Gail Rebuck: Power behind the prose

As Tony Blair's memoir flies off the shelves, it's not just the former prime minister who is celebrating. So too is his publisher

Forget Tony Blair and his journey. This week's most important move in Gail Rebuck's publishing empire at Random House arguably came with the report that Robbie Williams will sell his third ghosted autobiography – You Know Me – exclusively through Tesco for six months.

Published by Ebury Press, one of the 40-plus imprints within Britain's second-largest publishing group, the Take That veteran's own memoir and its chosen outlet reveals another front in the campaign that all publishers now have to fight in their efforts to keep books, in whatever form, in the forefront of our national conversation.

In spite of the quantity of ink and pixels spilled in the debate about e-books and digital reading – a cause Rebuck has championed for years – the rise of the supermarket bookshelf, and the near-terminal crisis of traditional bookselling, have so far made a deeper mark on readers. Electronic books still have some way to go before they account for even 5 per cent of the UK market.

The Williams deal, and the kowtow to Tesco it would imply, exposes one sort of power relationship in publishing today. Another, more visible, kind of liaison explains why Dame Gail Rebuck CBE attracts curiosity on a level that long-standing chief executives of media groups can seldom command. Married to New Labour strategist and pollster (Lord) Philip Gould, mother of Georgia Gould, the high-profile loser of a ferocious Labour selection battle last year, she has occupied a place at the Blairite top table that excites journalists with hints of of a cosy network binding culture, politics and power. Meanwhile, awed – even envious – descriptions of a rigidly timetabled lifestyle that meshed family duties when her children were younger with countless hours clocked up at the desk or in the air fed into every "superwoman" cliché of the age.

Yes, Rebuck does now have those top-level connections. Blair's memoir pays tribute to her as a "a long-time friend and also, I can now add with pride, my publisher". On the other side of the political fence, her non-executive directorship of BSkyB ensured a cordial relationship with the Murdochs – even though Rupert, via HarperCollins, controls one of Random's principal rivals on both sides of the Atlantic. Yet Gould and Rebuck feature little in A Journey, a background presence on a French holiday in 1994.

Indeed, an intriguing question hangs over the £4.6m advance that Blair secured from Random House via his other friend in this business, Washington lawyer-cum-agent Bob Barnett. Compared with Barnett's recent deals (in 2007), it looked on the modest side. So did Rebuck get Blair on the cheap? Defying all expectations of reader fatigue, A Journey this week became the fastest-selling British autobiography.

If the Blair deal proves a shrewd gambit on Rebuck's part, not a favour for a buddy, it tallies with her record. Like all great survivors at the head of large enterprises, she can commit blunders but has a gift for making the right call at the right time. Answering questions for an alumni newsletter at the University of Sussex, where she studied French and intellectual history, Rebuck labelled "longevity" her greatest achievement. That has indeed been remarkable – especially in a world that, like broadcasting (or newspapers), loves to see women adorning the shop-window but grants them few seats in the boardroom.

Rebuck has steered Random House UK for almost two decades, since 1991. She got there the proper way – via hard work and some well-judged risk-taking, not through posh chums. Her father worked in the London rag trade. His Latvian father sold clothes from a barrow. Like other landmark figures who have shaped the post-war British book world, she stands not that far from a Jewish migrant world of nagging insecurity and the fear that (as she once said) "it might all be taken away from you".

After Sussex University, at its radical zenith, she took a typing course: still a bright girl's smart move in those only-just post-Mad Men days. She worked as a production assistant for a children's publisher, moved on to a travel books firm and then – a first big break – ran a paperback imprint for Hamlyn. In 1982, she sunk funds of her own into a start-up, Century.

Rebuck remained there through complex takeover mutations until Random House US, already owner of leading UK literary houses via the CBC group, bought Century Hutchinson in 1989. In 1998, the German firm Bertelsmann took over Random House worldwide: resilient Rebuck stayed. That process created the multi-tentacled beast that now controls about 15 per cent of the UK market, from august imprints such as Harvill Secker and Chatto & Windus to populist chef-and-celebrity stables at Century or Ebury, with authors from Katie Price to J M Coetzee. In 2009, the pit of the slump, sales actually rose marginally, from £295m to £296m. Of course, such figures wobble year by year, and French-owned Hachette has now taken Random's place as No 1 UK publisher.

Latest figures show that Random book sales have made a massive contribution to Bertelsmann's ability to weather the recession. But there's cash – and there's quality. During the heyday of the celebrity memoir, Rebuck's imprints stood in the vanguard of silly-money deals. Some turned up trumps, such as Dawn French and Peter Kay. Some went south, lost with all hands – and money that could have gone on better books. Her Random House did more than its share of bankrolling ephemeral confections that bore the name of micro-stars. Still, she never stood alone in this folly.

In another part of the Random wood, its top-flight fiction and non-fiction continue to make waves, win prizes and – when it comes to an Ian McEwan or a Stephen Hawking – buttress the bottom line as well as burnish the reputation of the house. Yet, here, behind-the-scenes ructions have from time to time resulted in the departure of some of the most talented editors in the game.

Office politics in any complex business are a bit like marriages. After a contretemps, only a prig or a fool would rush in to apportion blame. What can be firmly said is that, on her watch, Rebuck's Random House has let go a few of the editors most responsible for making sure that the group published not merely many of the world's bestselling authors, but many of the best authors as well. In a 2008 lecture on the future of the book, Rebuck congratulated her own outfit for having kept Dan Brown at Transworld, where "the taste, judgement and foresight of one editor prevailed". On a much higher literary plane, she has lost key colleagues with all those qualities – and more.

In that lecture, Rebuck set out her stall on the coming synergy between old print publishing and new digital platforms. She has thought more deeply and spoken more clearly on the future relationship between e-reading and the printed page than almost any of her peers, arguing for an "irreducible quality" of reading that will outlive changes in delivery. Also, she has noted that wrangles over technology matter little if we fail to grow the next generation of keen readers – and that the presence in Britain of 10 million or more adults with impaired literacy makes that task much harder. A member of the National Literacy Trust, she helped to launch the annual "Quick Reads" series of short, simple books by big names to attract reluctant adult readers.

Where next? "I've got the top job in the industry – there isn't anywhere else for me to go," is the standard response. But, for a long-haul high-flyer who will be 60 in 2012, some kind of public-service role may appeal. In the new age of multiple reading technologies, she has spoken of three foundation stones: "the extension of literacy; the nurturing of creative talent; and, last but not least, the protection of copyright". As rip-off pirates roam cyberspace, we urgently need a well-armed international enforcer for that final mission: one for her, perhaps?

A life in brief

Born: 10 February 1952, London.

Family: The elder of two children, she was brought up in Paddington by her father, who owned a dress-making company, and mother, who was a hairdresser. She married Philip Gould, in 1985. They have two daughters.

Education: Sent aged four to the Lycée Français in South Kensington where she learned to read and write in French before she did in English. Studied intellectual history and French at University of Sussex.

Career: First job was as a production assistant for a children's book publishing company. She became the head of Random House UK in 1991.

She says: "My husband is involved in politics and I am involved in books. We lead very separate professional lives. I am not one of Tony (Blair)'s cronies."

They say: "She's remarkable, she's indefatigable and she's got very good taste." Ruth Rendell

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