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It being the holiday season, I have recently rewatched one of my favorite Christmas films, Elf. For those unfamiliar with the movie, the actor Will Ferrell plays a grown orphan named Buddy who, as a baby, crawled into Santa Claus’s pack on Christmas Eve and went on to be raised by elves on the North Pole. One day, after he discovers that he is not really an elf, he decides to venture from the Candy Cane Forest to find his biological father, Walter Hobbs, played by the late, great James Caan. The catch is, of course, that Buddy’s dad is not a very good person—in fact, he’s so bad he’s even on Santa’s naughty list.
How does the filmmaker envision such a despicable character? Why, as a publishing executive in New York—and not just any publishing executive, but one who doesn’t care at all about books and whose driving motivation is to deliver profits to his even harder-nosed bosses. When we meet Walter, he’s taking books back from a nun who missed payments on a large order and publishing children’s books with pages missing because “no one pays attention to them anyway.”
It was hard not to think of Walter Hobbs when, last week, Markus Dohle stepped down as the CEO of Penguin Random House after being in some version of this position since 2008. During his 14 years stewarding the conglomerate, it published award-winning works of literary significance, like Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad, and blockbusters like Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming. Yet, when Christoph Mohn, the chairman of the supervisory board of Penguin Random House’s parent company, Bertelsmann, issued an official statement on the resignation, he had this to say: “We regret Markus Dohle's decision to leave Bertelsmann and Penguin Random House. Under his leadership, our book division more than doubled its revenues and quintupled its profit. The fact that our global book publishing group is in such a strong position today is largely thanks to Markus Dohle.”