July 3, 2013

What it was like to work for Victoria Barnsley


Too much change at HarperCollins

Victoria Barnsley gave me my first job in publishing. At HarperCollins she has an office on the fourth floor —the top floor—and its entirely black and lined with books. How cool is that? That’s where we met for my interview. We talked about books and Renaissance Art. It didn’t feel like an interview, it was just a really good conversation.

At HarperCollins, Victoria Barnsley is just ‘Vicky’. Yes, she has taken on the single name status associated with real power, but the shortening of her name softens it: she’ll also talk to you in the lift, and will want to know your opinion.  When I first started at HarperCollins as a graduate trainee, I sat in on a particularly heated acquisitions meeting. She wanted to know everything about the manuscript in question, and she wanted the editor to fight for it. And finally, she turned to us graduates: what do you think? We gulped. At a company party she revealed she used to love watching Coronation Street. Now that I’m remembering this, I almost doubt that she said such a thing. It’s the kind of detail that makes you instantly warm to a person.

When I worked at 4th Estate, the company that Vicky established 29 years ago and is now a HarperCollins imprint, I was part of a project that involved looking back at the archive of photographs and documents from the early days of 4th Estate. It looked like so much fun, articles from when the company won Independent Publisher of the Year, parties to celebrate anniversaries, parties that looked just like house parties…The fact that Vicky had set up 4th Estate and knew how to publish authors that won prizes and highly intelligent books on an indie shoe-string mattered a great deal. The fact that when she became CEO of HarperCollins she took 4th Estate with her and protected it from the inside mattered too. Will the man, who did what exactly (?) at Pottermore and loves digital, support the literary imprint in the same way? I fear not.

At her announcement yesterday, many were shocked and saddened by the news of her departure. From those closest to her, there were tears. As a young woman in publishing, and among my female colleagues at HarperCollins, it was reassuring and aspirational that a woman headed the corporation. Of course we didn’t want to be exactly like her and we didn’t always agree with her, but she is creative, outspoken and accomplished, and we respect her and liked the possibility she offered us. We’ve lost Vicky and Gail Rebuck in two days.

HarperCollins is a company known for its constant change. When you walked through the door in the morning, you didn’t always know what the company would look like by the end of the day. Yesterday, Vicky was a part of that change, and it’s sure to be change for the worse.



Zeljka Marosevic is the managing director of Melville House UK.