Citizen Dohle

Late last year I wrote an online piece reflecting on Penguin Random House global c.e.o. Markus Dohle’s view that as “good citizens” the company’s likely takeover over Simon & Schuster could be as mellow as Random House’s earlier purchase of Penguin. Dohle’s good citizenship was on full view this week, with a one-hour video interview with the psychologist and author Adam Grant shown ahead of the “US Book Show”, created by Publishers Weekly as a replacement to Book Expo America.

There was much to absorb. Dohle is an optimist and he, as his interviewer remarked, has the data to back up his positive view. Key performance indicators have been pointing in the right direction for some time, said Dohle, and the pandemic has boosted them—the book business “really went through the roof,” said Dohle, and has continued to ascend, with print sales in the US up 25% so far this year. Such numbers are “unheard of”, Dohle emphasised, alluding to publishing’s longer-term steadier growth that has underpinned the sector, and how we think about this business, for some time now. 

Dohle presented six reasons to remain confident, from a broadening of the “addressable audience”, thanks to improved literacy levels, to the robust business models that companies such as PRH, Amazon, and Ingram have long invested in and which, to be fair to them, passed the recent Covid stress-test with flying colours. Could PRH meet growing customer demand for print as well as digital books during the lockdowns, Dohle asked himself a year ago, and the answer was yes.

Perhaps with a nod to the regulators in the US, where the acquisition of S&S has not yet been cleared, he insisted that globally PRH occupies just 20% of the book market, and that smaller publishers have long been nibbling away at its overall share. On author income—much in debate across our pages this week, and elsewhere generally—Dohle said that it rose as publishing income had, and that some agents were also, like publishers, reporting their best time during the pandemic.

The pair also addressed the vexed question of what happens next. When we can do other things again, asked Grant, will the book die? You mean “die again”, quipped Dohle. Of course, the duo are not the only people thinking through how the sector can build on the past 14 months. For Dohle the challenge is keeping new readers in the ecosystem, and establishing a higher baseline from which to grow again. Habits, opined Grant, are harder to stop than begin, and that augurs well for reading. Dohle also talked of a “next investment stage”, which he explained is around the supply chain—returns and the speed of delivery—in an effort to extract greater value from the market, as well as pull up industry standards.

In a post interview catch-up I had with Dohle, he held up Grant’s 2013 book Give and Take, which argues the best way to succeed is to help others succeed. Dohle’s signal is clear: PRH has huge market power and will shortly imbibe even more, but what we should really focus on is its contribution, not just its size.