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Random House's shake-up at the top

German parent firm Bertelsmann names an outsider to replace its chief executive.

May 21, 2008|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- Putting an end to weeks of gossip and speculation, Bertelsmann, the German media conglomerate, announced Tuesday that Markus Dohle, who runs the company's printing division in Germany, will become the new chief executive of Random House Inc., the nation's largest consumer book publisher.

Peter W. Olson, who has run the publishing house for 10 years, will be stepping down to pursue an academic career, the company said in a statement.

The news about Dohle, 39, a newcomer to the world of American book publishing, promises to further shake things up at Random House, which has been struggling with disappointing sales in the last year. His elevation is the first major personnel move by Bertelsmann Chief Executive Hartmut Ostrowski, who took his position earlier this year. And the appointment of an outsider to run America's largest publishing house raised concerns about whether the sprawling German company, which also has major holdings in the media, music and magazine businesses, remains committed to the future of book publishing.

Anticipating such concerns, Bertelsmann on Tuesday issued a question-and-answer session with Ostrowski, who stressed that the company "is not planning to exit the book business. . . . Bertelsmann is pleased with Random House's development to date and is proud to have the world's largest trade book publishing group as a core business."

There have also been questions about why Olson is leaving now and whether he had been pressured to leave by Bertelsmann executives because of Random House's 5.6% decline in sales last year. The company has also experienced losses in its U.S. book clubs, which Olson oversaw.

Ostrowski said Olson, 58, left "because he wanted to. It was entirely his choice. With his 60th birthday ahead of him, Peter asked himself what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. And he's found his answer: an academic career."

Olson is in discussions to accept a senior faculty position at "a major American university," the company noted. Olson himself, in a letter to Random House employees, said he welcomed the change. He and his family will be moving to Cambridge, Mass. "This seems like the right moment for me to try something new," he said.

Although few in the New York publishing world know much about Dohle, Bertelsmann described him as a talented young entrepreneur who had found "new revenue streams" in older markets. Despite the publisher's past successes, Ostrowski said, "the book business urgently needs new impetus for the future, to be able to grow again in view of challenges such as technological advances."

Dohle, who will be based in New York, had been running the Arvato Print division. He is expected to explore revenue possibilities in the digital world, which is rapidly becoming a major part of publishing.

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josh.getlin@latimes.com

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