Honorary Graduates

Orations and responses

Response by Gail Rebuck

Vice Chancellor, ladies, gentleman and of course, graduands.  I would like to begin by saying how delighted I am to be here today to receive this honour from the University of Essex.  I would also like to thank the Senate of the University for their welcome and hospitality.

Now, I know this is a very important day for all of you.  Each of you will have spent many hours of hard work studying and no doubt worrying to reach this point and believe me, I’ve been there.  Hours and hours spent in the same corner of the library, tiredness fighting with panic.  The difference is that then I just read the books, now I may well have published them.  So please don’t hold that against me because I promise you that very soon, I hope, you will find that reading is fun again.  At least, I hope you find that reading is fun again or I will be out of business!  I hope you enjoy the rest of today and I would like to say congratulations to all of you.  I would also like to say a word for all the parents and other family and friends who are guests here today.  I know as a parent myself and a ceaseless worrier on behalf of my daughters that you will, maybe over many years, have done your fair share of work and made a big contribution to your son’s and daughter’s success.  I do hope that you have enjoyed today too.

Now I was asked to say a few words about my own career and I would very much like to thank Professor Peter Frank for his very generous words.  I am not sure I quite recognise myself.  Because when I am asked to describe my career, the only word I can usually think of is inauspicious.  When I graduated from University in 1974, I rather naively assumed that because I had a degree I would automatically find a job.  Yes, I am afraid many of us did rather trustingly think that in those days.  I never did the sensible things, which I hope all of you are doing, which is going to the careers office and getting advice.  Although I did finally decide that I ought to get a practical qualification and booked myself on a six weeks’ secretarial course to learn how to type.  Now even then I still found it very difficult to get a job and after many rejections as you have heard, I wound up as a production assistant in a small children’s book packager and no, it was not an auspicious start at all.  However, beginning as I did as a lowly assistant in a small company I believe had three big advantages.  Firstly it meant I was in.  Now I am certain that whichever profession you choose, and I think perhaps Economics and Law gives me a little hint here, there is a lot to be said for getting in where you can, even if its not exactly in the Department you think you would eventually wind up in.  My experience is that it is much easier to move around once you have made that crucial first step.  Secondly, it gave me the chance to learn how books were put together and the all-important terminology.  Like knowing that when they talked about galley proofs it really didn’t have anything to do with ships.  And thirdly, because it was a small company, I could seek advice from other departments and learn important skills, in my case editing and selling rights.  So I am sure that in whichever career you choose it will have a language and a set of procedures that you are going to have to learn. 

Now I would also like to admit at this stage to a rather more selfish reason for being pleased to be here today and it’s a question of recruitment.  That there may be amongst you the very people we need in my own industry.  Graduates we have taken on at Random House have told me that it can be extraordinarily difficult to get into publishing.  That knowing someone in the industry can help.  But it is still very haphazard.  Building on contacts made during work experience is another possible route and I am a great believer in the value of work experience.  But I also know that many students here today as we have heard are under great financial pressure and will be more so in the future, often leaving further education with sizeable overdrafts.  So could the people we need afford a spell on work experience or, as I now believe, do publishers themselves have to change their recruitment methods and reinstate the graduate trainee schemes that were mostly abolished in the early nineties at the time of the big recession in publishing?

So what are we looking for in publishing?  Well, you obviously need a passion for books.  Flare, spark, creativity, we want feisty individuals but ones who can also work as part of a team.  You need lots of enthusiasm and an endless capacity for hard work.  Now you have to have ideas in publishing and be brave enough to fight your corner for something you believe in, and willing to take risks.  Good taste and judgement are essential as well as being able to use all the modern diagnostic marketing and communication tools.  I believe that ideal publishing candidates should still have a healthy regard for intuitive intelligence and an ability to act on instinct.  The mark of a good publisher can often simply be someone who has made more right decisions than wrong ones.  And my job is simply to manage those people and as a manager, I have to be willing to allow them to take risks and this inevitably means making mistakes. 

Now at Random House, we publish one thousand seven hundred new books a year and it’s a little like launching one thousand seven hundred new businesses.  Some are bound to fail but I do believe that there can be no innovation without failure.  So my job is essentially about keeping Random House creative at every level so that everyone in the organisation can make an optimum contribution.  And this mission to value creativity above all else relates directly to an often quoted prejudice in modern publishing.  That big conglomerates, perhaps as we have heard today, like many we have in our industry, can’t be creative, that anything big is wrong.  Well, I don’t agree.  We need to invest in creativity and in the future, but we also have to balance creativity with profitability because profits buy you the right to go on.  Without sufficient resources to invest, every publisher is vulnerable, afraid to fail.  The support of a large, well financed group allows its editors to take those risks vital to discovering the next generation of writers and developing our cultural legacy.  I can also tell you that publishing is currently a good industry to be in, at a very challenging time.  There is a renaissance in British writing, especially regional writing.  Now, we are also in the midst of a technological revolution and this brings opportunities but inevitably some threats too.  Bill Gates characterises the next ten years in business as those of velocity.  That business will change more in the next ten years than we have in the last fifty because of the fast pace of technological change.  The Internet, of course, is revolutionising the way we buy books.  It’s making our business even more global than before.  And what of the e-book?  The electronic screen capable of storing a student’s entire reading for a term.  A wonderful boon for those of you who still remember carting around a bag full of reference books.  And yet, and for those of you in the Law department, who will have sourced, downloaded and paid for those e-books?  Will the power of the English language favour the US publisher or indeed can UK publishing compete with the giant across the Atlantic in this increasingly global world?  These are just some of the real issues we currently face in publishing.

It may well be the age of velocity, but I would argue that the next ten years are also those of creativity and innovation.  Yes, e-commerce is going to bring about huge changes but it’s also about ideas and the economic rewards of having those ideas first.  To face change you need to be fast, but you also need to be ingenious.  I hope that in my career and my approach to life I've always put creativity first and tried to develop a style of management that is open and non-hierachical, based on team work and not on confrontation.  I believe in empowering my managers to become leaders in their own right.  But we always need fresh talent and new ideas to regenerate our business.  And this of course leads me back to all of you here today.  So, here you are, about to set out on your own adventures and make your own contribution to whichever career you choose.  My advice to you is simply, be confident and be bold.  Research your subject well, be prepared to work extraordinarily hard and learn fast, be enthusiastic and never be afraid to speak your mind.  Every business, especially every creative business, is simply crying out for ideas.  Don’t ever be afraid of failure because these are truly exciting times where I believe that anything is possible and the new century definitely belongs to all of you.  So good luck and many congratulations to all of you.

Thank you very much.