The Frankfurt Book Fair’s re:connect conference program featured Penguin Random House's Markus Dohle on Wednesday. It was the latest stop of a succession of events over the past several months that has seen the PRH worldwide CEO express optimism about the future of the industry and extoll the virtues of publishing, as he, and the publishing world, await government approval for the company’s $2.2 billion acquisition of Simon & Schuster.
This is "the best time for books since Gutenberg,” said Dohle, noting that publishers' revenue pool was growing; the industry had developed "robust business models;" print and digital enjoyed "healthy co-existence;" literacy rates were improving worldwide; children's and YA publishing were, "since Harry Potter," the fastest-growing categories; audiobooks were providing "partially incremental" growth.
Why was this optimism not more widely acknowledged? Perhaps because so many books that are published sell few copies and appear to be, essentially, commercial failures. "Only a few of the 15,000 titles that we publish every year round the world are going to be modern classics. So that means that failure is part of our business model - it's a portfolio business. And because of that failure... people think that something is wrong with the industry. It's not. It's part of our business model." He wants to see a clearer communication of the true state of the industry. "The facts tell a very clear story about success."
As the head of the world's largest trade publisher, Dohle dismissed any criticism that consolidation is detrimental to the industry. "I'm not worried about consolidation," Dohle said, reiterating that S&S editors would be able to bid on books against their colleagues at PRH. "It is the smallness of publishing that matters. It's one book at a time. There is no scale." He once again reiterated his prior assertion that over the past decade PRH underperformed against some of its competitors. "If you look at the dynamics, you will see that smaller publishers have actually in the last 10 years outperformed the large publishers,” Dohle said. “That's tough for me to say, because I'm one of the people who got a little outperformed by smaller publishers."
During a separate panel discussion on Thursday focusing on independent publishing, two publishers agreed with Dohle on a few points. Jean Mattern, editor-in-chief of Hachette subsidiary Editions Grasset & Fasquell, pointed out that French corporate publishing houses have maintained a system where each imprint is run as individual businesses, backing up Dohle’s assertion the PRH can maintain a system that allows PRH and S&S editors to bid against each other. “Each imprint is run as an independent house, we are all not in the same buildings, and we have total autonomy,” Mattern said.
Sandro Ferri, co-owner and editorial director of Europa Editions and Edizioni E/O of Italy, agreed with Dohle that indies have not been put at a disadvantage by the growth of corporate publishing, at least in Italy. “It has been said that independent publishers cannot grow. In Italy, among the top 10 bestsellers of the year four were by independent publishers. [My publishing house] is a powerful dwarf, but we can have bestsellers.” He added that corporate and indie publishers need to find the best ways to work together.
“The big publishers need the creativity and the pluralism of the independents,” said Ferri.