On May 22, more than 800 people from across the many sectors of the book business joined Publishers Weekly and the Association of American Literary Agents at NYU's Kimmel Center in Manhattan for the 2024 U.S. Book Show, for a day's worth of professional programming. Kicking off the program, at a roundtable, were the CEOs of Abrams, Baker & Taylor, Scholastic, and Simon & Schuster, who shared insights on the state of the industry, the present and potential future impact of generative AI, what it takes to nurture talent, and how their companies are tackling pressing challenges during a time of significant transformation.

Discussing the current publishing landscape, Peter Warwick, president and CEO of Scholastic, said that "the industry at the moment is in a period of pretty rapid change.” He observed a certain amount of circularity in the business, noting a general downturn in the industry of late compared with the high that was experienced during the pandemic and its immediate aftermath. Despite these short-term challenges, Warwick expressed optimism, especially in the children's publishing sector.

"In terms of children reading, there's never been a greater need than now to help support, finance, and fund literacy in our schools and in homes everywhere—and that applies to many countries, not just in the United States," he said. "It is one of the issues that we've all seen stemming from the increasing socioeconomic polarization in the society in which we live."

Warwick added that publishing depends on being innovative and finding new audiences. Highlighting Scholastic's success in the children's graphic novel space as a case in point, he cited the success of Dav Pilkey’s Dog Man: The Scarlet Shedder, which published in March and has sold some 740,000 copies so far.

Jonathan Karp, president and CEO of Simon & Schuster, riffed on Warwick’s comment about graphic novels. "Years ago, I think one of the most popular kinds of books were those classic comics where great works of literature were presented,” he said. “I remember, when I was a kid, those Mr. Magoo cartoons, where Mr. Magoo played every major character in American literature.... I learned a lot from Mr. Magoo.”

Addressing questions on the state of the industry, Karp compared it to talking about the weather. “Elmore Leonard advised, ‘Don’t write about the weather’ and he’s right about that,” he said. “Some days, [business] is good. Some days, it's bad."

Mary McAveney, president and CEO of Abrams, shared a different kind of optimism. "What I'm seeing more systemically throughout publishing is a real groundswell of independent publishers, of independent authors rising up and finding their way through to the consumer,” she said. “I think that is heartening for the whole industry, and I think there are a lot of lessons in that—in the way that [indie publishers and authors] present themselves, the way they present their books, the way they find their audiences."

AI’s Impact on Publishing

On the topic of generative AI and its potential impact on publishing, the executives expressed a range of concerns, as well as excitement over potential opportunities.

Warwick emphasized the need to protect intellectual property rights. "We have, I think, over 40 lawsuits currently, in the United States, about protection of IP," he said, calling the rising prevalence of such large language models as ChatGPT trained on copyrighted works a major concern. "We have to work, as publishers, with our authors in order to protect, and get proper value in remuneration for, the intellectual property."

Karp offered a colorful metaphor to describe the AI phenomenon: rejecting the suggestion that the technology is currently the "elephant in the room" in publishing, he said, "I think it's more like the cicada in the world. You know, lots of buzzing and lots of screwing. It’s clear rights are being infringed, and our books, our authors, are the building blocks of these LLMs." He added: "It's like [AI is] building a house, and we're making the cement."

I think [AI is] more like the cicada in the world. You know, lots of buzzing and lots of screwing. It’s clear rights are being infringed.

Karp acknowledged the aspects of AI that could prove valuable to the book business while nonetheless urging caution. "It is definitely a valuable tool. It's definitely going to make us more efficient. It's going to help us process and gather information better, and hopefully allow workers to do a higher level of work that's more interesting and creative. But all of the caveats apply, and we have to regard it with caution. I personally don't think it's going to blow up the world, but I know that there are some people out there who do."

McAveney, explaining why she views AI as a double-edged sword, compared it to the birth of the internet. "It's going to be that big," she said. "It's going to be that insidious in our lives, and I think it's not going away. The genie is out of the bottle. There's nothing publishing can do to put it back in—our books are all out there in digital formats, and they're out there in digital formats with the same companies that are developing AI. So, from a content creation standpoint, I think there is certainly a cautionary tale in terms of how we approach those infringements."

Aman Kochar, president and CEO of Baker & Taylor, stressed the unique role publishers play in creating authentic stories, suggesting that, no matter its innovations, AI will not be able to take that power away. "I think the fundamentals of the publishing industry is to tell authentic stories, whether it be fiction or nonfiction. And AI works on the principle of collective wisdom," he said. "It can only look back and draw from the experiences that it already has in its database, where it will never be able to replace the authenticity or the laborious work that goes into creating a fiction or nonfiction work of art."

Attracting Talent and Other Challenges

One major running theme at this year’s U.S. Book Show was the involvement, and retention, of young publishing professionals. During their discussion, the four CEOs unanimously stressed that attracting, nurturing, and retaining talent is vital for the publishing industry's continued success.

Karp reflected on his own journey, crediting great mentors. "Having really good bosses has definitely helped,” Karp said. “I started 35 years ago as Kate Medina's editorial assistant, and I've worked for such terrific people through the years: Ann Godoff, Harry Evans, and Carolyn Reidy. And I just think that probably the community of publishing has always been a very nurturing one, and I hope that it will always be that way." Kochar, for his part, advised young publishing professionals to have "the curiosity to ask questions, learn—always keep asking questions—and the courage to ask for help, because this is a very complex machine."

The executives also delved into such pressing challenges facing the industry as book marketing, competing for readers' time and attention, affordability issues, and the rise of book banning.

Karp addressed the marketing challenge, noting that literary agents often tell him that "making the books known" is the biggest challenge in today's publishing world, and he agrees. “I see the same template over and over again, and I want to see new ideas, and I want to feel more assured in how the publishers are reaching readers," he said, adding that it behooves agents, authors, and publishers to have candid discussions about, and remain open to, new marketing ideas.

McAveney highlighted the challenge of competing for readers' time in a crowded entertainment landscape. "Do people have time to read?” she asked. The bump in reading over the course of the pandemic, she argued, was simple to explain: "There were no sports teams to watch. There were no movies to go to. There were no restaurants. There was no Broadway. I mean, you couldn't do anything except read, and people read voraciously." That, she said, has changed, with publishers once again "competing with all those other things."

Warwick addressed ongoing affordability concerns in the marketplace, particularly in the children's book sector. "One of the key issues is really trying to make books as affordable as possible," he said, noting that inflation and other issues have resulted in an "environment where many families are feeling less wealthy," with prices for food, gas, and rent all on the rise—making it all the more important for publishers to ensure that the price tag on their books doesn't ward away potential readers.

On the topic of book banning, Karp expressed disappointment at the current landscape, calling for united action from the book business and beyond.

"I think the book bans are a manifestation of the larger polarization in the country,” Karp said. “Books are being used as an instrument to make political statements, and we have to fight back. So we're joining all the lawsuits, we're working with the American Library Association." He added: "The whole thing is just unfortunate, and I hope it will eventually abate, as these very loud and annoying voices realize that this is a waste of everybody's time."