The most powerful person in publishing doesn't like to talk about himself

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The most powerful person in publishing doesn't like to talk about himself
Nihar Malaviya, CEO of Penguin Random House, outside his office in New York on Dec. 7, 2023. “I don't like to talk about myself,” Malaviya said. (Maansi Srivastava/The New York Times)

by Elizabeth A. Harris

NEW YORK, NY.- As CEO of Penguin Random House, Nihar Malaviya runs a global company and the largest book publisher in the United States — a powerful cultural force that helps drive public debate and shape the country’s entertainment and literary worlds.

But when a member of his staff introduced Malaviya to a reporter who was interested in writing about him, he seemed perplexed. I’m not interesting, he said.

He is, perhaps, an unusual CEO to fill the most high-profile position in U.S. publishing at a high-stakes time for the company.

The past few years have been messy for Penguin Random House. A bid to buy a rival publisher was blocked on antitrust grounds — an enormously expensive defeat in a trial that also revealed the company’s loss of market share and embarrassing internal conflicts between executives.

Calm and self-effacing, Malaviya has a quiet charm but not a personality that dominates a room — a contrast with his predecessor, Markus Dohle, who always seemed to be at the center of the action, whether at a conference table or a black-tie gala. Malaviya is comfortable behind the scenes, and even now, he does not cast himself at the center of the publisher’s journey: “The company was successful before me and it will be successful after me,” he said.

But by all accounts, Malaviya is a listener. And since he became interim CEO of the company in January 2023, he has been trying to put the house back in order with as little personal drama as possible.

“He’s always the smartest person in the room,” said Amanda D’Acierno, the president and publisher of Penguin Random House Audio, “but I’ve never seen him give his opinion first.”

Malaviya became interim CEO of the company last January, at the end of a tumultuous period. In 2020, Penguin Random House made a bid to buy Simon & Schuster, another large publisher, for $2.175 billion. But the deal never went through.

Two years and many millions of dollars in legal fees later, the transaction was blocked by a federal judge, and Penguin Random House had to pay Simon & Schuster’s parent company a $200 million termination fee. (Simon & Schuster has since been purchased by KKR, a private equity firm.)

Shortly after the deal collapsed, Dohle, then CEO of Penguin Random House, resigned. The company announced Malaviya would fill the position on an interim basis, elevating him above his former boss, U.S. CEO Madeline McIntosh. McIntosh resigned the following month.

“At the end of 2022, after the failed acquisition of Simon & Schuster, Penguin Random House needed a fresh start and a strategic realignment,” said Thomas Rabe, CEO of Bertelsmann, the parent company of Penguin Random House. “Nihar Malaviya is the right leader of Penguin Random House at the right time.”

Malaviya is not new to the company. He has been with Penguin Random House for more than 20 years, always on the business side. Most recently, he was the company’s chief operating officer, managing operations in the United States and technology and data for the company globally. His experience left some employees and observers quietly wondering how much he understood about the editorial and creative process, and even whether he was much of a reader.

“From the outside, people might think of Nihar as being driven by data,” said David Drake, president of the Crown Publishing Group at Penguin Random House. “But what I’ve seen in practice is he very much understands that all the decisions we make, and that he makes, ultimately have to be human decisions and judgments that go beyond data. They’re not determined by data, they’re informed by data.”

Last year, Drake wanted to bring nonfiction author Rick Atkinson to Penguin Random House from his previous publisher, Macmillan. Drake was eager to sign Atkinson, a Pulitzer Prize winner and bestselling author. So he put together a presentation to make his argument to Malaviya.

“I said, ‘Here’s what I’d like to be able to pay,’ and his response was, ‘Oh my god, I love Rick Atkinson!’ ” Drake said. Malaviya told him he had devoured Atkinson’s 2,500-page trilogy on World War II. “He said to me, ‘You don’t need to convince me at all.’ That was based on a super direct relationship, on being a reader.”

In an interview in his midtown Manhattan office, lined with bookshelves that displayed the company’s current bestsellers, Malaviya declined to name his favorite titles — he laughed and said his answer would inevitably offend someone — but said his preferred genres are history and what he described as the “super set” of mystery, suspense and thrillers.

Malaviya, 49, has been at the helm of Penguin Random House for a year — not enough time to turn a battleship, but enough to make some key decisions that give clues to his outlook and goals. He has, for example, reorganized certain divisions to give their imprints more independence, in keeping with what he described as his decentralized management style. This structure, he said, allows the company to simultaneously take a variety of approaches to publishing, a notoriously unpredictable business. His hands-off approach also means that employees in some divisions are more content than others.

“He very much allows us to run the businesses that we run,” said Maya Mavjee, president and publisher of the Knopf Doubleday Group.

Malaviya’s primary goal is growth. After the collapse of the Simon & Schuster deal, it became clear Penguin Random House could not buy its way out of the decline, so much of its growth will have to come organically — by selling more books. Malaviya said that, hopefully, AI will help, making it easier to publish more titles without hiring ever more employees. The company has continued to acquire smaller publishers, like Hay House in the United States and Roca Editorial in Spain.

Malaviya has made moves to cut costs as well. Last year, the company laid off about 60 people and offered voluntary buyouts for longtime employees. Penguin Random House declined to say how many people took the buyout, but several veteran editors departed, including those who worked with luminaries such as Joan Didion and Alice Munro.

The company has also given up a significant amount of office space at its Manhattan headquarters, moving many employees into shared offices or communal desk space.

Under Malaviya, Penguin Random House has taken an aggressive stance on book banning, a rare step in an industry where publishers usually prefer to wade into culture war issues through their books. The company, alongside other plaintiffs, has sued to block a law in Iowa that would restrict access to books that touch on sexual orientation, gender identity and sex in school libraries.

“He will get out there and stand in front of the limelight to talk about banned books,” said Jaci Updike, the chief revenue officer at Penguin Random House U.S. “But he’s not going to get up there and do it for its own sake. It’s just not who he is.”

Malaviya grew up in Rajkot, India, where he said no one had a television until he was about 10 years old.

“It’s not like I didn’t have television; it wasn’t available to anyone,” he said. “Printed media was what everyone did.”

When he was 13, he and his family moved to the United States — first to Rochester, New York and then, when he was in high school, to Edison, New Jersey, where he has lived ever since. He started his career in financial companies, and in 2001, after he finished his MBA, he was recruited to work at Bertelsmann, Penguin Random House’s parent company. He moved to Random House two years later.

“I was always fascinated by media,” he said. “I went through an accelerated phase of transition where I went from just printed media to television to computing to the internet, all in the span of like 15 years.”

Those who have worked closely with him said he is a gifted systemic thinker, able to distill complex problems into digestible solutions. Jeff Abraham, the president of publishing operations, technology and services, said it would be difficult to find a material decision made in the last decade in which Malaviya did not have a hand. He was, for example, involved in the publication of Barack Obama’s presidential memoir and Michelle Obama’s “Becoming,” which are among the biggest books in the last decade.

Malaviya said that trying to absorb as many perspectives as he can is central to his decision-making process.

“Coming to the country at a young age basically meant I had to completely change my worldview,” he said. “I went from somewhere where this was very important to somewhere where this completely different set of things was very important. That created in me a respect for looking at different perspectives, and the ability to take those in to shape my thinking.”

At the end of the day, he said, “I like to learn. And you only learn by listening.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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