Joerg Pfuhl Departs Holtzbrinck: ‘Getting Back Liberty’

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News that Joerg Pfuhl plans to step down from the German house’s leadership early this summer prompts reflection from Rüdiger Wischenbart on Pfuhl’s stance in the book industry.

Joerg Pfuhl onstage at the 2019 Publishers’ Forum in Berlin. Image: Klopotek, Adam Janisch

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘A Singular Career Path in Publishing’
As any attendee of Klopotek’s Publishers’ Forum in Berlin or of Frankfurter Buchmesse can tell you, Joerg Pfuhl, the outgoing CEO of Germany’s Holtzbrinck, has been one of the most accessible, forthright, and friendly colleagues you could encounter in a major international book business industry setting.

The reception of the news this week of Pfuhl’s coming departure from the post at the end of June has been eloquent in itself: information of a significant change in command cordially and thoughtfully received. Many have wished him well and many, too, have spoken—at least among themselves—of real regret at the prospect of losing a calming, insightful personality in an important role.

Needless to say, the news of this change arrives amid far greater upheaval. So much of the world’s public health focus is on Germany at this point. While the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center assigns Germany the seventh largest coronavirus COVID-19 caseload in the world, with 168,655 cases but a remarkably low 7,322 deaths in a population of 83 million.

German scientists not only created the first COVID-19 test but deployed it, and the nation’s careful adherence to a strong testing regime is credited with its society’s ability now to tackle a staged effort at reopening. This, even as the chancellor, Angela Merkel, repeatedly admonishes her citizens about how fragile a moment they’re holding, on “the thinnest ice,” as she puts it to them. As Ivana Kottasova is writing today (May 7) at CNN, Merkel’s near-virtuosic handling of the crisis has all but resuscitated her career, her approval ratings soaring.

What’s more, it’s Pfizer and the German pharma company BioNTech that on Monday opened human trials in the United States on a potential vaccine on Monday, Knuvul Sheikh at The New York Times writing, “By injecting a specially designed messenger RNA into the body, the vaccine could potentially tell cells how to make the spike protein of the coronavirus without actually making a person sick.”

Publishing professionals might be forgiven if they eye Pfuhl’s decision to make an exit after four years at Holtzbrinck’s helm as a loss of dependable, calm leadership the industry might ill afford when seemingly all else is in so much disarray.

As our colleagues at Börsenblatt wrote on Monday, Pfuhl has said, “After four intensive years, I would like to look for another challenge once again and thank all of my colleagues for the good cooperation.”

Wischenbart: Pfuhl’s Astute Appointments

Longtime Vienna-based publishing consultant Rüdiger Wischenbart reminds Publishing Perspectives that Pfuhl also has served as chairman of the management board of the Random House publishing group with responsibility for the German-language book publishing business, having been with Bertelsmann AG from 1994 to 2011.

Rüdiger Wischenbart

“When I talked to Joerg earlier today,” Wischenbart says, “he was sanguine about ‘getting back the liberty’ of doing what he wanted. Pfuhl added, “I am of an age where this is what I want.” He’s 56.

Wischenbart, the former director of the now disontinued Berlin’s Publishers’ Forum and of the annual CEO Talk at Frankfurt, says that Pfuhl has a singular career path in German publishing, in that he has been in leadership positions at both Random House and Holtzbrinck, never resorting to what Wischenbart describes as “a fancy investor or member of multiple lucrative industry board positions, but primarily a professor in professional publishing studies.

“And in an industry that is traditionally very much a closed society of peers—with strategic key positions often taken by second- or third-generation book ‘dynasties’—this is unusual.”

As many read in the initial news of his departure, Pfuhl has glowing praise from Holtzbrinck management board member John Sargent, the Macmillan CEO. In a letter to staff seen by Wischenbart, Sargent wrote, “Joerg told me last fall that he wanted to take the next step in his life,” something not detected, it seems, by those around him.

And Sargent concluded, writing that Joerg’s had been a “truly daunting task,” because “when he came we were individual self-interested companies. Now we are still individual companies, but we work very effectively together as a group.”

That unifying capability—so badly missing in much of the world’s leadership operations these days, it seems—included particularly astute appointments, Wischenbart points out. “Joerg Pfuhl appointed new publishers to each of the four major imprints, all women.” He refers to Doris Janhsen at Droemer Knaur, Siv Bublitz at S. Fischer, Kerstin Gleba at Kiepenheuer & Witsch, and Nicola Bartels at Rowohlt from July 1st, which, of course, is when Pfuhl himself will be leaving.

He leaves great commitment to climate neutrality at Holtzbrinck, and will be succeeded by the current CSO Alexander Lorbeer.

As Wischenbart says of Pfuhl, “Quite a decent record for a manager after four years on a job.”


More from Publishing Perspectives on the German market is here, and more from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here and at the CORONAVIRUS tab at the top of each page of our site.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's 2019 International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson also has worked as a senior producer, editor, and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA, and as an arts critic (National Critics Institute) with The Village Voice and Dallas Times Herald.

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