The most common reaction among publishing people upon hearing the news that Markus Dohle would be stepping down as global CEO of Penguin Random House at the end of the year was not surprise but disappointment. Though many in the industry were against PRH’s bid to acquire Simon & Schuster, Dohle is widely appreciated as an enthusiastic advocate for book publishing.
Agent Christy Fletcher of Fletcher & Company captured the industry vibe: “There is no doubt of Markus’s commitment to writers and the book business,” she noted. “He once said to me that he wanted PRH to be the place where the best writers wanted to be published and the best people wanted to work, and I have always believed he was very sincere in that mission. His commitment to the defense of writers at PRH and PEN has been deeply felt, especially in the current climate. It’s a loss to the business, as complicated as the feelings around the acquisition of S&S are.”
Dominique Raccah, publisher and CEO of Sourcebooks, thinks so highly of Dohle’s PRH that she sold a 45% stake in her company to the publisher in 2019. “I’ve always admired—and the book business has greatly benefitted from—Markus’s enthusiasm and dedication to books, authors, and reading,” she said. “It would be impossible to overestimate the impact he has had on the industry in his 14 years running what, under his stewardship, became the largest book publisher in the world.”
The financial success PRH has enjoyed under Dohle is indisputable. Dohle succeeded Peter Olson as Random House chairman in 2008, a year when sales fell 6% from 2007 and profits dropped 21%. RH’s operating margin that year was 8%. Dohle took over as a severe recession was building and the digital revolution was just beginning to impact publishing. His mission was to reenergize RH, and in that he succeeded. By 2021, PRH’s global revenue was almost $4.9 billion, and its operating margin was 18.7%.
Acquisitions, of course, played a major role in boosting RH’s financial fortunes, and none was more important than the merger that combined RH, the country’s largest trade publisher, with Penguin, the second-largest publisher. The agreement between RH parent company Bertelsmann with Penguin parent Pearson was signed in fall 2012 and, with quick governmental approval in several countries, completed on July 1, 2013. Dohle oversaw the integration of the two companies—a process that went smoothly, considering it included moving Penguin’s back-office operations out of Pearson and blending them with RH’s systems without disrupting the overall publishing process.
Dohle took his time in making sweeping changes at PRH, much as he did previously at RH. When he did act, he followed his own RH playbook in merging different divisions to address what he saw as the need to develop a more unified publishing strategy across formats. By 2015 he had created the basic structure of PRH, which he hoped would allow its imprints to maintain their own identities while being supported by the marketing and sales muscle of the giant publisher.
Dohle also expanded PRH well outside the U.S., particularly in the Spanish market, acquiring Santillana in 2014, Ediciones B in 2017, and RBA Group’s Molino and Serres Spanish-language children’s and young adult imprints, as well as its Catalan-language imprint, La Magrana, in 2021. In the U.S., he consolidated the headquarters of U.S. operations for the Spanish group in Miami, where it has steadily expanded in recent years. The Lusophone market was also a target, with the acquisition of 100% of Brazil’s Companhia das Le tras in 2018 and Portugal’s Grupo 20/20 in 2020, among others.
Dohle brought his leadership style to several industry organizations, including the Association of American Publishers, which he joined as a director in 2011 and served as chairman of from 2015 to 2018, a time of significant change at the organization. “Markus has served on the AAP board with great energy for more than a decade, including a double term as chairman,” said AAP CEO Maria Pallante. “He was instrumental to modernizing AAP a few years ago, not for the benefit of any one company but to better serve the entire membership and future industry in keeping with our mission.”
It was Dohle’s firm belief in the future of book publishing that made him doggedly pursue the acquisition of S&S. And though that attempt was deemed by the U.S. government to be one acquisition too many, with Dohle’s exit, publishing is losing one of its most charismatic and respected leaders.