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Stephen Johnson, Random House Struik Managing Director, Ruminates on the “Publishing Lottery”

Stephen Johnson

Stephen Johnson, the managing director of Random House Struik, says that his love of books blossomed in a childhood spent at the Observatory Library. Johnson went from Managing Director of Exclusive Books to brokering the merger between publishing giant Random House and the South African publishing company Struik to form Random House Struik, which has successfully birthed many bestsellers.

In an interview with Kevin Ritchie, Johnson recalls the trials and triumphs of life in the publishing industry. Among the triumphs, Random House Struik has published record-breaking titles including Jake White’s autobiography In Black and White, Jeremy and Jacqui Mansfield’s first cookery book, Zhoosh, and Hershelle Gibbs’ revealing biography, To The Point. Random House Struik is also home to the titles of numerous notable authors: Antjie Krog, Peter Harris, Charles van Onselen, Hugh Lewin, André Brink, JM Coetzee, Albie Sachs, Pamela Jooste, Jassy Mackenzie and Mike Nicol.

To the PointZhoozsh!In Black and White

In oneerBirthMasked RaidersStones Against the MirrorBegging to be BlackThe Free Diary of Albie SachsDans met armmansdogter

Johnson tells Ritchie that the publishing industry has its fair share of challenges; Random House Struik established itself at a difficult time – just before the economic crash at the end of 2008. Add to that the significant lack of reading culture in SA, “The legacy of Bantu education”, as well as the encroachment of the digital revolution, and it is surprising that books still sell at a considerable quantity, Johnson says.

He also despairs over the publishing “fad” of focus groups and market research, saying it’s not feasible to ask 1500 people what they like to read and make a publishing decision on that basis. He says publishing is a gamble, and requires a special kind of instinct:

Stephen Johnson’s earliest memory of reading is being taken to the Observatory library in Cape Town and being given his own lender’s card. He was five. The book was Dick Whittington and His Cat, about a poor boy who travels to London and eventually becomes lord mayor through the rat-catching abilities – and brass neck – of his cat.

When Johnson was 24 andvisited London for the first time, he went straight to Tower Bridge, within earshot of the Bow Bells. And he wept.

This is what books do, they unlock the power of the imagination, transport us to worlds we would never have known. But those very same books are under threat like never before.

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Photo courtesy IOL


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