Who Cares About Format? Just Read

An industry veteran calls for publishing to recognize the need to promote reading regardless of form

By Janet McCarthy Grimm |

The Association of American Publishers recently released its 2014 results for revenue in book publishing and journalism, and the final number was $28 billion. According to the International Publishers Association, the U.S. is the largest single market for publishing in the world. Yet we must recognize that the U.S. publishing business is under siege. Books battle for time and attention. How many games of Candy Crush can one person play? Who really needs 2,000 selfies a month? As an industry, we need to call consumers back to books, to rediscover the magic of reading, whether in print or digital formats.

As a 35-year industry veteran, I have witnessed the transformation of the business of publishing. In my early days at Houghton Mifflin, there was a sense of publishing as an art. Poetry books might not show the most aggressive bottom line but they needed to be published. The bestsellers would carry along a poetry book or two. Publishers sponsored a balanced spectrum of works, a mandate taken into account when publishing decisions were made.

In the 1990s, the book world became more business minded. Publishers acquired one another, building empires and cultivating backlists. Random House and Bantam Doubleday Dell joined forces in 1998 in a move that dazzled industry pundits, creating the first mega-conglomerate in publishing. Ultimately, the trade publishing world evolved into the Big Six: Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Book Group, Random House, and Simon & Schuster. And then, on July 1, 2013, the industry watched in awe as Penguin and Random House finalized their union, creating what Markus Dohle, the chief executive of the new company, called ÔÇ£the first truly global trade book publishing company.ÔÇØ

I have worked for a paper merchant selling to book publishing companies and printers since 1984. IÔÇÖve watched publishing morph from an art into a business model. Smaller companies were consumed by larger ones, and publishers experimented and ultimately expanded their e-book platforms. Now the triple-digit growth has plateaued, and the e-book is simply another format. How a reader reads is immaterial; the industry must continue to coax audiences into the magical world of the written word.

Throughout my career, I have made it a point to be involved in a wide variety of industry organizations. I am on the board of directors for the Book Industry Guild of New York, Poets & Writers, and the Book Industry Study Group. I serve on assorted committees for each of them, as well as the Book ManufacturersÔÇÖ Institute. I also participate in the Book Industry Environmental Council, and my company, Lindenmeyr Book Publishing, is an affiliate member of the Association of American Publishers. From this insiderÔÇÖs vantage point, across all of these platforms, I witness how each of these very earnest groups focuses on a discrete aspect of our industry. WouldnÔÇÖt it be to our advantage to consider a new spirit of cooperation to promote reading?

On July 8, the U.S. paper and packaging companies jointly launched an industry-wide campaign aimed at the paper consumer market. This type of campaign (think ÔÇ£Got Milk?ÔÇØ or ÔÇ£Pork, the Other White MeatÔÇØ) is evaluated, approved, and audited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to ensure no antitrust agreements are violated. The industryÔÇÖs message, ÔÇ£How Life Unfolds,ÔÇØ is designed to create awareness about the positive role of paper in our lives and to combat negative messages, such as the (increasingly disputed) claims that paper is worse for the environment than its digital counterparts.

Perhaps the book industry should consider a similar joint consumer check-off campaign. The concept we collectively want to share is that reading is entertaining, informative, and productive. It stimulates the mind, broadens perspectives, and answers a multitude of questions. It has real social value. As Michael Pietsch, CEO of Hachette Book Group noted recently, ÔÇ£I remain in awe every day of the miracle of writing. These people who build worlds, and thrills and knowledge for us, out of words, are my heroes.ÔÇØ How can we as an industry best reinforce the value of the written word? Consider this observation from Dohle, ÔÇ£Together, we are even better positioned to fulfill our core purpose: to bridge authors and readers by publishing the very best books.ÔÇØ He was referring to the combination of Penguin and Random House. But there is a bigger message there. And we, as an entire industry, would do well to contemplate it.

Janet McCarthy Grimm is v-p of sales for Lindenmeyr Book Publishing.

This article appeared in the 11/30/2015 issue of Publishers Weekly under the headline: A Case for Reading