John Makinson | “Readers don’t want content to change very much”

On the conservatism of the readership in the digital medium, the need for publishers to support bookshops and how running a small bookshop helped him understand the book industry


John Makinson. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
John Makinson. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Jaipur: John Makinson, the chairman of the recently merged Penguin Random House, is arguably one of the most important persons in the global publishing industry at the moment. The group owns 450 imprints across the world, which collectively publish about 15,000 books in a year. Makinson is chairman of the company at a time when the industry faces great challenges from the digital medium. He’s not worried though. Book readers are still conservative, he feels, and do not want content to change very much. At a time when there is a buzz about publishing content for the mobile phone, he is also very clear that India, as a market, is that ready for it yet. He, however, does believe that publishing houses need to maximize the use of the social media in order to reach out to new audiences. Last evening in Jaipur, at the Penguin Random House JLF party at Rambagh Palace, the publishing house announced that it had partnered with Twitter India to introduce their Twitter Books vertical in the country, that is, becoming the first publishing house in the region to be verified by Twitter on their @penguinbooksindia handle. A Penguin Random House release stated, “Through the Twitter Books vertical, Penguin Random House will work closely with its writers to maximise the opportunities the platform presents, both in terms of written content and video through Vine and Periscope, to engage in even more real-time conversations with readers, and potential readers.”

While a number of its authors, including Shobhaa De, Amitav Ghosh, Ravinder Singh, Durjoy Datta, Mohammed Hanif, Devdutt Pattanaik, Bibek Debroy and K.R. Meera, have been verified within the new books vertical, last evening Ruskin Bond too joined Twitter under the handle @RealRuskinBond.

Excerpts from an interview with Makinson on leading a publishing giant in the current environment of change:

Your career has been very interesting. You’ve been a journalist, investment consultant, a publisher. How did that come about?

That’s a very good question, I have had a wayward career. I suppose it happened because I never really had a clear sense of direction. But there has been a few threads in terms of what I have been doing. And one of them is an association with Pearson, the company that has owned Penguin and Financial Times. Pretty much all of my career has been in association with the Pearson organization. And secondly, in pretty much everything I have done in my career, there has been an interface, if you like, between creative and commercial activity. So I have, whether in newspapers or in theatre or in books, patrolled those boundaries between creative and commercial activity and that is what has always interested me in terms of things I have done.

But you’ve now been with Penguin for a number of years?

I have, I wouldn’t want you to say how many. Actually I became the chairman of Penguin in 2002. And then when the merger happened between Random House and Penguin, I became the chairman of the enlarged group. And the head of Random House became the chief executive.

This merger between two big publishing houses –what has been the experience so far?

There is a history of media mergers that isn’t enormously encouraging. We were very aware of the precedents, good and bad, in merging major media companies. But we were determined that the merger between Penguin and Random House should be as inaudible and invisible—certainly to our authors—as we could make it. So we combined a lot of the back end of the business—we brought together computer platforms, warehousing. But the editorial structure, the faces towards the author community, the agent community and the reader community, was left completely undisturbed. So the relationship between the author and the publisher didn’t change as a result of the merger. And in any publishing company, big or small, what one always tries to get straight is that balance between the advantages of scale on the one hand, so we can make available to an author the resources of the world’s largest consumer book publisher, and yet preserve the intimacy of the relationship between the author, the editor, the individual in front. If you were to ask people in the community whether this merger had succeeded in the objectives that we set, I think they would say that it has.

Can you spell out the objectives of the merger?

Well, in thinking about why we did it in the first place, certainly in the back of my mind was the belief that having a publishing company around the world with real scale, authority, brand power and technology capacity and so on would be helpful to the publishing community as a whole because we could represent the industry on a number of issues at a time of very disruptive changes in distribution channels and patterns in publishing. The fact that we were a business with real brand recognition or authority will perhaps allow us to navigate these challenging issues more successfully than we would have been able to do as two separate companies—even though Penguin and Random House individually were the largest consumer publishing companies on their own. Putting them together did give us additional authority in the market.

You are the chairman of a publishing behemoth at a time when the industry is at pains to navigate the digital medium. But in your keynote address at Jaipur BookMark, you spoke of the conservatism of the readership.

Well I think you have to be very careful in describing the balance between change and continuity in this industry. And there is a risk of sounding complacent if you say everything in the book garden is rosy. Because it isn’t, there is a lot of change happening. But when you contrast the book industry with say, the music industry or the movie industry, the change in terms of what it is that we produce, the content that we offer to readers has not been anything like as convulsive as it has been in other areas of the media and the reason for that, I believe, is that the readership is relatively conservative. The message that we get around the world from readers of books is that they don’t want the content to change very much. They are still interested in reading whole books than chapters. As we know in the music industry, people want to listen to tracks and not albums. And people in music want an abundance of content available to them. In books, people don’t really want that. They want to buy a single copy, they may want to buy that electronically or physically, but they want to buy the individual book. I do think that we are being assisted in some ways by the relative conservatism of the book readership. That is true in every part of the world. And here in India, it is striking that though digital channels have really taken off, digital content has not become the dominant means of delivering books to consumers. People still, on the whole, are buying physical books just as they are buying physical newspapers.

So, of course, one has to be vary and vigilant about how digital technology is changing patterns in the industry. But I don’t think, on the evidence so far, there is terribly much to be alarmed about. In fact in the UK, physical books grew in volume by 8% in 2015. And step back five years when we were looking at the very rapid growth of e-books, I don’t think anyone of us could have predicted that the physical book market would be in such healthy shape as it is in the United Kingdom.

But is this conservatism related to age?

It’s quite difficult to establish that, honestly. There is a paradox that the most rapidly growing area of the books market altogether is the children’s market. The children’s market is also experiencing a lower rate of digital penetration than other areas of the market, so in other words, people are buying physical books rather than electronic books in this market. That’s counter-intuitive because you would expect that younger people who have much greater facility with the digital devices would be looking to receive and relate to content in a different way, they would place a higher premium on interactivity, on gaming in books. Now, that’s not necessarily telling you about the preferences of the children, because it is often the parents and the grandparents who are making the purchases and the choices on behalf of the children and that is particularly true in this country. We are seeing in the children’s market, and particularly in the young adult market, a very strong relationship between different forms of media. So movie tie-ins of editions of books are very, very popular. The relationship between movies and books has been very healthy for the book industry.

How is Penguin Random House negotiating the challenges of the current environment in publishing?

I wish I had some sort of cosmic message for you, but it is very difficult to divine the essence of curatorial publishing, the kind of publishing we do. That said, it’s about human relationship, a commitment to skill and craft. So the progress we make in any market is incremental. And it is not that we are approaching to do things in a radically different way, but we do need to be extremely alert to the opportunities and challenges of change. We need to be listening to our readers, listening to our authors, watching our competitors, seeing what is happening in distribution channels. And taking advantages of opportunities when they arrive. So social media is a big opportunity for all

publishers to reach small audiences that have an interest in particular genres of books. We need to be working very closely with Twitter and with Facebook and with other social media organizations to profit from that on behalf of our authors and readers.

You own a bookshop as well?

I do, with my brother, who runs it. It’s in the county of Norfolk in England. It is a relatively small bookshop, but people in the company always worry that I regard this bookshop as the bellwether of the entire global book economy. We have a bad weekend in Norfolk and I come into the office and say, it’s terrible, we are all doomed—or the opposite. But I do actually find owning a bookshop quite interesting in understanding at a very local level what is going on. The danger of somebody doing the sort of job that I do is that you look at this big picture where you’re publishing 15,000 books a year around the world, and you have a macro view. But you also need to have the opportunity to drill down quite deeply. So I do actually follow quite carefully what happens to my little bookshop in Norfolk.

One of the things I was talking about yesterday is the importance of community and how essential it is that publishers actively support bookshops. And one of the ways is by encouraging them to be centres of cultural and commercial activities. So one of the things we do in our bookshop in Norfolk is we host a lot of lectures, debates, author signings, something that is done really well here in India. There has always been a tradition of meeting authors through book launches, communicating directly with the readership. And one sees it on a huge scale in Jaipur with the presence of so many distinguished authors in India and around the world and a quarter of a million people who come each year not just to listen to them but talk to them. And that’s really important for the book economy, that that conversation remains an active and live one.

One of the problems of e-retailing, some publishers have told me, is the discoverability of new authors has diminished.

I don’t think the problem is for publishers to discover the authors; it is easier to discover authors than it used to be because there is a large self publishing industry. So we are able to take a view of what is happening in the self publishing industry and then promote some of those authors who have been successful their own work as Penguin Random House authors. The problem is for, as you say, the readership to discover authors. Because if bookshops are of less importance in the overall economy of book publishing than they were before, then it would be more difficult for us to promote those authors. So the biggest challenge we face as an industry is how to crack the code of discoverability in a world with fewer bookshops. The challenge we are facing in the industry are more about the way in which the content reaches the reader rather than the nature of the content itself. One reason that is helpful for Penguin Random House to have the scale that we have, we are able to distribute the risks we take as a publisher across very large number of imprints and companies—we have 450 imprints across the world—so we can afford to take risks perhaps more actively than a much smaller company would be able to, when making a big bet on a single author would potentially destabilize the whole operation if it didn’t work out well.

And the complex relationships between the publishing industry and Amazon, does it worry you that they can dictate terms?

Oh yeah, I think about Amazon all day long, we all do. Because it is the biggest thing that is happening in our industry. But I wouldn’t want you to overstate it when you say they can dictate everything. Amazon needs publishers and we need Amazon. There is only one publisher for a particular author. So if the readership wants to read the author then they have to come to the publisher to make that author available. So, of course our relationship with Amazon is complicated, but there is a lot about our relationship that is constructive and productive and really helping the distribution of books. When you introduce a new channel into the publishing system, you create demand. This is true throughout the history of publishing, that the growth of publishing is driven more by channels of supply than by changes in patterns of consumer demand. Whether it is book clubs coming into the market or online channels, that allows you to reach new readers. Amazon has also encouraged this single copy purchase. It has experimented with other models of selling books as well, but basically what it sells is individual books. And that’s good for us and authors and readers.

There’s a lot of buzz about mobile phone content being the next big thing. In the context of what you’ve told me so far, what do you say.

It’s always unwise to make predictions about the future. I don’t completely know the answer to that. All I will say is that based on experience so far, there isn’t much evidence that in India the idea of reading long-form narratives on small mobile devices has much of a market. There is a particular kind of content that may be designed for mobile phones and we have certainly thought a lot about that kind of content. It’s not like smart phones are new in India, they have been around for some years and we have all been thinking of this question of how to reach mobile readers. And for now, there hasn’t been big demand. Which there has been, for example, in South Korea, China, and in some other Asian markets. Here it is not.