Venice’s 39th Mauri School, Part Two: A ‘Perfect Companion’

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

From the publishers on our Mauri School panel, Stefano Mauri and Andrew Franklin, new takes on the book business and the Web.

A view of Venice’s San Giorgio Maggiore from the Riva degli Schiavoni, October 1, 2018. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Asergieiev

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

‘Next Year in Venice’
A complicated series of news events on the editorial calendar has delayed until now our publication of the second part of our report on this year’s 39th edition of the Scuola per Librai Umberto e Elisabetta Mauri—a “School of Booksellers.”

Just announced today (May 3), Michael Busch, whose spirited commentary was part of this year’s Mauri School program and the first of these two reports, has announced that he will step down on June 1 as the 28-year managing partner and board chairman at Germany’s major bookselling corporation, Thalia.

As Busch retires from operations—his advocacy for an omnichannel retail model still resonant—Ingo Kretzschmar, the company’s sales director, is to succeed him in what the company describes as a long planned transfer of leadership. Our colleagues at Börsenblatt have more details on the coming transition for the big retailer.

Nana Lohrengel

And as you’ll recall, “Next year in Venice” is now the rallying cry of those familiar with the Mauri School’s 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.

Thanks to the leadership of Achille and Stefano Mauri and of the Fondazione Umberto e Elisabetta Mauri’s secretary-general Nana Lohrengel, the Mauri school has weathered its 2021 and 2022 editions on the ether better than many other such programs.

This winter, when the Mauri School is usually convened, COVID-19 caseloads were still coming down from a spike that hit many nations as the omicron variant proved its special transmissibility.

Now, while still higher than many would like, Italy’s daily new-case counts in the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, are at such a range that Rome has relaxed some of its spread-mitigation measures, abandoning the “green pass,” lifting some indoor mask mandates, and allowing international travelers to enter Italy without filling out the EU passenger locator form, per reporting from Nicole Winfield and Demetrios Nellas for the Associated Press–hopefully good omens for a 2023 Mauri School in Venice.

‘Publishing Reloaded’: Part Two

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

In the first part of this review, we looked at the comments of Thalia’s now-outgoing Busch, and those of James Daunt, managing director of Waterstones and Daunt Books (United Kingdom) and CEO of Barnes & Noble (United States).

Today, we hear from:

Achille Mauri

It’s Stefano and Achille Mauri who are the Mauri School conference’s gracious hosts each year–and frequently the suppliers of some of the event’s sharpest observations.

What lay at the core of this year’s bookselling conference “for people who have always believed in books,” was the roundtable we moderated, an 80-minute conversation between two prominent booksellers and two leading publishers, “Book Publishing Reloaded: Selling Books in a Changed World.”

At the bottom of our article, you’ll find a recording of the complete program with subtitles for Italian and English, provided to us by the Fondazione Umberto e Elisabetta Mauri. And we’ll remind you that we’ve had two other reports relative to some of the information that was part of the program. Ricardo Franco Levi, president of the Association of Italian Publishers (Associazione Italiana Editori, AIE), brought us during the Mauri program the news reported in:

And a programming note: Andrew Franklin is one of the speakers who’ll be heard at the  Jerusalem International Book Forum later this month. He’ll be in conversation in Israel in a session called Indie Prospects: Why Independent Publishers are Stronger Than Ever. Joining him will be Dorit Tamir (Tamir and Alma Publishing) and Dr. Andreas Rötzer (Matthes and Seitz).

Andrew Franklin: Backlist and ‘Authors of the Future’

Andrew Franklin. UEM39

Those who followed our coverage of the United Kingdom’s review of its copyright framework and its concept of “copyright exhaustion” will appreciate Andrew Franklin’s early comments about how the effort was “one of those self-inflicted wounds that came out of Brexit.” The decision of the Johnson government in the United Kingdom was to quietly abandon the review, leaving the copyright regime in place, as publishing had hoped it would, but only after months of public comment and opaque review by British authorities.

“We should never have had to deal with it,” Franklin said. “It was a terrible waste of time. And it’s a rare case of this government in the UK making the right decision almost certainly for the wrong reasons.”

“Most people will buy what they can as cheaply as possible. But that’s not the case with books. And that’s incredibly exciting and satisfying.”Andrew Franklin

Going on, then, to respond to some of Michael Busch’s comments, Franklin said, “One of the great things that you have in Europe, which we do not have in the UK and the US , is fixed prices for books. We don’t have retail price maintenance. As a result of that, one of the ways that Amazon took a huge competitive advantage was pricing anti-competitively and it still does.

“As soon as anybody ever lowers a price, Amazon always matches it, even when it means losing” money on a book.

“So the environment here” in England “is different and it’s much harder for retailers to create an ‘omnichannel’ platform. is a good counter-example,” Franklin said, “but it’s very small.”

As a helpful trend, Franklin said, “One big phenomenon we’ve seen as publishers and bookshops has been the rise of the backlist. Authors with well-established series of novels or classics, or great works in nonfiction, have sold in absolutely huge numbers,” he said, “much bigger numbers than before. And as a result, whereas the market has been broadly static in the UK, it’s increased a little bit which of course is very welcome, while backlist titles all over the world have increased.

“This on the one hand is very good,” he said, because backlist titles are known products. “We know what [these books] are, we know what we’re doing” in marketing them. “And they’re more profitable. Of course, like everything that’s good, it also has a downside. And the downside is that the percentage of new books has fallen.

“Why does that matter? Because new books are the ideas of the present from the authors of the future,” Franklin said, “and what we’ve been finding is that it’s much harder to launch new unknown novelists or other writers who don’t have a previous platform.” Franklin described the ordeal that many authors have encountered during the still-ongoing pandemic: “Even if they have a social media platform, the sales they’ve got have been much less. We’ve had tragic examples.” In some cases, authors will have worked “five or 10 years on their magnum opus, and nothing has happened” in sales.

Franklin said that bookshop closures were the culprits here, because when consumers were driven online, “the opportunities for conversations or workshops or being together” in the shops’ selling environments were lost–”all the things that make new books work” in the collegial setting of a shop.” For that reason, he said, “It’s been great to see bookshop events, festivals, and book-fair events starting up again.”

Despite some strongly positive views of social media and the ability to integrate those various media into bookstore activities—Waterstones’ James Daunt was particularly good on this in our first report—Franklin said, “Social media is never enough,” and this means, he said, that newer authors suffer as “big authors become even bigger and the crisis of the midlist, which we’ve been talking about for decades, and is perhaps even accentuated. So if we are moving into the sunny uplands, which James [Daunt] and Michael [Busch] described, where booksellers reopen, where people buy more books, it will be fantastic if and when new books, new authors, new voices sell in big numbers again, and they will.”

“New books are the ideas of the present from the authors of the future, and what we’ve been finding is that it’s much harder to launch new unknown novelists or other writers who don’t have a previous platform.”Andrew Franklin

One of the most resonantly positive points Franklin made was about an abiding sort of benevolent exception in how consumers approach their expenditures on books.

“In the UK, there’s an extraordinary paradox,” he said, “in that Amazon will sell things for up to 20- or 30-percent cheaper than anyone could find in a bookshop. And this is not deterring the growth of independent bookshops.” Independent bookshops have opened, he said, and “In the UK, there are more members of the Booksellers Association than there ever have been. People are willing to pay more for the experience of going into a bookshop, and reading is an experience of buying books when [bookselling] is done well by booksellers in bookshops.

“All of us have this have had this experience: You go into a bookstore to buy a book because you can’t wait or you don’t want to buy from Amazon, and you come out with one paperback and three hardbacks. It happens to us all the time.”

It’s a paradox, Franklin said, in that “Most people will buy what they can as cheaply as possible. But that’s not the case with books. And that’s incredibly exciting and satisfying.”

In diversity, Franklin pointed to an encouraging initiative in the UK, supporting and encouraging Black bookshop owners. The ability to create differently curated inventories and reading experiences, he said, that can then reach and speak to a broader range of the reading population and consumers.

In a couple of very perceptive closing points, Franklin bemoaned the fact that in the United States and the United Kingdom, “All of the audiobook market has been captured by Amazon. That makes me sick,” he said, “as he sees bookstores without a ready avenue for selling audio. I’d love to find a way for booksellers to get around that.”

And finally, Franklin said it’s encouraging for booksellers that throughout Europe but especially in the States and the UK, “We have a very tight labor market. That is to say, there’s a shortage of people doing jobs in the UK. We’ve had amazing problems with this,” he said, “partly because of the stupidity and wickedness of Brexit. While much press attention has gone to shortages of lorry drivers in the USA and UK, “There are shortages of everything now,” he said, “and that includes shortages of people to work in bookshops.

“And the good thing about that,” Andrew Franklin said, “is it’s going to push up bookselling wages because bookselling is incredibly important for Western culture but it’s not well paid. And if there’s a shortage of people to do it, that will increase the wages and salaries of books. This is a good moment for people working rather than for the owners of businesses. And I’m pleased about that.”

Stefano Mauri: ‘The Perfect Companion for the Readers’

Stefano Mauri. UEM39

In his assessment of the Italian market, Stefano Mauri reserved his greatest optimism for what he terms the “second chance” provided to a good book by narrowing the gap between the online and physical worlds of publishing.

“Of course there was more domestic time” during the depths of the pandemic’s lockdowns, he said, citing one of the most intriguing assertions of this curious era—that simply adding 10 minutes daily to the market’s usual readers’ time for reading, “made for double-digit growth.”

“A single ‘BookTokker,’ maybe 15 years old and from anywhere in the world, can determine the success of a good book, usually a good book that pushes the emotions.”Stefano Mauri

But secondly, he cautioned, “This domestic time, this extra time, might vanish when the pandemic goes. Many readers say they want to keep this reading habit going.”

He also pointed to “a great growth of digital literacy inside the companies and among readers.” This has the potential, he pointed out, to establish lasting and deep change in how the industry’s retail business develops, not least because publishers and authors got used to presentations and marketing on the Web”—echoing the new digital fluency that James Daunt had referred to in many of his shops’ staffers.

“Independent bookstores and chains,” are affected, Mauri said, but so is the concept both for customers and for salespeople of “online service and delivery services, as independent booksellers have become more customer-conscious. But from the publishers’ view,” he said, “the destiny of the industry’s widest context is changing as the digital dynamic widens its footprint.

“Books don’t die anymore,” he said—there’s no such thing as being out of print. And there aren’t 60,000 books on offer in a bookstore. They are 60,000 books on offer on the Web.” There are consequences to the fact that books don’t fade from availability as they once did, he conceded, not all of them good: “It’s more difficult to launch a new book,” he said, agreeing with Franklin and their fellow panelists, “because that new book competes with 2 million books, not even the 60,000.”

On the other hand, he said, “There are a lot of good effects. Books used to have a second chance only when Hollywood spent millions of dollars on a movie adaptation of that story. And then you could ‘see’ a book.  And of course this is expanded on Netflix and with all the movies and TV series that are made.

“But what’s extraordinary, in my opinion, is that a single ‘BookTokker,’ maybe 15 years old and from anywhere in the world, can determine the success of a good book, usually a good book that pushes the emotions, because the emotional side is very important” in this social-media milieu, “and this can vary the success of a book that was not successful before.”

Predictable big sellers, the universal successes, may have many lives of their own, of course, but what Mauri was talking about is how in Italy, “There now can be new life for a good book that might have been published six years ago.” His example was Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life of 2015, bolstered by social attention.

“A book at any time in its life cycle can be read and can create enthusiasm in the social space, and have a second chance.”

“For us, publishing in this new era, with a lot more digital people involved, is like playing cards with a lot more Jokers in the deck,” the online world’s so-called influencers.Stefano Mauri

In an intriguing bit of imagery—those who know him enjoy his gift for metaphor—Mauri talked about how in the traditional model a publisher might buy a book, buy the rights, publish it “the best way he or she can, and then watch the bestseller list, looking at your cards,” having basically placed a bet on that book. But the gambling has changed, he said. “For us, publishing in this new era, with a lot more digital people involved, is like playing cards with a lot more Jokers in the deck,” the online world’s so-called influencers.

Thanks to so many wild cards at work, impacting publishing from the online world, Mauri said, “An echo effect can arrive at any time after a book is published, which I think is good because it gives that second chance, and it usually takes a younger reader to the bookstore.” For five out of seven chart-toppers in Italy in 2021, he said, amplification on the Web was considered to have been an impactful element in those titles’ success.

“Michael Busch,” Mauri noted, “was mentioning the positive effect that Amazon had had on the market” in accelerating digital development. Part of this, he said, has to do with how trends can be detected in the sales activity online. As an example, he said, “The chains and bookstores understood that there was a big market for manga, a market that was in some way hidden before the pandemic.” That interest in manga would take the genre’s sales from 2 to 6 percent of the market in a couple of years, “and that’s a lot.” It also led to sightings of manga consumers leaving bookstores with copies of Joyce’s Ulysses under one arm.

Most astonishing in terms of the Web’s effects, Mauri said, is reflected in what we learn from activity online. “If you check on Google Trends in Italy,” he said, “and you compare searches for books, medicines, coffee, Coca-Cola, and cigarettes, you find that books beat all of them because the Web is the perfect companion of the readers.”

In that line, Mauri had captured one of the most hopeful and telling observations of the Mauri School’s 2022 program.

“You read a book, you love to talk about that book to friends,” Mauri said. “A book that’s a very solitary thing has then become a very social thing because if you like that book, you want to talk about it. I think it was Conrad who said that half of a book is written by the reader. And that’s becoming visible with social media. People, especially women, love to talk about their books.

“If we before were an archipelago–author, publisher, bookseller, reader,” originally separated–”today we have all become mainland, because we’re all connected through the Web.”

The best answer is still, he cautioned with a laugh, “Publish good books.”

But if those good books can be amplified by the influencers’ attention online, shared by the readers eager to talk about their stories, and supplied by booksellers when those readers come looking for them, then those books may have a chance–and maybe a second chance–to find their readerships.

The takeaway of the day, thanks to Stefano Mauri—and for all the misgivings sometimes still harbored by many for the Internet and enormous reach—had been: “The Web is the perfect companion for the readers.”

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

Facebook Twitter

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.