staff, Sonny Mehta, Knopf’s chairman and editor-in-chief, said that some of the books Desser edited are “destined to become classics” and praised her for “the joy she takes at working in the editorial trenches.”
The changes come during a period of rapid transformation at Penguin Random House, which has more than 275 imprints and is by far the biggest of the “big five” publishing companies in the United States. In the past year or so, a parade of high-profile editors have left Penguin Random House, among them Molly Stern, the publisher of Crown, who edited Michelle Obama’s book; Julie Grau and Cindy Spiegel, who left the company when their influential imprint, Spiegel & Grau, was shut down; Maya Mavjee, the former president and publisher of Crown, who left Crown when the company decided to merge Random House and the Crown Publishing Group; and Anne Messitte, the former executive vice president of Knopf Doubleday and publisher of Vintage/Anchor, who departed after a restructuring. Messitte was known throughout the industry as a powerhouse who worked with authors like E L James, Dan Brown, Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison and Haruki Murakami.
All the churn seems to have done little to shake the company’s dominant position within the industry. Penguin Random House has been on a growth spree: In May it acquired a 45% stake in Sourcebooks, an independent publishing company, and in March it acquired the children’s publisher Little Tiger Group. It also bought two publishing companies based in Spain, a Spanish-language literary publisher named Ediciones Salamandra and a Catalan-language publisher, La Campana Llibres.
Penguin Random House reported a 33% rise in profit for the first half of 2019 compared to the same period the previous year, a jump that was attributed to its acquisitions and a string of bestsellers like Obama’s memoir and Delia Owens’ novel “Where the Crawdads Sing.” In November, the company said it would add a new distribution center in Reno, Nevada, expanding its distribution capabilities on the West Coast.
The amount of turnover has been surprising for the publishing industry, where editors often spend years building up their rosters of authors, and writers often put clauses in their contracts allowing them to stick with a particular editor if he or she leaves the company.
Other recent notable moves include Amy Einhorn, who left her position as publisher of Flatiron Books to become the president and publisher of Henry Holt, replacing the departing publisher Ben Schrank; Megan Lynch, who is filling the publisher’s role at Flatiron and was previously the editorial director at HarperCollins’s Ecco imprint; and Helen Atsma, who left Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, where she was the editorial director for fiction, to move to Ecco, where she will fill Lynch’s role.
It’s unclear how the musical chairs will affect the authors who work with individual editors and often develop close professional and creative relationships with them. Overall, the publishing industry has been relatively stable as print sales have stabilized and digital audiobook sales continue to rise. For the first eight months of this year, trade publishers’ revenues reached nearly $4.7 billion, an increase of more than 3% over the same period in 2018, according to the Association of American Publishers.