John Sargent, Macmillan’s longtime chief executive, will leave the publishing company in January because of disagreements over its direction, according to an announcement from its parent company, Holtzbrinck, on Thursday.
The news came as a shock to many in the publishing world, where Mr. Sargent has been a prominent and influential figure in a career spanning more than three decades. Macmillan’s president, Don Weisberg, an industry veteran, will step in as chief executive of Macmillan’s English-language trade publishers, which include Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Henry Holt and Flatiron Books, in 2021.
The shake-up comes after months of turmoil at Macmillan. The company was drawn into a dispute with libraries over its decision to delay the release of new e-books for library lending, a move that was meant to stabilize e-book sales but ended up angering the library market and was lifted during the coronavirus pandemic. Macmillan also imposed layoffs during the pandemic, a step most other major publishers avoided. This summer, employees at its Farrar, Straus & Giroux imprint started what became an industrywide walkout over racial inequity and the lack of diversity in publishing.
And earlier this year, the company faced criticism for the decision by its Flatiron imprint to publish the novel “American Dirt,” which was attacked for what critics called a stereotypical and insensitive portrayal of Mexican migrants.
In a statement, Stefan von Holtzbrinck, the chief executive of Holtzbrinck Publishing Group, said that Mr. Sargent’s “principles and exemplary leadership have always been grounded in worthy, essential causes, be it freedom of speech, the environment, or support for the most vulnerable. Since Holtzbrinck shares these ideals, they will live on.”
Mr. Sargent is also stepping down from his position on the executive board of Holtzbrinck, where he was one of three members.
His departure caps a decades-long publishing career that began in the 1980s, when he started working at Doubleday. The scion of publishing royalty, Mr. Sargent is the son of Neltje Doubleday, whose grandfather founded Doubleday and Company, and John Turner Sargent Sr., who was president and chief executive of Doubleday. After stints at other companies, including the Children’s Book Division of Simon & Schusterand Dorling Kindersley, the younger Mr. Sargent became chief executive of St. Martin’s Press, a Macmillan imprint, in 1996.
Mr. Sargent is a prominent figure in the book world, and was at the center of industrywide clashes with Amazon and the Department of Justice over e-book pricing. Macmillan was the last of the major publishers to settle with the Justice Department in an antitrust suit, in which Macmillan and several publishers were accused of conspiring to raise e-book prices.
Under Mr. Sargent, Macmillan also fought back against President Trump’s attempt to stop the publication of Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury” in 2018. In a letter to Macmillan employees at the time, Mr. Sargent defended free speech, writing that “as citizens we must demand that President Trump understand and abide by the First Amendment of our Constitution.”
The company has published several other news-making books about the Trump administration, including ones by James B. Comey, the former F.B.I. director; Andrew G. McCabe, the former F.B.I. deputy director; and Stormy Daniels, the pornographic film actress who waged a legal battle over a nondisclosure agreement designed to prevent her from talking about a sexual relationship she said she had with Mr. Trump.
This year, Macmillan also faced questions about diversity and inclusion, particularly after the uproar over “American Dirt” and the cancellation of the author’s book tour.
Over the summer, there were signs of a reshuffling within the company. In a letter to staff in June, Mr. Sargent wrote that “we have to change who occupies the seats at the table when the important decisions are being made.” He said that a new management committee was being formed and that he would “step back from day to day management to make room for new voices,” according to a report in Publishers Lunch, an industry publication.
In an interview on Thursday, Mr. Weisberg, who has worked at Macmillan since 2015, said he was grateful to inherit a company that Mr. Sargent had helped to strengthen.
“I came to the company to work for John Sargent and I’ve learned an enormous amount from him,” he said.
“Because of what’s going on with Covid, we’re not out of the woods by any stretch, but all signs point to a really good year,” Mr. Weisberg added. “We’ve got really good books that are working.”