Allow me to set the stage. It’s BEA 2018 and we’re up at the big stage where every seat in the house is filled and the staff delays the start of the CEO Round Table talk in order to add more chairs. More chairs are added, now we’re out of room, and there are still people standing. This being my 15th BEA I knew to arrive freakishly early for a good seat up front. I play a few rounds of Words with Friends, check my social media and consider reading a new historical romance on my Kindle app when finally the announcer lets us know we’re about to begin.
You can feel the energy in the audience. Three of the most influential people in publishing are about to share inside information with us, thus giving us the answers to all of our publishing woes and cheering us into 2019 where we’ll all live happily, and financially secure, ever after. Or not.
Our three contestants, or rather, guests are Markus Dohle, CEO of Penguin Random House (PRH), Carolyn Reidy, President and CEO of Simon & Schuster (S&S) and John Sargent CEO of MacMillan. The moderator is none other than Maria A. Pallante President and CEO of Association of American Publishers (AAP). Credentials and a slew of letters should clue you in to the importance of these people.
Before long I realize several things.
- This is all scripted. The questions carefully cultivated and sent to the guests in advance.
- Some questions would be off limits.
- Markus Dohle has a great German accent! Who knew? Probably everyone but me. And, to be honest, he may be the most handsome CEO in publishing. I can say that. This is an editorial.
- Mr. Dohle has a horrible habit of clearing his throat AFTER he turns his mic on. He is forgiven. See #3 for why.
- Carolyn Reidy loves the word “behooves”. She looks like a powerhouse. I would not fuck with Carolyn Reidy. I think she could take me. She has my immediate respect and fear.
- John Sargent comes across as quiet, humble and wise. He’s dressed really casual. I like him right away. He looks like he could be your favorite uncle. You know the one? He teaches you to fish, but you have to listen to his bad jokes as payment. And you both laugh at them, not because they’re funny, but because you both know they’re terrible. At the end of talk I really just want to hug this guy.
- Our moderator could have her own talk show.
- I may not like everything I’m about to hear.
- I may not buy into everything I’m about to hear.
- I am so excited to hear everything I’m about to hear.
The questions and answers were like a good basketball team doing the old alley-oop. I have no doubt there was a message that this conversation was created to give, but that didn’t diminish the importance of the information.
Time for a pop-quiz! Without cheating (I know you’re gonna look anyway, but at least give it a try) match the book to the CEO. These are books that were said to be “books of pride” for the publisher. You have three CEOs to choose from- Markus, Carolyn or Uncle John. Here are the title-
Chicka Chicka Boom Boom
Democracy in Chains
Answers will be listed at the end of this editorial. If you guess them all right you get…bragging rights. I’m a cheap-ass who has to rely on “intrinsic rewards”.
I listened to Ms. Reidy talk about books she loves and what she feels the publishing industry does for the world. She spoke of books that cause conversations and promote societal responsibility. She said things like, “Even a bad movie can sell a good book.”
Mr. Dohle spoke of social anxiety and how that’s driving sales in political books and self-help. He was asked why he allowed PHR imprints to be independent and he talked about trusting his people to know what their readers want. He talked of social responsibility and how publishing has always stood for democracy. He and Ms. Reidy both mentioned the importance of publishing books that cause our society to reflect, talk and act.
I will admit though that my favorite story came from John Sargent. The moderator read a portion of the letter Mr. Sargent sent to Macmillan employees when President Trump’s attorneys sent a cease and desist letter regarding the publishing of the book Fire and Fury. I knew this had happened, but had never heard the “behind the scenes” story of it. For fun, should you be so inclined, do read the publisher’s attorney’s letter in response- LETTER. Listening to Uncle John (aka Mr. Sargent) say he wished he could have responded with a simple “Fuck you,” to the president’s attorneys not only endeared him to me forever, but got a roaring sound of applause from the audience. He did however share that when he got the letter, read it, contemplated it’s meaning he smiled knowing he was about to sell a shitload of books.
Coming to the end of this piece I suppose I should throw in some stats as that was probably what you actually hoped to get from this. So here are my obligatory bullet points of information.
- Downloadable audio books dominate! Audio is on the rise with approximately 30% growth.
- Most revenue comes from hardback books for adults
- Books about politics, government, history, self-help are all the big sellers right now
- E-book sales are down. More is selling in print. It’s about 80% print and 20% E.
- The industry is robust.
- What is selling now reflects what’s happening in our society/communities today.
- There’s been an increase in sales of backlist, which is profitable for the publishers.
There’s always speculation as to what’s going on with the decision making at the different publishing houses. I suppose there always will be. And though I may tease a bit and have some fun with this, I did walk away thinking that the three CEOs I just heard from truly care about what they do. They want to make a difference in the world. Books have that power. They care about the people who work for their publishing house. And best of all, they have hope. So, I suppose I do to. Things may not be perfect, but at least we can read about it and talk about it and do something about it.
Whether it is fiction for escape or entertainment or it’s non-fiction for learning and sharing, books matter. As long as that’s true, the publishing industry is safe.
Oh! The answers to the quiz!
Chicka Chicka Boom Boom- John Sargent
Angela’s Ashes – Carolyn Reidy
Democracy in Chains- Markus Dohle
Did you get any of them right?