News of companywide layoffs at Penguin Random House and the disclosure of the names of a number of employees there who accepted buyout offers announced in the spring combined to make last week a difficult one for the giant trade publisher. While only a handful of those laid off are known—the Associated Press reported that Knopf editor Daniel Halpern was among them—many of the editors and others who agreed to take part in PRH’s voluntary separation program (VSO) are well-known throughout the industry.
The AP was the first to publish the names of some editors who took the buyout, including Ann Close, Jonathan Segal, and Vicky Wilson. New York magazine followed up with its own reporting, naming Viking editors Wendy Wolf (there since 1994, her writers have included Nathaniel Philbrick, John Barry, and Steven Pinker); Rick Kot (he’s edited Barbra Streisand, Andrew Ross Sorkin, and Ray Kurzweil), and Paul Slovak (Amor Towles, Elizabeth Gilbert, and David Byrne). At Knopf, managing editor Kathy Hourigan, who worked on nearly all Robert Caro’s books, took a buyout, as did head of production Andy Hughes, head of publicity Nicholas Latimer, and editor Shelley Wanger.
Earlier in the month, PRH’s Penguin Young Readers division announced three pending departures, though the announcements did not speak to whether the employees concerned took buyouts. Nadine Britt, senior v-p and executive director of production at Penguin Young Readers, will leave the company on December 15. Deborah Kaplan, v-p and executive director of art and design at Penguin Young Readers, will retire in September after 31 years at the company. Gerard Mancini, v-p and executive director of managing and production editorial at Penguin Young Readers, who has been with the publisher since he joined Viking Children’s Books in 1985, will retire in December.
In total, PRH sources told PW in June that 49% of those eligible for VSOs had taken them. To qualify, employees must be at least 60 years old and have worked at PRH for 15 years or more. Those who agreed to the VSO will start leaving the company September 1, and everyone who took the buyout will be gone by December 15. Some editors will continue to work with their authors.
Just as the people departing as part of the VSO program came to be widely known, a memo sent to employees from PRH CEO Nihar Malaviya confirmed that long-rumored layoffs were a reality. “As you know, the book marketplace has had several shifts over the past years,” Malaviya wrote in a letter to staff on July 18. “At Penguin Random House, we, too, have experienced these shifts and changes, especially during the last months. We are halfway through 2023, and while the book market has grown, particularly over recent years, we have also faced significantly increased costs in all areas across the board, and we expect these increases, as well as inflation, to continue.”
The letter continued: “We have been taking various actions over the last months to adapt our business to these market realities, and I’m sad to share the news that yesterday some of our colleagues across the company were informed that their roles will be eliminated. Everyone being affected has been informed directly in individual meetings. We long sought to avoid these actions, but unfortunately could not do so. This was the hardest decision I have had to make as a leader.
“Our immediate focus is on helping the people who are leaving Penguin Random House and supporting them through this transition. We will support them with severance packages and outplacement services to assist in finding their next opportunity, as well as a notice period of nearly two and a half months. We will also work with them to explore any internal openings that are currently available.”
The total number of people leaving PRH remains unclear. The New York Times said 60 people were laid off, but no hard figures for the buyouts have been disclosed. Media reports and industry insiders all cast the twin actions as marking a generational shift at PRH, a term some PRH executives have resisted. But given the leadership roles many of those leaving have had—combined with the prior departures of global CEO Markus Dohle, PRH US CEO Madeline McIntosh, and Gina Centrello, president and publisher of the Random House Publishing Group—it is tough to overlook the fact that a new generation is moving up into prominent positions.
Indeed, the shift began in February when RHPG was divided into two groups, with Sanyu Dillon overseeing a smaller RHPG and David Drake heading the revived Crown Publishing Group. And as unpleasant as the changes are, it will give new people a chance to make an impact at PRH and also give hope to other younger workers about moving up. (A persistent finding of the annual PW salary and jobs survey is that one of the biggest frustrations about working in publishing is the lack of advancement opportunities.)
The industry will be watching who ascends the ranks at PRH. And as Malaviya’s letter makes clear, there are more tough business decisions ahead. For now, though, he wrote, “We will make space and time to express our deep appreciation for our colleagues who are leaving and who have played an important role in writing the Penguin Random House story, and will do our best to help those who remain to digest these changes among their teams.”