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Novelist Tim Winton left ‘deeply wounded’ by axing of his publisher Ben Ball

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Leading Australian novelist Tim Winton says he has been left "deeply wounded" by the decision of the country's biggest publishing company, Penguin Random House, to axe his highly respected publisher, Ben Ball.

Ball was appointed publishing director of the newly created Penguin Random House Literary division less than a year ago and has an illustrious career publishing literary heavyweights including Winton, Peter Carey, Robert Drewe and Sonya Hartnett.

Tim Winton: This is a bad day and a time to take stock.

Photo: Louise Kennerley

Winton, who has won the Miles Franklin Award four times, said in a statement to trade magazine Books + Publishing on Wednesday that he was "deeply wounded by this decision and bewildered by its timing."

"A publisher of Ben's stature is so rare in Australia and his departure diminishes the company, the trade and the culture. This is a bad day and a time to take stock. My heart goes out to Ben and his young family," Winton said.

The departure of Ball, who is based in Melbourne, is particularly surprising given Penguin Random House is midway through the marketing campaign for Winton's The Shepherd's Hut which has been the best selling Australian novel since its release in March, with sales already approaching 50,000. The highly-sought after Winton switched publishers from Pan Macmillan to join Ball at Penguin in 2008 after a bidding war, and has worked closely with him ever since.

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Ball has worked at Penguin since 2006 after a career in the UK with publishers Bloomsbury, Granta and Simon & Schuster. In 2013, Penguin merged with Random House internationally. It is understood that in Australia this has caused disruption and internal tensions due to the different cultures of the two companies which are based in Melbourne and Sydney respectively.

In a statement on Tuesday, Penguin Random House said a review of the structure had shown: "we no longer require the role of publishing director—PRH Literary. In consequence, Ben Ball will be leaving the business today." The company praised "his vision and passion" which "had resulted in the publication of many award-winning titles, some of which will be seen as Australian classics."

The immediate departure of Ball has created shockwaves in the Australian literary community, with authors, colleagues, booksellers and agents left in disbelief.

Literary agent Lyn Tranter, of Australian Literary Management, said the decision to drop Ball was "disastrous" and "inexplicable". Tranter said it reflected a lack of commitment to literary fiction.

"I think they are downsizing Penguin. That to me is very, very sad because traditionally it is a publishing company with a wonderfully long history," Tranter said.

"I feel there is a real seriousness about the disruption that is going on in the whole of the publishing industry and I don't think enough people are being honest about it and facing up to the reality of it."

Industry commentators believe the decision is indicative of the challenges facing the publishing industry more broadly as books vie for sales with other forms of entertainment, such as streaming platforms and social media.

Ball has been contacted for comment.

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Melanie Kembrey

Melanie Kembrey the Spectrum Deputy Editor at the Sydney Morning Herald.

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