Cometh the fire

In his interview with The Bookseller, Macmillan US chief executive John Sargent says that he is optimistic about where we "will be five to 10 years from now". I wouldn’t normally dwell on such a comment but, having lived through the fire of Amazon’s 20-year growth and the fury of publication of Michael Wolff’s Trump exposé, I think he might mean it.

The Bookseller last interviewed Sargent in 2013, six months after Macmillan had settled with the US Department of Justice over the investigation into e-book price fixing. Sargent had just taken on responsibility for all of parent company Holtzbrinck’s trade units, which at that time were trading in markets in varying states of turmoil. Digital transition had hurt, but—said Sargent back then— "a common thread and a common challenge is that all the territories have bricks-and-mortar retailers who are struggling". Five years on, the situation is much changed. Bookshops across the world are chastened, but in many cases their markets have steadied. The challenge though has crystallised, as Sargent phrases it: "It is clear that Americans want retail bookshops in their towns, the question is how best to accomplish it."

With the US chain Barnes & Noble still struggling and Waterstones up for sale, answering that question may yet become more urgent again. The optimism now felt may not be misplaced, but it is worth recalling how change can creep up. Ten years ago the trade was in buoyant mood following Pizza Express entrepreneur Luke Johnson’s acquisition of Borders UK, but looking back it was Amazon that was planting a seed in a future field through its $300m acquisition of Audible. It is seven years since Waterstones was acquired from HMV, but it was at this time that Amazon began working on its smart speaker, the Echo.

This is not meant as a lecture on innovation (we’ve heard plenty). And for publishers, the lessons of the past decade are mostly positive: digital is an add-on and, largely, a profitable one. There is also a natural bulwark to where it will end: digital content does not yet satisfy all of the needs of all of the readers, with books and bookshops scratching an itch digital can’t relieve.

But we should not pretend that we work in anything other than a mixed economy, with print, digital and audio jostling for reading time. That Amazon dominates two of these markets leaves bookshops as the best (and only?) defence of the third.

In 2010 Sargent was one of a number of US publishing chiefs to adopt agency pricing for e-books in a rare—but correct—market intervention that gave bookshops a chance in the new world. The optimism now is based on the assumption that the mistakes made in the run-up to 2010 will not be repeated.