At a CEO panel on Thursday morning at BookExpo, Macmillan CEO John Sargent was asked about the moment he got the news that lawyers for President Trump were seeking to block publication of Michael Wolff’s bestselling book Fire & Fury.
“In all honesty, my first reaction was: holy cow, we are going to sell a shitload of books,” he said, to laughter. But the seriousness of the situation soon settled upon him.
“I thought long and hard about two things,” he said: “How to respond to the president, and how do I use the moment to make sure that people, particularly people at Macmillan, understand the importance of free speech and understand how key this is.” Free speech, Sargent went on to say, “is the greatest value” in publishing, and a value, he acknowledged, that is increasingly challenged. “It’s something that I worry a lot about,” he said. “So I thank the president for the opportunity to talk about it, and to sell a few copies.”
Sargent’s comments came during a “Leadership Roundtable” discussion, moderated by AAP president and CEO Maria Pallante, which featured Sargent, Simon & Schuster CEO Carolyn Reidy, and Penguin Random House CEO Markus Dohle. All three CEOs agreed that defending free speech was a vital issue for publishers—and one they are especially aware of in their work these days.
“I do think in the current polarized environment there are lots of people on both sides trying to tell us what we should publish,” said Reidy, who faced blowback last year for S&S’s decision to sign controversial Breitbart writer Milo Yiannopoulos. “And it’s bad coming from either side.”
Reidy said it was a “big challenge” to continue to publish a variety of ideas, quoting the late Peter Mayer: “Our job is to challenge readers, and to challenge ourselves.”
But despite the cultural and political instability in the world, the publishing world is enjoying a period of stability. In her intro, Pallante noted that virtually all categories are up in the first quarter of 2018. And after years of dire predictions for book publishing in the digital age, Pallante asked the CEOs for their take on how the book business is faring.
“Better than their image, actually, both domestically and globally,” said Dohle. “And there are more reasons to be confident about the future of long-form reading and the future of the book. We have fairly stable business models for print and [digital],” he added, pointing to “a fairly healthy coexistence between print and digital markets,” as well other factors, including a growing children’s book market and rising literacy rates. “I think there is no reason to be pessimistic,” he said.
Reidy agreed. “Every time there is change in the market, there are doomsayers, but the fact of the matter is the value of the book, all of the things it brings to society, to individuals, is as strong as, if not stronger than, ever,” she said, adding that S&S recently looked at its internal figures over the last five years and found that the number of units sold through physical outlets “has remained rock solid.”
Sargent also agreed—but noted that the industry still faces some serious challenges in protecting the current publishing and retail ecosystem amid changing consumer habits. “If you look at the various media businesses, the book business has done a very good job,” he said. “But the next thing up will be how we address changing consumer buying patterns.”