The publishing industry is still absorbing the news that John Sargent, CEO of Macmillan Publishers and executive v-p of the Holtzbrinck Publishing Group, is leaving the company at the end of the year. Adding even more mystery to Sargent’s surprise departure, the Holtzbrinck announcement said the popular CEO was departing due to “disagreements regarding the direction of Macmillan.” Sources within Macmillan said the news, announced last Thursday, came as a complete shock to employees. Beginning January 1, Don Weisberg, president of Macmillan US Trade, will succeed Sargent as CEO of Macmillan Publishers, while Susan Winslow, general manager of Macmillan Learning, will head that division as president.
Sargent hired Weisberg, an industry veteran, in January 2016 to oversee Macmillan’s U.S. trade operations after Sargent was named executive v-p of Holtzbrinck, where he oversees the company’s higher education business while also running global trade. When Weisberg assumes his new duties, he will take over responsibility for Macmillan’s global trade operations, with the exception of those in Germany.
Sargent is the most colorful leader among those at the Big Five trade publishers and has been active in industry matters for years. He is currently president of the Association of American Publishers after serving as treasurer. Along with Richard Sarnoff, then of Random House, he was the point person for publishers when they negotiated a settlement with Google in the Google Books lawsuit, though the agreement was later blocked by the courts. He has been a staunch advocate for free speech, and that was put on full display when the Trump administration attempted to block Macmillan’s publication of Fire and Fury in January 2018. Responding to a cease and desist order from the White House, Sargent called the administration’s moves “flagrantly unconstitutional”; Fire and Fury went on to become a huge bestseller.
Always a bit of a maverick, Sargent, who first joined Macmillan’s St. Martin’s Press in 1996, took the unusual step in June of appointing a 13-member trade management committee to set objectives for all publishers and divisions at Macmillan. In a letter announcing the committee, he wrote that he will “step back from day-to-day management to make room for new voices.” The creation of the committee came two weeks after an industry-wide action protesting systematic racism, organized by five Macmillan employees. At the beginning of 2020, Macmillan became embroiled in controversy over the publication of American Dirt, with critics charging that the novel presented an inaccurate and stereotypical depiction of Mexico and Mexicans and of the immigrant experience. The publisher has taken a number of steps recently to improve the diversity of its workforce and list, including hiring LaToya Rose to fill the newly created role of v-p of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
In an interview with PW, Weisberg said Thursday was “definitely a difficult day” at Macmillan. Discussions with employees that day centered around the message that it is okay to acknowledge that Macmillan is losing “someone who has meant a lot to the company and meant a lot to many individuals, myself included,” he added. Weisberg gave no indication of what Sargent’s disagreement with Macmillan parent company Holtzbrinck was about.
“What’s most important to John is the success Macmillan has had,” Weisberg said. “He is very proud of the people here and all they have achieved.”
Weisberg noted that, contrary to expectations in the wake of the pandemic, Macmillan is having a good year. Its sales have grown steadily over the past four years, grabbing market share through organic growth rather than through acquisitions, and he doesn’t think that formula will change. “Macmillan is a steady company,” he added.
Weisberg said Macmillan is in a good position for the fall and the holiday shopping season. He pointed to the success of Louise Penny’s recent bestseller, All the Devils Are Here, and the company’s solid upcoming list. And he remains confident about next year. “I am excited about our prospects for 2021,” he noted. “I think we will do better than 2020, and 2020 has been a good year.”
With Weisberg poised to expand his responsibilities beyond the U.S., he said at some point he will likely look for someone to take over some of his current duties. But for now, he’s taking things one day at a time.
“John and I did talk about our future together at Macmillan,” Weisberg said. “While talk of succession came up,” he added, he was “surprised” by Thursday’s announcement.
Winslow said she too was surprised by the news of Sargent’s departure. “It’s a big change,” she conceded, calling Sargent a mentor. “John is just such an amazing person, and that’s what is so great about working with him—his character, how committed he is to the world, and to people. John and I have spoken, and we hope to take those values forward with us.”
With more than 30 years of experience in educational publishing, Winslow has served as general manager for the past three years at Macmillan Learning and has effectively been running the business while reporting to Sargent since Ken Michaels resigned as Macmillan Learning CEO in December 2019. And her ascension coincides with an intense period of change at the company, which began rolling out its new digital learning platform, Achieve, to strong reviews just as the Covid-19 crisis was forcing students across the country into remote learning.
The rush of new digital learners has since pushed Macmillan Learning into “overdrive,” Winslow said, with personnel conducting about 10 times more training sessions than expected in a normal start to a school year, on everything from how to open an e-book in the platform to more complex instructional design questions. “It turns out that Achieve came at exactly the right time in the sense that it’s a much more powerful digital tool, and easier to use than other tools,” she added.
Though accelerated by the pandemic, the shift to digital resources has been underway at Macmillan Learning (and in the educational sector at large) for some time. In an interview with PW earlier this spring, Winslow acknowledged that “the sudden transition” to a virtual environment necessitated by Covid-19 has resulted in an unusual digital learning experience. “Typically instructors who teach virtually have time to plan out the alignment of their learning pathways ahead of time, and doing that makes an incredible difference. So while there are definitely more instructors now using digital, out of necessity, I think the full potential of digital learning hasn’t yet been fully explored.”