In an opening session intended to be provocative, Macmillan CEO John Sargent and outgoing American Booksellers Association president Becky Anderson, co-owner of Anderson's Bookshops in Naperville, Ill., may not have necessarily covered "Publishing, Bookselling, and the Whole Damn Thing," but they definitely got the conversation going, which was Sargent's goal.
"We need to talk. We need to have a relationship where we can talk with our partners so we can understand," he told booksellers during an hourlong q&a, Talking, he said, and overcoming "the victim effect," where "everybody in the industry is afraid of the Department of Justice or legal things," was part of the reason he chose to do his first public interview with Anderson, even though he said that his natural inclination is to be in the background. Earlier, when Sargent did speak up at the fall regional conferences for the New England and New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Associations, it was largely off-the-record. But, he noted on Wednesday morning, "there are a lot of things, we're allowed to discuss." And in fact very few questions elicited a "no." To a query on what Macmillan will do when the DoJ agreement expires in December 2014, he said, "I can't comment on new business models going forward." He also declined to name his favorite bookstores.
What Sargent did say about the pending DoJ suit is that Justice is "extraordinarily myopic. They carried the water for Amazon, when it had 92% of the market." And, he said, they prevented others from coming into the market. "The senior guys, Eric Holder, are just incompetent," he added, to resounding applause. As to the lasting effect of the DoJ case, Sargent said, "There's no way to tell. I have a lot of hope. There are a lot of good signs about the movement to digital." He's been heartened that even with the increase in the number of screens, the growth of e-books is flat. "What is dangerous for us is cataclysmic change. You guys are superb at adapting. You need time to adjust. If it stays flat or declines slowly, we're in good shape."
Despite some goading, Sargent didn't say anything negative about Amazon. To Anderson's question, "Where do you think the industry went wrong to let one retailer become dominant?" he replied, "I don't think we let anybody become dominant. The guys at Amazon are really bright." What he objects to is the concentration of power, which he termed "dangerous. If the American consumer ends up wanting to buy all their books from one retailer, they're going to do that." On the other hand, he said, "We're trying to make sure we don't facilitate that."
"How do we get some cojones, some balls, here?" asked Anderson. "The thing you can do," said Sargent, "is keep doing what you have done: adjust, have deeper and deeper roots in the community. Being active, you have tremendous power." He also told booksellers that they continue to have an outsized importance to their market share, even as it has shrunk. "We always keep you guys in mind. That's where our heart goes," said Sargent.
As to what Macmillan might be up to, Sargent said, "What people want is book-length works that tell a good story. So I don't feel a need to put in film studios in the office, to invest tremendously in the enhanced e-book." Nor does he have any plans to deliver data to glasses. And he affirmed his personal preference for print. "Call me old-fashioned. I prefer a book," he said, to much applause. Sargent also spoke briefly about the ingrained culture of books in Germany, where Macmillan's owners, the two shareholders he has to make happy, live.
"Fantastic," he responded to a question about the Google Book Settlement. "The first lawsuit, they threw out. The DoJ wasn't very useful on that either," he said to laughter. On self-publishing, he said, "I have a lot of respect for the self-publishing business.... Most authors who are self-published, when we call them, are pretty happy. They don't say, go fish. For publishers, the key value is the ability to recognize talent [and] find a way to generate word-of-mouth."
Sargent affirmed the role of the publisher and the role of the bookseller over crowdsourcing and algorithms. "This is a human business," he said. Despite warning "you might see me struggling with my language, I'm going to be called to testify next week," it wasn't apparent beyond a few words chosen with care. While some said immediately afterward that they were "still digesting" his message, others felt inspired, and a few even gave Sargent and Anderson a standing ovation. "It was really great, really amazing," said Gayle Shanks, co-owner of Changing Hands in Tempe, Ariz. For Betsy Burton, co-owner of the King's English Bookstore in Salt Lake City, "It made the entire trip worthwhile. I was entirely inspired. Becky is right. We have to be brave."