Suddenly This Summer: The Firing of Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman


No matter how many times it happens, I’m always surprised that a corporate mogul like Rupert Murdoch has the audacity to fire a CEO like Jane Friedman (right), who in her quietly visionary way brought a middling publisher, HarperCollins, into the 21st century and kept the bottom line thriving as well.

But fire her Murdoch did, in a meeting that took Friedman completely by surprise, according to “Pub Crawl” columnist Leon Neyfakh in the June 16th New York Observer.

And thank you, Robert Gottlieb, former editor-in-chief at Knopf (and Friedman’s superior years ago), for saying what needs to be said – that replacing Friedman is “a dreadful mistake. Jane rescued HarperCollins from decades of sleepiness and irrelevance. … What can be in the minds of these people, losing somebody that valuable, is simply beyond my comprehension.”

Of course “these people” are the swaggering power mongers who make arbitrary decisions that damage book publishing as well as the careers of very good CEOs like Friedman.

Over the years, hasn’t it at least rankled you to see book publishing houses depend on the largesse of some jackass who either robs the company pension fund (Macmillan’s Robert Maxwell), turns himself into a rock star (Bertelsmann’s Thomas Middelhoff), forces the top editorial staff to resign (Random House’s Alberto Vitali), overrules editors to cancel a book (Richard Snyder of Simon & Schuster) or chortles to the New York Times about the many people “I fired personally” (Random House’s Peter Olson)?

Rupert Murdoch

The reason this latest dictatorial act is significant is that Jane Friedman raised the standards of her company and kept the bottom-liners happy for 10 years, all the while working for the megalomaniacal Murdoch (left). Her tenure reminded us that book publishers are still the great caretakers of a nation’s literature (whether their CEOs want them to be or not). Any sign that an ideal is still being sought or new frontiers explored with integrity could harbor new health for a creatively and fiscally stagnant industry.

All of us in the book business can learn from Friedman’s leadership, but we can also abominate the cruel act that ended her career. Only a week or so earlier (at BookExpo in L.A.), Friedman told The Observer, “I love being CEO at HarperCollins.” You’d think she could say that with confidence after a decade of quiet vision, but no. Murdoch not only sent her packing but made Friedman pretend that she planned to retire all along to get the severance package she deserves. That’s demeaning and outrageous, and yet it’s become routine in the publishing industry we know today.

The only good thing about the Rupert Murdochs of our era is that they operate by Swivel-Headed Rule, which is to say they tend to scan one company at a time and usually leave middle management alone. Happily that’s where the real work of book publishing continues and where anybody with a personal philosophy about publishing (I think we all have one) can make a difference.