Australia’s culinary scene is in shock as it digests the surprise departure of publishing director Julie Gibbs from Lantern, the world-famous multi-award-winning publishing company she led for 11 years.

Gibbs’ departure was announced by Lantern owner Penguin Random House on Wednesday. A statement — the company’s only explanation so far — said Lantern would be decreasing the number of books it published in 2016 and 2017, with Gibbs leaving at the end of the year. “The prevailing market conditions mean there is no longer the retail footprint there once was to support the number of illustrated books in our future 2016 and 2017 programme,” CEO Gabrielle Coyne said in the statement. “With this changing base, we are unable to achieve the commercial success we and our authors desire.” On Instagram, Gibbs bid her fans farewell, but stopped short of saying what she had planned next. “At the end of the year I will be released into the universe to see what else is in store.”

Lantern has been an imprint of Penguin for years and merged with Random House at the end of last year, creating the world’s largest trades publisher. Crikey has been told Lantern was somewhat sidelined by the merger. When the imprint moved from its office in Surry Hills to PRH headquarters in North Sydney, staff were shoved into a large open-plan area, with Gibbs not even given her own office. “Julie went from kingpin at Penguin, calling the shots, to be shoved aside,” one industry insider told us.

Gibbs has been an influential figure in Australia’s culinary scene for years, helping make household names of many of Australia’s best chefs. Her list of published authors, through the Lantern imprint, is a who’s who of Australia’s culinary scene, including Stephanie Alexander, Maggie Beer, Lucio Galletto and Matt Moran. Her cookbooks were legendary and highly awarded for their designs, styling and beautiful writing. They are expensive to produce, and not for the budget-conscious. Stephanie Alexander’s The Cook’s Companion, first published in 1996, has sold half a million copies — a gold mine of royalties given the colourful 2kg volume retails for $130.

Anthea Loucas, the editor of Gourmet Traveller magazine, has known Gibbs for years and credits Gibbs as the pioneer of the “big, beautiful tome”.

“Cookbooks have really become fashionable in the last decade. I can’t remember when food and dining were as big as they are now. But Julie was ahead of the curve. She had the best authors, a great eye for talent, was good with people and had such a strong vision.”

Nevertheless, it wasn’t enough for Penguin Random House. Lantern has not had a book on the non-fiction best-seller list for several years. Cookbooks (along with WWI history) generally dominate the list, and they still do, but books centred around MasterChef or diet books such as Sarah Wilson’s Sugar-Free Diet have been the bestsellers. But Tim White, owner of Melbourne specialist bookstore Books for Cooks, cautions that the bestseller lists are calculated by volume, not by the value of books sold. “Many department stores and the like will heavily discount cookbooks, using them as loss-leaders, so they’ll sell well and show up on the lists,” he told Crikey. “I can’t comment on what [Penguin] is saying, but Lantern’s books have always sold well for us.”

White says Penguin Random House is now the largest trade publisher in the world, with countless imprints across the globe, and major lists in the UK and America to consider. “Australia is at the end of the pecking order in terms of generation of content and decisions made,” he said. “PRH is going through a huge process of slow and steady rationalisation.”

Crikey contacted Gibbs this morning but was told she was unavailable to speak to us. Whether her departure, and the announced reduction of titles done by Lantern, signals the end of expensive, lavish, meticulously put-together cookbooks and lifestyle titles remains to be seen. There are others in the market who do similar things, though perhaps not with the same scale and breadth. Murdoch Books and Hardie Grant are the most direct competitors.

White says while the number of cookbooks published hasn’t changed much from its long-term average — 2-3% of the industry — book publishing as a whole has swelled. He’s sceptical the rush to print cookbooks based around celebrities or TV shows, saying as a second-hand bookseller, he sees many of these quickly resold, instead of taking their place in people’s kitchen libraries. “The sad thing about Julie Gibbs no longer staying with Lantern is that we need people who curate. People who make informed decisions about books.”

Loucas had a similar reaction, saying she found it difficult to believe there wasn’t a market for meticulously produced cookbooks. “Julie’s got so much to offer — I’d hate to think she’s retiring,” she said.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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