Insiders say the absence of a chief executive, even one who was about to leave, has left the company without strategic direction. It has left the four internal candidates for Mr Cockburn's post jockeying for position as factions form behind each of them.
Jeremy Hardie, WH Smith's chairman, has been running the company. The search for a new chief executive has been led by the nominations committee, which consists of three of the group's non-executive directors - Martin Taylor, chief executive of Barclays Bank, Marjorie Scardino, chief executive of Pearson, and Patrick Lupo, an American who is chairman of DHL Worldwide.
The company will not make an announcement about Mr Cockburn's replacement at its full-year results meeting next Wednesday. However, it is thought the successful candidate will be named next month.
Insiders are expecting an internal appointment. They say Alan Giles, head of the Waterstones books business, has emerged as a late front runner ahead of finance director Keith Hammill. The other internal candidates are Richard Handover, who runs WH Smith's news distribution business, and John Hancock, head of the group's American operations.