IPA’s Hugo Setzer on His Term as President: ‘So Many Different Viewpoints’

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

The outgoing president of the International Publishers Association, Hugo Setzer, talks about the unexpected second half of his term—and about publishing’s resilience and opportunities.

Hugo Setzer

Hugo Setzer. Image: Porter Anderson

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

‘One Common Goal’
The “United Nations for publishers,” as Hugo Setzer refers to the International Publishers Association (IPA), has a singularity of purpose that many at the UN would envy. That “one common goal,” as he describes it, is “to improve the business environment for publishers and our associates—authors and booksellers and so on. That’s really the aim.”

And having had his two-year term as president of the IPA blindsided midway through by the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, Setzer has an acute understanding of what that goal of improvement can mean under extraordinary circumstances.

As the contagion spread and economies went into tailspins, Setzer, the IPA’s secretary-general José Borghino, and its vice-president Bodour Al Qasimi worked their way through the entire roster of the organization, he says, contacting all 71 member-associations in 86 nations to find out how they were faring, what they needed. One benefit of that outreach effort was the new survey the association has produced, “From Response to Recovery,” the first of its kind to begin charting a high view of the impact of the pandemic on world book publishing.

But not surprisingly, the list of projects Setzer might have carried into 2020 as top priorities of the latter half of his term was upended. Normally outstripping many of us in miles traveled to engage with his international colleagues and the IPA membership, he found himself grounded at home base in Mexico City, where he’s CEO of the educational publisher Manual Moderno.

And there’s a bittersweet component to his special status now as what might be called “the pandemic president,” he laughs. The IPA’s short term of two years for each administration goes by quickly in any year. Traditionally, an association president serves as vice-president for two years prior to that—as Setzer did during Michiel Kolman’s term as president—and then there’s just a quick 24 months to make a mark.

Setzer, however, is known among his colleagues for being unfailingly gracious, quietly uncomplaining, even-tempered, upbeat. He’s a gentleman, a patient listener, given to quoting great lines from literature in his speeches and to being sure that everyone’s contribution is recognized in the association’s programs and events. He’s a mensch. And if the IPA decided at some point to formalize a kind of emeritus council of past presidents for advice and support of current administrations, Setzer would be the obvious choice as its lead player.

The UAE’s Bodour Al Qasimi on January 1 succeeds Setzer in the presidency with Brazil’s Karine Pansa as vice-president—the first time the organization, more than a century old, will have had women in both top leadership roles. And in a reflective conversation with Publishing Perspectives, he talks with pride about the organization’s responsiveness and the industry’s resilience under a stress test that no one saw coming.

Setzer, fully supportive of the incoming administration, now knows a lot about what Bodour and Pansa will encounter at the helm of so far-flung a trade organization as the IPA.

“So many different viewpoints,” Setzer says. “There can be some friction sometimes. But I’m sure there’s so  much more that unites us than the differences we may have.

“The nicest thing is that we can sit together and discuss our differences and come to conclusions and agreements, so they’ll be beneficial for all of the industry.”

‘What Do You Need From IPA?’

While Setzer says he’d anticipated his role as being that of the ever-present chief at member-associations’ events around the world, what first looked like being off the planes for a couple of weeks soon quickly stretched into what has become the nine months of the pandemic crisis so far.

“We felt our members needed hope, motivation when things were so uncertain, someone who could say, ‘We will get out of this.'”Hugo Setzer, IPA

Information, he says, was what he and his associates agreed was most needed. A coronavirus information page—where you can see his March “you are not alone” message to the organization’s publishers—was set up quickly for this purpose at the IPA site. He then worked with IPA’s Borghino and communications director James Taylor to create a series of interviews and panel discussions, seminars and other presentations, resources collected to be responsive to the challenges publishers were facing.

“We felt our members needed hope, motivation when things were so uncertain, someone who could say, ‘We will get out of this.'”

And within the first four to five weeks, we”—he, Bodour, and Borghino—”had reached out to the full membership and said, ‘How are you doing, what do you need from IPA?'”

The experience of the pandemic, Setzer says, has provided some measure of reflection for many publishers, necessity helping prompt them to look for opportunities.

In terms of the digital environment, for example, “In a region like Africa where they don’t have the infrastructure and all those digital platforms, but they’ve embraced technology very quickly. They’ve organized virtual book fairs in Lagos and Nairobi. It’s been amazing how fast they’re adapting.

“I get frequently asked what will be important for the future of publishing. And even though I don’t think that print editions of books will disappear, we have to embrace technology and more used to digital users of our content. It shouldn’t be looked at as competition because we can make use of those digital tools to package our content in a different way and deliver it to our customers in a different.

“One of the positive things I could see in the pandemic was that while we usually have good cooperation” between the sectors of publishing, “but this time I think it’s been really special. I’ve seen so many publishers engaging with authors and inviting them to give online presentations, working with them in a really nice way, and the same with booksellers. I hope this cooperation will remain.”

‘We Will Get Out of This’

Setzer says that as the pandemic’s conditions have worn on, he’s seen various aspects of IPA’s work highlighted in their importance.

“I was able to devote the time I thought was needed for IPA because I feel so passionate about the aims and the mission we have, so it was a privilege for me.”Hugo Setzer, IPA

“In accessibility, for example,” he says,  “the importance of making our books accessible to people with disabilities. There are so many reasons to do that,” he says.

“One reason is that it’s ‘the right thing to do’ but there are 253 million visually impaired people in the world. And when I was giving an address in Sweden, I said, ‘Can you imagine how many IKEA stores they’d open for a market that big?”

He laughs, but what he’s getting at is that publishing’s recent years of development have included discoveries of bigger market penetration where they might not have been expected. The most readily available example of this now, of course, is the acceleration of digital format adoption seen in so many parts of the world as locked-down consumers tested out ebooks and audio. Similarly, as he’s saying, the obvious humanitarian prompt for greater reading accessibility also carries with it a broader consumer base.

“Many blind people have said to me,” he says, “I don’t expect you to give me anything free. I’d like to go into a bookstore as a regular customer,” but there may be no formats in a given store that a sight-impaired customer needs.

He points to IPA’s work with the World Intellectual Property Organization’s Accessible Books Consortium, called ABC, on this. And he’s glad, he says, to see the work that Kolman has done as Setzer’s envoy on diversity and inclusivity. Kolman will lead a new committee devoted to the issues and challenges many markets’ publishing professionals are confronting in diversity and literacy.

“There are so many reasons it’s important that we as publishers work for a more diverse and inclusive industry in general. I’m very grateful to Michiel for the work he’s been doing on that, and also in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals,” a leading effort of the IPA on that being the SDG Book Club.

‘Publishing Has Been Hard Hit in Mexico’

At ground level, if you will, Setzer also concedes that there is work cut out for him in his own market.

“Publishing has been hard hit by the pandemic in Mexico,” he says, and being at the helm of a key educational publisher in the market, he knows the struggles so many markets have grappled with in efforts to maintain students’ momentum, often through digital work-arounds for closed classrooms.

“I was able to devote the time I thought was needed for IPA because I feel so passionate about the aims and the mission we have, so it was a privilege for me. But next year, I’ll try to focus a bit more on our company. I have to say I’m blessed with a very professional and committed team, so they’ve been taking care of that.”

Mexico, however, is a nation in which many students are in small villages, rural enclaves. “We don’t have enough Internet coverage, and it’s such a vast region. It’s one of our problems, that a large part of our population lives in isolated places. It’s so expensive to give them the services they need” that rolling out a cohesive digital educational response is all but impossible.

As happens so frequently, a laugh catches up with him at the thought of looking more closely again at his own publishing house. “I was thinking about how it will be when I tell them, ‘Well, I’ve finished my job at IPA, so I’m coming back.

“Maybe they’ll be frightened at the thought. ‘Let’s find him some other job.'”

More from Publishing Perspectives on the International Publishers Association is here and more from us on Hugo Setzer is here. Publishing Perspectives is the media partner of the International Publishers Association.

More from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here.

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 International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.