Carolyn Reidy, CEO of Simon Schuster, and Guillaume Dervieux, CEO of France’s Albin Michel Group, took the stage for the Frankfurt Book Fair’s annual “CEO Talk” and fielded questions from a panel of international publishing trade book editors.
The event, often a highlight of the fair, featured a spirited discussion of the question of the “internationalization” of publishing. “All publishing is local. You need to know what each customer wants and, of more importance, how to market those books,” Reidy said, noting that SS publishes exclusively in English, with offices in the U.K, Canada, Australia, and India. But, she added, “Having a company just in one language does not mean you are not international, because you can bring international authors to your market and then export those authors by selling the rights.”
For his part Dervieux said that Albin Michel, though “a family business deeply rooted in French soil,” had expanded through acquisitions abroad — buying an education publisher in Belgium — and worked with international distributors.
Addressing the question of the whether or not large publishers are squeezing out smaller publishers by acquiring too many rights — including for formats such as audio and film — Dervieux noted that while Albin Michel tries to acquire all the rights that it can when they are available, some formats in France are not as advanced as those in the United States. “I am intrigued by the audiobook format. It was considered a minor format in France, but we now have tens of millions of episodes of podcasts being listened to and we expect audiobooks to take off.” Reidy said that SS was eager to acquire what rights it could, but noted that it was largely dependent on the agents, who make their decision based on the publisher’s ability to deliver sales or fulfill promises to produce a work for film or television. “Most agents want to work with the most passionate publisher they can find,” Reidy noted.
The questions then shifted to the digital world. Asked about about the cooling of the e-book market, Reidy said that “customers got tired of the screen,” though she went on to point to several positive outcomes from the advent of e-books, such as the fact that e-books never go out of print and are easily distributed to areas without an infrastructure for print distribution. “E-books have done some pretty remarkable things, but it was and always has been just a format.”
Dervieux said he thinks “we expected too much too soon. Bezos offered huge discounts [on e-books], but maybe this cultural shift shouldn’t have been in such a hurry. I will say that we have launched two [direct-to-consumer] platforms, one in the educational market and one in the trade market. Why? We think that we have to be present wherever there is access to the customer, to collect the data that is available. We have to play the game.”
As for digital distractions, such as Netflix and social media, or other issues, such as divisive politics, stealing the attention of potential readers, Dervieux said that it was “important for publishers to re-intermediate ourselves with readers every time we can. We can also be an actor in this process and not just passively watch things pass us by.” Reidy added, “It behooves us to keep books central to the discussion in the culture. We need to be able to add to the discussion on the level only a publisher can provide and that is not on the level of a tweet.”
Reidy, earlier in the discussion had offered a nod to the enduring power of print. “It is still true that the physical bookstore and physical books are what attracts readers,” Reidy said. “We spent years taking pennies out of the cost of a book and have spent years putting value back into books.” That said, she’s not lost hope that publishing still has potential to innovate. “I do think there will be a new version of the book based on digital delivery that people have not thought of yet,” she said. “There is some person who is young and has grown up with the screen who will come up with a new form. I don’t think we have found it, but when we do, that will be an exciting day.”