John Sargent, CEO of Macmillan, gave this year’s Frankfurt CEO Talk in the new Frankfurt Pavilion on Wednesday. The conversation ranged across a number of topics, from the future of print books to his battle with the White House over the publication of Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff.
Austrian publishing consultant Rüediger Wischenbart led the conversation, which included questions from the editors of several international trade magazines, including PublishNews, Publishers Weekly, Buchreport, Bookdao, and Livres Hebdo.
Fabrice Piault of Livres Hebdo, opened the questions by asking Sargent how the company defined itself as a publisher in the age of the internet. “There are things that can be done better on the internet,” said Sargent. “Travel books really struggle because the internet can give you better answers. Those parts of the business have fallen away and fallen away globally. The focus is to do what we are good at and what the internet does not do effectively: fiction, self-help…A lot of things that work best in the bookstore are things for which books are the best possible way to deliver the technology.”
Piault went on to ask if book reading was be threatened by the growing popularity of streaming television series. “I think there are things that we do better,” he replied. “There is a thing about storytelling that is done better than on the television. I grew up on a reservation near to the location of Custer’s Last Stand. Every year they have a reenactment of that battle. Every year the National Parks Service does this. The Native American population also do their own reenactment, one in which they form a circle and the great, great, grandchildren tell the story that their forefathers told them, the story as it happened, no visuals, no costumes. Book reading is like this. Book reading in long-form narrative is a different experience.”
Sargent added that 250 to 400 page books still sell the most. “It is just hard to develop a character in 25 pages,” he quipped. Questioned further about the future of reading and engagement with books, he noted, “Millions and millions of people are self-publishing their own books. But every day people come up to me and say they want me to publish their book.” He went on to say that he is “not worried about the future” and has no fear people will not be engaged with books.
Asked about the President Trump’s efforts to stop the publication of Fire and Fury, Sargent acknowledged that the first result was that they were going to, “sell a sh*tload of books.” But he said he quickly rethought his position. “I thought initially it was a commercial decision [to continue with the publication], but then realized it was an extremely important decision. Freedom of speech is the very foundation of democracy. There is less and less concern about freedom of speech. Instead, people are more concerned that their point of view be announced as loud as possible." Publishing Fury "was not a literary function, or a commercial function, but as function to protect the democracy,” Sargent said.
Trump’s efforts to block the book, “were not acceptable to us, to any employee and it should not be acceptable to any citizen of America no matter how they vote,” said Sargent.
Carlo Carrenho of Publish News cited the rapid global growth of companies like Sweden’s Storytel and Canada’s Wattpad, and asked whether Macmillan and publishers were going global fast enough.
“Most people are interested in books in their home language written about their home countries,” Sargent said. “Music and movies have been more global in nature. The question is: is the content we produce global in its nature or isn’t it? There are many countries in the world where it is difficult for us to compete at scale. We are not Random House.”
Thomas Wilking of Buchreport asked about Germany, where a survey earlier this year revealed the book market had lost six to seven million readers in the last year. "[Macmillan's] German sales are only down 1% or 2%,” said Sargent. “ I am not worried." Sargent went on to debunk the validity of surveys. "Every couple of years there are studies that say people do not read any more, and yet people continue to read. If you look at e-books, studies said it was young men who like new technology, but it was middle-aged women who adopted e-books the most.”
Continuing on the track of discussing e-books, Sargent said that he continues to see e-books as a viable format, but was also heartened to see that younger readers are showing a preference for print books. Still, Sargent had no illusion about the appeal of books and reading versus electronic enticements. "It is up to us to produce extraordinary works," he said. "ones that will [get the next generation] to read books."