Baroness Gail Rebuck at Kingston University: On Publishing and Success

Baroness Gail Rebuck, pioneering chair of Penguin Random House and House of Lords peer talked about her career at Kingston University this afternoon.

The publisher, who counts titles such as Susie Orbach’s ‘Fat Is A Feminist Issue’ and the erotic novel ‘50 Shades of Grey’ on her list of successes, shared stories from the start of her career in the 1970s into the digital age.

From her humble beginnings in the “dark ages – I couldn’t type” and a pivotal job at Robert Nicholson Publications she was certain she wanted to be an editor.

From then onwards she carved out her niche. It was an error with the London map book Streetfinder that imposed the importance of making mistakes and also of “creating a culture of openness” to learn from them.

You are getting it right if “you make more right decisions than wrong ones,” she said.

In 1982 at a time when women were under-represented in the boardroom, Rebuck established Century Publishing with Anthony Cheetham. From an base with 1 phone to share they “were determined we’d publish a list that September and we did.”

Throughout the changes in the publishing industry she notes that a major shift happened “because of Waterstones. Their chain of over 100 meant that publishers had to get books out there in a different way.”

More recently social media has influenced the success of ” ‘50 Shades Of Grey’ as well as Dan Brown – ‘The Da Vinci Code’ and John Green with ‘The Fault In Our Stars’”, she said.

Asked about breaking the glass ceiling and maintaining work life balance she said: “know about it, but don’t worry about it.”

“Express yourself – say what you think, don’t wait to be spoken to. If someone asks you a question, answer – make sure it’s a good answer. Don’t try and think about what that person wants to hear or you’ll never be noticed.”

Apt advice from the winner of the 2009 award for Business Woman of the Year.

When asked how to approach someone to publish work she offered this advice:

“You have to figure out who is the audience, what it’s like, why it is different, who you are, why you are the person to deliver it. “

“I think the best way to do it is via an agent,” she said, “they give lots of advice, pre-editing etcetera,” but if you are sending an unsolicited script “don’t do an email.”

“You have to get someone’s attention in the hundreds of submissions. Be professional, don’t send a script with marks on it, send a photo and a leader that will make you stand out.”

“Ultimately it’s down to the quality of the writing,” she said.

What of her future.

She was made a peer in October 2014 in and sits in the House of Lords. An experience she describes as “a maelstrom of ideas”  and “bizarrely it works.”

She would like “more people representing the creative industries” there, she said.

She is also passionate about literacy and inspired by neurological research about reading. She is particularly engaged with promoting literacy for woman because of it’s empowering nature – it mediates against social exclusion in disadvantaged groups.

These interests were secured in her House of Lords maiden speech which centered on women, violence and social exclusion.

Perhaps her most personal comment of the talk was in answer to a question about strategies to keep calm:

“Look as if you aren’t panicking. Look as if you know what you are doing. Always come up with a solution,” she said.

Speaking with an ease, friendliness and equanimity, she personified her advice.

© Carrie Henderson / The Subiton Writer’s Group 2015


You can find the details of public lectures about creative writing at Kingston University here.