Penguin Random House CEO Markus Dohle took the stage on Tuesday morning at the Sharjah International Book Fair just nine hours after learning that the proposed acquisition of Simon & Schuster by Penguin Random House was blocked by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Dohle was interviewed by Bodour al Quasimi, the president of the International Publishers Association. After nearly 30 minutes of conversation, Al Qasimi addressed what she called “the elephant in the room,” and asked Dohle what he thought about the decision. “I am super disappointed,” Dohle said. “I think the ruling is utterly wrong.”
The ruling was “political,” he said, and by implication, counter to the interests of the U.S. as a successful PRH/S&S would have “paid more taxes.” He said PRH was “considering an appeal,” suggesting that a final decision had not been made.
By way of defending his position in favor of the merger, Dohle said that publishing is about working on one book at a time and, accordingly, “there is no scalability” on the publishing side. The advantage the merged companies would have had would be in distribution and, post-merger, “we would have been able to sell more Simon & Schuster titles than they would have been able to sell on their own.” He added that the companied companies would have represented less than 20% of the overall book market, where “Amazon represents more than 50% of the retail market.”
Earlier in the conversation, Dohle praised the success of Amazon in building out an ecommerce infrastructure that allowed the book business to thrive during the pandemic—a period that saw sales increase about 20%. He also implied that Amazon empowered independent publishers by giving them a retail platform where books were presented the same as PRH’s titles, suggesting that Amazon provided everyone with a level playing field. “A good independent bookstore stocks maybe 50,000 titles, Amazon stocks 50 million,” he said.”
Dohle doubled-down on his claim that he has made continually through the previous year that “smaller publishers over the last 10 years have gained market share” and that independent publishers are competitive with PRH, as a result of having “laser focus” and superior “audience knowledge”—both of which Dohle said made him envious. “Small publishers, this is your moment,” he said.
Al Quasimi questioned Dohle about the role of women in publishing, to which he replied that 80% of the executives at PRH US were women and more than half of the global executive team at PRH were women. He added that increasing the diversity of staff will enable the publishing house to better reflect society and reach more readers.
Dohle expressed genuine passion and emotion for the importance of books and reading to the advancement of society. Earlier this year, Dohle committed to donate at least $500,000 to establish the Dohle Book Defense Fun at PEN America, which will be used to combat censorship and book banning. “History has shown that when you limit the ability of people to write and read, bad things follow,” he said.
He was also adamant that for publishing to thrive, the narrative around reading needs to change. “We need a positive view of storytelling and long form reading,” he said. “Why are we so negative about books?"
Finally, asked if PRH was considering establishing an Arabic-language publishing house in the region, Dohle first praised the Sharjah Book Authority for its success in helping develop the local market, which attracted him to investigate further. Then he said that he works for a private company, Bertelsmann, that is conservative—“We always approach a market through a local lens,” he said. “It’s bottom up: we look, learn and start.” This means the company thinks “in generations,” rather than years.
“I can see quite significant operations here two-generations from now,” he said.