Venice’s 39th Mauri School, Part One: A ‘New Future’

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

The 2022 Mauri School commentary from Waterstones CEO James Daunt and Thalia CEO Michael Busch was a deep look at ‘The New Future’ ahead for books.

At Venice’s Fondazione Giorgio Cini in the former San Giorgio Monastery, in non-pandemic years, the site of the Mauri School’s programming. Image: UEM39

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

‘A Changed World’
This year’s 39th edition of the Scuola per Librai Umberto e Elisabetta Mauri—a “School of Booksellers” that annually provides valuable updates to many more book industry players than retailers—was held digitally, as was the previous year’s iteration.

“Next year in Venice” is now the rallying cry of those familiar with this singular conference—with its 40th anniversary in 2023—a reference to its usual setting in non-pandemic times at Venice’s Fondazione Giorgio Cini in the former San Giorgio Monastery. There’s hope this week in Emma Bubola’s report from Rome for The New York Times of the Italian health minister, Roberto Speranza, lifting the country’s outdoor mask mandate imposed in December.

So well-connected is this program that even in its half-day online format on January 28, its audience reached at one point 850 users in 27 countries. Produced by Fondazione Umberto e Elisabetta Mauri secretary-general Nana Lohrengel and her team—and the support of Messaggerie Italiane and Messaggerie Libri—the program includes both statistical data and discussion of trends, issues, and influences in and around book publishing, a formula that has proved especially viable during the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic.

Nana Lohrengel

In terms of statistics, we refer you to two stories. The first is our write-up from January 31 on the very upbeat report presented during the session by Ricardo Franco Levi, president of the Association of Italian Publishers (Associazione Italiana Editori, AIE).  The second is our report (February 16) on the quick development of a crisis in paper costs for Italy’s publishing industry. Art books and tourism publications are being especially hard-hit after those sectors took the brunt of the pandemic’s pre-vaccination downturn, when tourism and art facilities were depressed amid lockdowns and travel stops.

As Publishing Perspectives readers know, Levi has worked especially closely throughout the pandemic years with the Italian culture minister, Dario Franceschini, developing proposals for government funding and prevailing on Rome to recognize the publishing industry’s integral position in Italy’s all-important cultural context.

Dario Franceschini

While Franceschini was unable to join the conference on the 28th as had been hoped, he sent a message to the Mauri School, saying, in part, “To support the book publishing sector in the pandemic, small publishers have been helped as well as have publishing specialists in art and tourism along with literary translators.

“At the same time, work was beginning on legislation for publishing which—as is already the case for cinema in Italy—deserves support across the entire supply chain: booksellers, publishers, distributors, and authors.

“In this context, the work of booksellers, revealing a spirit of initiative and resilience, has proved to be fundamental in learning how to address new-found readers, bringing them closer to the magic and strength of the page.”

Achille Mauri

In his role as host of the 39th Mauri School event, foundation president Achille Mauri told his audience, “We go home as usual with new questions.

“The combination of the pandemic and the Internet is transforming our world, and also bringing many young people into bookshops. The market has grown by 16 percent as readers have devoted 10 minutes more to reading” each day than in the past, a figure put forward by some intriguing survey work.

And yet, to be prudent, Mauri said, “We must take a glass-half-empty approach. We still have a great way to go and a lot of promise. Ten minutes more and another 10 percent of readers will enrich our world that much more—a great moment for people who have always believed in books.”

The Mauri School is completely reliable for its remarkably congenial, warm tone and collective demeanor. Many of its attendees and speakers have been part of its physical stagings in Venice for many years, and feel the energy of a reunion whenever they’re back in touch with the program.

Technically, however, what Stefano Mauri of Messaggerie Italiane and Gruppo Editoriale Mauri Spagnol and the foundation’s Lohrengel do in terms of programming—with the help of Levi and the AIE—is tie the Italian market’s annual experience to that of Europe and the rest of the world very deftly.

In the central conversation we cover now, we heard from the United Kingdom, German, Italy–all with American moderation–and with a coherence that isn’t always in place in these events. There’s a lot to be said for that kind of programming chops.

‘Publishing Reloaded’: Part One

The 2022 Scuola per Librai Umberto e Elisabetta Mauri panel, ‘Book Publishing Reloaded: Selling Books in a Changed World.’ Upper row, from left, Porter Anderson, James Daunt, and Michael Busch. Lower row from left, Andrew Franklin and Stefano Mauri. Image: UEM39

What lay at the core of this program “for people who have always believed in books,” was an 80-minute conversation between two prominent booksellers and two leading publishers, a session titled, “Book Publishing Reloaded: Selling Books in a Changed World.”

The mood this time was much advanced beyond the careful “State of the Book” laid out by speakers in last year’s iteration of the program. Here were booksellers and publishers putting their fingers on points of progress and promise, with an eye to how to leverage what’s been learned and accomplished for a more sustainable future.

For the most efficient production, we’ll publish this article with our two booksellers’ comments highlighted first—James Daunt and Michael Busch—then follow (Part Two) with the comments of our two publishers, Stefano Mauri and Andrew Franklin. This way, we can provide you with a deeper look at what was being said than is possible in a single write-through.

Publishing Perspectives moderated this conversation, with:

We can offer you today (February 18) some of the strongest points made by James Daunt and Michael Busch, edited for brevity, and then, at the bottom of our article, you’ll find a recording of the program with subtitles for Italian and English, provided to us by the Fondazione Umberto e Elisabetta Mauri.

In Daunt’s and Busch’s comments, look for how both of them value developments in the “digital acceleration” of the pandemic, and yet how differently they regard those developments. Each bookseller has a positive but distinct assessment to offer.

In Daunt’s typically urbane, selfless candor, you hear him talk of discovering that his stores are “full of teenagers and young adults”–and that he’s learning what the digital framework offers in terms of leveraging and cultivating kids who tote Ulysses out of the stores.

And in Busch’s intensely observed view of the potential, you recognize that the introduction of the German e-reader Tolino was actually the advent, for him, of an industry-wide platforming potential he now believes is manifesting as a trusted “neighborhood” for consumers.

James Daunt: ‘Authenticity Matters More Than Anything’

James Daunt. Image: UEM39

“Every country is different,” Daunt said, revealing a much more optimistic stance than he’d been able to allow himself at the 2021 scuola. “The United States is very different from the UK, and I’m sure Italian booksellers will be finding their own restrictions,” he said.

“But nonetheless, what we clearly have now is a vibrant market for reading and—most encouraging of all—people are choosing to buy those books. In bookshops, rather than in what seemed to be this inevitable slide into the world of Amazon. That isn’t what we’re seeing.

“We need to understand who is the beekeeper, who is the ornithologist, who is interested in soccer, who is interested in the Napoleonic Wars, who is interested in ancient archaeology.”James Daunt

“And the reasons for that” Daunt said, “are really ones that we’ve discussed in this gathering every January, around why bookshops matter. How readers enjoy the fact of a bookshop, the experience of a bookshop, and the service that booksellers give them–the fact that we physical booksellers have this emotional connection to the community that reads.”

An emotional connection, emotional appeal, even emotional authenticity would be recurring elements of what the panel discussed, as they explored some of the revelations of how consumers have performed during the pandemic years.

The exception to strong footfall in shops, Daunt said–even at this stage in the pandemic’s progress–lies in weakened city centers, both for Barnes & Noble in the States and Waterstones in the United Kingdom. “Office workers and tourists are not there,” Daunt said. “But everywhere else, it’s so much busier.”

Daunt continues to impress on listeners—and his employees—how critical the look-and-feel components of a visit to a bookstore are.

“You need to curate the books in those shops with care and attention,” he says. “It’s the stock, it’s the backlist. It’s the range, how you choose the titles that you carry. It has to be right for the community of readers that you have. You need to make those look beautiful. The visual merchandising: You need to sell alongside the books nice things that are not books, and that will make you a better bookshop–cards, journals, stationery,” he said, “And of course you need sellers above all, you need booksellers who not only are professionally executing all of those skills, but are communicating with our customers, talking to them, enthusing them and creating that excitement and personality in a shop.”

Perhaps the most encouraging area of progress Daunt said he sees lies in an increased understanding of how the bookstore world can operate in beneficial conjunction with social media and a new digital fluency. As a result of the industry’s being thrown by the emergency closer to its digital framework in the course of the still ongoing pandemic, he said, many of the strongest elements of good bookselling can be conveyed “through our online channels and platforms.

“The thrilling, I mean, frankly, completely thrilling thing that has happened is that young people, more than any other part of our society, have embraced books.”James Daunt

“Be that email marketing, be that our TikTok pages or Instagram pages—or indeed how we present our Web sites, themselves—and many of the things that we’ve traditionally done in our stores, we find now that we can find a much bigger audience by doing them as online events: Clubs, talks, podcasts, all of these things can be communicated from a shop to a far wider audience.

“Some of the fear that was attached to doing that has necessarily disappeared,” he said.

“And as we’ve done that, we’ve perhaps also understood that some of those sorts of words in our lives that traditional booksellers, I’m one, have slightly shied away from—data, understanding your customer—all of those things matter increasingly.”

This has to do, Daunt said, with the customers who are trending younger, another theme we’d hear quite a bit about.

“We’ve found harnessing and understanding the data that we get from our customers—what they’re buying, if intelligently used—has become a hugely powerful tool to reinforce the connection that we have through our stores,” Daunt said. “We need to understand who is the beekeeper, who is the ornithologist, who is interested in soccer, who is interested in the Napoleonic Wars, who is interested in ancient archaeology. And as we understand those cohorts, we communicate to them.

“We send emails that are relevant. We can even present our Web site in a way that presents those books in an intelligent and proactive way.

“All of this,” he said, “is to harness additional skills of our top-floor booksellers in an online world and frankly display the skills of a bookseller compared to the skills of a data analyst, from an algorithm-driven bookseller. This pandemic in this last two years has, I think, dramatically shifted us forward in in all the ways in which we do that.

“The thrilling, I mean, frankly, completely thrilling thing that has happened,” Daunt said, “is that young people, more than any other part of our society, have embraced books. And we have adapted and changed with that. We had seen them buying lots of manga, lots of graphic novels. We’ve expanded those sections.

“But I’m much more interested in the fact that they’re buying real books, and that it’s backlist books. Excellent books.

“These last three or four weeks in the United States, James Joyce’s Ulysses has been a significant seller because on TikTok, the kids are getting excited about it. This is an amazing thing for me and it’s translating into shops which are full of teenagers and young adults.”

If anything, Daunt said, what’s happening in this newfound youthful traffic is an insight into what his operations can do that Amazonian platform-retail so far cannot.

“These kids are buying the books from us,” he said. “The market share for Barnes & Noble and for Waterstones for the bestsellers is enormous. We enjoy 50-, 60-, 70-percent market share on books like Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, books that are in the bestseller lists,” Daunt said, not without some wonder in his tone. “And we as a bookseller haven’t enjoyed this kind of prominence of what is exciting in books, really since JK Rowling and Harry Potter. It’s back to that kind of energy in our stores.

“To choose a book enjoyably is to talk about it in a group, pick it up off the table, hold it, pass it ’round, put it back, reject it, pick up another book, chatter.”James Daunt

“Our challenge now,” Daunt said, “is that we absolutely have to keep those customers, as we did the Harry Potter generation. It’s stepped booksellers up and it’s stepped book sales up in-shops. People found the pleasures of a shop. And I think that’s what I hold at the moment is we’ve got a clear embrace among these young people on what it’s like to choose a book, and to choose a book enjoyably,” he said.

“It’s to talk about it in a group, pick it up off the table, hold it, pass it ’round, put it back, reject it, pick up another book, chatter.

“It is the queuing in a store,  the talk with a bookseller, that buying a book is for many people—hugely more satisfying if it’s an emotional experience. And that’s not easy for the giant Amazon to replicate. In fact, I think almost impossible, given their nature. But it’s easy for us. It’s what we do.

“And now more interestingly, it’s how we can take some of that spirit into our online channels–into our emailing communications, into our Instagram feeds, onto our YouTube pages. And as we do that,” Daunt said, “I think that we the physical booksellers are finding ourselves in a dramatically stronger position than we ever did hope this time last year, when frankly things seemed very difficult indeed.”

When we followed up with a quick question, Daunt made one more crucial connection in what he’s observing. It’s emotion, yes. But also authenticity. And that may be why planting a BookTok operative to woo users toward given books, may not, in fact, be the way to go.

“The one thing that seems evident,” he said, “is that authenticity matters more than anything. And it’s a lot of it is innocent humor.

“We’ve generally found that the people with blue hair do better than the people with sensible haircuts. It’s about fun and enjoyment and enthusiasm. And the people who do it brilliantly, are of the same generation. It’s our young booksellers. And we let them get on with it.

“Occasionally, it causes us a little bit of anxiety,” James Daunt said. After all, he’s not yet sporting the blue hair. “But most of the time, it’s fantastic. It’s just great.”

Michael Busch: A Beautiful Day in the ‘Neighborhood’

Michael Busch. UEM39

Busch, CEO of German bookselling chain Thalia, it turns out, had foreseen certain factors of the framework for bookselling that, if anything, these pandemic years have confirmed for him and Thalia as pathways forward. And his use of the term omnichannel—a term meaning seamless, valuable customer experiences and interactions across multiple sales channel—would become another repeated feature of the session’s commentary.

He sees the way forward as involving a set of trends that might be parsed this way:

  1. Retail as an all-encompassing ecosystem he likens to a trusted neighborhood
  2. Digital-first innovation and implementation for speed and scale
  3. Automation to support digital-first with consistency of quality
  4. Logistics because “if you’re not able to deliver, the customer won’t come back”
  5. Shared technological capability for industry scale and affordability

“When we are talking about ‘corona,'” he said, “we should always differentiate between what happened during ‘corona’ and what ‘corona’ [can mean in its] impact on the ‘day after.’

“When we look into the into the crisis itself,” he said, “then the winners were publishers and e-commerce,” he said, “and at least in the German-speaking area, the ones to take the biggest damages are the stationery businesses and the stores

“We have to make ourselves the neighbor of the customer. If the brand is your neighbor and if you have a nice neighborhood—this is what we learned throughout ‘corona’–there’s no necessity to leave your neighborhood.”Michael Busch

“What does this mean in in figures? Up to the end of the crisis–which hopefully we see at the latest in April due to vaccination on one hand and weather conditions on the other–we will have lost about €60 million [US$68.3 million], which means in the two years, or in the three business years affected by ‘corona,’ we will have lost three years of investment budget. We normally spend between 20 and 30 million in investment per year.”

Busch said that “in the period between lockdowns, we were–revenue-wise and profit-wise–over-budget.” It would prove impossible to reconcile the effects on a total-year basis, he said, “because last year, we had almost five months’ lockdown, and in the year before, it was two months. And even now, what we call ‘2G’ restrictions means only people are allowed to go to stores who are vaccinated or recovered, which is in Germany only about 70 percent. So 30 percent,” he said, “are not allowed to go to our stores.”

Taking a high view, though, Busch said, “We increased our e-commerce percentage over the whole business to more than 40 percent. We started at 25 percent, so we are coming out with 40 percent. On one hand,” he said, e-commerce “will go down because stores will reach the old levels or more. But we so dramatically increased our digital customer base–that’s [using] digital means for physical products and for digital products–but people who can be reached now or addressed digitally. We dramatically increased our digital customer base.”

In terms of market share, Busch said, inclusive of e-commerce, Thalia had increased its own market share by 50 percent. “And it was mostly taken from Amazon.”

What Busch has come up with, “looking into the crystal ball after ‘corona,'” is a model of a customer who imagines that it’s “not necessary to leave the ecosystem” in order for the brand, Thalia, to deliver “everything, everywhere, and at any time. And delivering is not just meant physically. It means to serve their necessities and wishes in the stores and online, B2B, digital, physical. The most important thing is the combination of all of it.

“The winner,” he said, will be the one who can put this into place “in a very sympathetic and a very emotional way,” communicating “that it’s not necessary to leave the environment, the ecosystem, of this brand. That he can have everything, everywhere, anytime.

“We have to go where the customer is and not expect that he’s following the old paths he was following before ‘corona.’ So how to make ourselves the neighbor of the customer? Because your ‘neighbor’ is an emotional thing. Hopefully you like at least most of your neighbors. If the brand is your ‘neighbor,'” with all the traditional connotations of a good neighbor, Busch says, “then we are there. There’s no necessity to leave your neighborhood.”

Busch said that the company–to this end of creating brand-as-neighborhood, an omnichanneling ecosystem–is now enforcing a concept that whatever it’s doing, it does “online first.”

This does not mean, he hastened to say, “that online is more or less important than our stores. But when you start with the way you do it online, then you can do it fast, you can scale it,” he said. “And from the very beginning, think about ultimate automatization, which we normally didn’t do.” If you’re looking for consistency of quality at all levels of consumer interaction, then automation is essential to fast and efficient delivery of value to the customer.

“Online first. That doesn’t mean that online is more or less important than our stores. But when you start with the way you do it online, then you can scale it.”Michael Busch

This, then, is how Busch is engineering Thalia to be that trusted “neighborhood” for the consumer: initiating services and effects online for the quickest uptake and implementation, thanks to automation. “That and–as James [Daunt] said, being data-driven–will be the key.”

Busch said that by envisioning the process in this digital-first framework means speed and capacity far greater than what can be implemented in a physical-first trajectory. The coronavirus, he said, is hardly something to have been happy about, but by the end of the pandemic’s most dramatic impact, he’s predicting that it will have been the prompt “for those who can implement what I’ve described.

“‘Corona’ is a booster in the mid-term and the long-term view,” he said, “at least for our strategy because we have now increased our customer base in a way we didn’t imagine two years ago. And this is the key. Increasing your customer base.” This is dependent on holding your current customer base and increasing that base “by bringing people back to reading,” he said, people “we just lost a couple of years ago with the coronavirus’ onset or at some other time. “Bringing them back to reading,

Most medium- and small-size booksellers, Busch said, won’t be able to accomplish such sweeping innovations through an omnichannel approach. The “open system” he is describing is “not a bookselling company but a platform “for every bookseller at least in the German-language area.”

This is an important part of Busch’s vision: the platform as an industry-wide benefactor. “This is what I would say is an open system,” he said.

He sees the creation of the Tolino e-reader initiative eight years ago as the initial step toward this broad platform-supportive framework, something that grows to enough size that he can accommodate the industry as a whole “competing with international ecosystems.” In essence, Busch is describing the developing Thalia-as-platform as being an “open system, at least for every German-language bookseller in the area.”

And such a development, basically to fight platform-with-platform (Amazon vs. German-language retail) has one “huge advantage,” he says: the local factor. He characterizes this as being “on-site in real time with the customers” as well as in the growing digital surround of a locally grown platform. That gives the Thalia/Tolino approach, he said, a leg up on the bigger international entities.

In other words, the “digital acceleration” we talk about in references to the pandemic is thoroughly turbo-charged in Busch’s conceptualization of where it can go and where it can take bookselling.

“The customer has no need to leave this ecosystem, being happy,” Michael Busch said.

Because within this open system, that consumer is happiest in Thalia’s neighborhood.

Our second installment of commentary–featuring Stefano Mauri and Andrew Franklin –is forthcoming. And here is a recording of the 39th scuola with subtitles for Italian and English, provided to us by the Fondazione Umberto e Elisabetta Mauri. The quick open with music and visuals offers a strong clue to the warmth and camaraderie of this event, as mentioned earlier.

More from Publishing Perspectives on Italy and its book publishing industry is here. More on Stefano Mauri is here, more on Ricardo Franco Levi is here, more on James Daunt is here, more on Thalia is here, and more on bookselling is here.

More from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on world 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 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.