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BooksMay 10, 2024

Two senior publishers axed at Penguin Random House amid major restructure


New Zealand’s largest book publisher has undergone drastic changes this week, leaving its future role in local publishing uncertain.

Two of the most recognisable local publishers in New Zealand are among those restructured out of Penguin Random House, staff were told this week. Head of publishing Claire Murdoch will leave the company in the coming months, as will non-fiction publisher Rachel Eadie. The Spinoff understands a further eight roles have been cut at the publishing house, one of New Zealand’s four big commercial publishers alongside Hachette, Harper Collins, and Allen & Unwin.

A statement from New Zealand director Becky Innes confirmed the “structural changes” to The Spinoff, saying they were done following a “comprehensive review” and in order to “ensure we are appropriately aligned with market conditions”.

“There have been significant shifts in our cost structure, along with tough economic conditions and evolving consumer behaviour, so we felt it was necessary to adapt our business for future success,” she said, citing a focus on “leverag[ing] the benefits” of working across both New Zealand and Australia. Innes would not confirm or disclose the number of roles impacted.

In August 2023, authors around the country were shocked to hear of three senior staff members being made redundant at Penguin Random House, including longstanding and highly regarded fiction editor Harriet Allan. At that time, Claire Murdoch added the oversight of the fiction list to her responsibilities.

Now, with another, larger set of cuts, the future direction of the New Zealand office is less clear. Penguin Random House is a global publishing giant, from which the New Zealand division operates. It is the largest book publisher in the country, publishing across all genres and formats. Despite that, the number of staff employed locally is believed to be fewer than 50, across all departments such as commissioning, editing, design, distribution, marketing and publicity.

Next week, the country’s top book awards of the year will be handed out at the Ockhams, where Penguin Random House titles (particularly those commissioned and overseen by Eadie and Murdoch) will be in contention. Fungi of Aotearoa: A Curious Forager’s Field Guide by Liv Sisson is up for the award for best illustrated non-fiction, while two of the four general non-fiction finalists are PRH books (Laughing at the Dark: A Memoir by Barbara Else, and There’s a Cure for This: A Memoir by Emma Espiner).

The pair of publishers were well known to authors around the country, and the faces of Penguin Random House at festivals and other industry events.

In confirming that Eadie and Murdoch would be leaving the company, Innes announced that Grace Thomas would be “our new publisher for all adult books”. Who is Grace Thomas? An online search for “Grace Thomas Penguin Random House” provides literally no answers except a “zoominfo” bio stating her job title as “senior commissioning editor and audio producer”, which perhaps hints at the strategy behind the restructure. When asked for more information about Thomas, Innes cited Thomas’s 10 years’ experience in publishing and said: “Grace is interested in the digital landscape of the local publishing industry, and since 2021 has worked to establish, sustain and produce the PRHNZ audiobook list.” She has largely been working with non-fiction authors like Scotty Morrison and Charlotte Grimshaw in her time at the publishing house.

When asked if Penguin Random House would maintain its output of local titles, Innes simply stated that “there will be some adjustments to our programme” but that they would “continue to publish fiction, non-fiction and children’s books, in print, audio and ebook format”.

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