BookExpo’s Roundtable With CEOs Cites Stability, Growth, Promise for Books Ahead

In News by Porter Anderson

The market is ‘robust and solid,’ the BookExpo audience hears from three of the biggest books CEOs in the world. It’s just the consumers who keep changing.

From left, Macmillan’s John Sargent, Simon & Schuster’s Carolyn Reidy, and Penguin Random House’s Markus Dohle at BookExpo on May 31. Image: Porter Anderson

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Reasons To Be Confident
There was no evidence of collusion between the three Big Five CEOs on BookExpo’s Downtown Stage on Thursday (May 31) when the Association of American Publishers president and CEO Maria A. Pallante moderated a conversation with Macmillan’s John Sargent, Simon & Schuster’s Carolyn Reidy, and Penguin Random House’s Markus Dohle.

However, some observers have noted that since the antitrust difficulties that roiled the industry some years ago, a grouping of this kind wasn’t seen in these settings. Having a chance to hear from the powerful trio drew an overflow crowd to the big stage area Thursday morning.

Perhaps ironically, there was plenty of room for the extra rows of chairs that were added. The entire southern wing of the show floor is empty this year except for lines of autograph seekers waiting to reach the authors.

Like an airplane hanger, the room where once several Big Five stands were placed was just to the left of the audience—which heard from the CEOs about how well business is going.

And so it is that a hardcover’s throw from the Downtown stage, just behind black curtains you could see that however good the industry’s fortunes may be described by these executives, BookExpo is now deep into its years-long contraction.

The south end of the Jacob Javits Center show floor at BookExpo 2018. Image: Porter Anderson

Books: Doing ‘Better Than Their Image’

No hardballs were tossed on this occasion. This was a pleasant and articulate evocation of the image the most major of players feel is important to create for the publishing industry at this point.

For example, Sargent told the story of writing his exhilarating response—”flagrantly unconstitutional”—to the demand in January from Donald Trump’s lawyer that Macmillan not publish Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury. Cheers and applause greeted him, both onstage and off, for the unwavering approach he took to Trump’s bald-faced attempt at prior restraint.

In fact, it would have been interesting, if hardly as pleasant, to hear from Reidy on the case of a Simon & Schuster’s acquisition and eventual cancellation of Milo Yiannopoulos’ Dangerous.

But in her role as the discussion moderator, Pallante didn’t ask about that.

If anything, the Yiannopoulos affair, which took the publisher months of court proceedings to fully exit, might have been as instructive as the Wolff book was for Macmillan.

Here was another case, a very tough one centered on freedom of speech in the opinions of many, in which a revered publishing house probably did its best in working through the minefield of today’s political extremism. The process was wrenching at times and a fine illustration of the razor-sharp line that can lie between inclusivity and moral responsibility.

Instead, the general air of the morning from Pallante and these patient, eloquent publishing chiefs was that a general feel-good tone was best, particularly for an audience of many booksellers at the “reimagined” (as they keep reiterating) BookExpo.

Dohle: ‘Fairly Stable Business Models’

Books, Dohle said, “are doing better than their image, both domestically and globally.

“Over the last 15 years since the digital transformation really started, book markets have been growing. Even in our mature markets, the large markets of the world, we’ve seen growth.

“But there are more reasons to be confident of the future of long-form reading. We also have fairly stable business models. And we have a business model for digital content, to begin with. In some other media categories, that’s an issue.

“We’ve reached a fairly healthy coexistence between print and ‘e,’ about 20-80 in our case,” which is the opposite, in favor of print, he pointed out, of what many had expected would be the eventual ratio.

Dohle said that PRH publishes some 700 million books worldwide annually and moves them to market through roughly 120,000 retail locations.

Reidy: ‘Things Change’

For her part, Reidy noted that “Every time there are changes in our business, there are doomsayers. But the fact of the matter is that the book and all the things it brings to society and to individuals, is as strong if not stronger than ever.”

She did refer to current affairs and their impact on reading interests in difficult times, saying, “When you read anything major that happens in the world, there’s usually a book that the public grabs onto, to try to understand exactly what’s happened.”

And she sounded the rapidly rising importance of consumer insight amid media competition as the key to stability and progress ahead.

“Things change,” she said. “Mass market’s been declining, digital audio’s increasing, we have the growth of ebooks, then we have the decline of ebooks. Through all of that, the actual market has remained. It’s just changes what it wants.

“So it makes it all the more important for us to figure out how do consumers want the book? In what format, how do they want it? That’s as strong as it ever was. It makes our purpose even greater. But the market itself has remained robust and solid. Within that market, what people want and how they want it keep changing.”

Sargent: ‘Consumer Buying Behaviors’

Macmillan’s Sargent seemed to want to get at more of what Reidy had touched on in terms of where consumers are going in an entertainment-drenched marketplace.

“I agree that the long-term is good,” he said. “I think there are some serious issues we’ll face in the coming years around changing consumer buying behaviors.”

Cognizant of BookExpo’s double-down this year on the bookseller as its core client, he added, “At a show like this, what happens with retail bookselling in America specifically, and the issue of discoverability as buying patterns change.

“What we have to protect is lots and lots of shelf space for people to browse. That’s probably the biggest single thing you see.”

He likes the rise in audio, Sargent said, “for bringing new readers into the environment, people who don’t usually read books. There are a lot of plus signs in that, the demographics are good.

“The issues will be, as we go through the transition, can we continue to do what we have done? And that is protect the ecosystem, the book-retail ecosystem as pressures come to bear?

“So far, remarkably, the book business has done a very good job of getting through the digital” disruption, “and the next thing up will be these changes in consumer buying patterns.”

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's 2019 International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson also has worked as a senior producer, editor, and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA, and as an arts critic (National Critics Institute) with The Village Voice and Dallas Times Herald.