As part of a group of NYU Master of Science in Publishing students eagerly gathering in the lobby of Random House last Friday, I marveled at the display cases that enclosed hundreds and hundreds of Random House books, old and new, of every category and representing a myriad of international editions. I was one of 30 students lucky enough to ride the elevator up to the twenty-fifth floor conference room to meet with the company’s Chairman and CEO, Markus Dohle, and hear his viewpoints on book publishing.
When the elevator doors opened and we piled out into the hallway, it came as no surprise that more bookshelves lined the walls outside the conference room, which was adorned with yet more bookshelves.
While most of these books featured the name of a single author on the cover, one of the major points I took away from Dohle’s talk is that publishing a book is a team effort. After Andrea Chambers, director of the program, introduced Random House’s chairman, he jumped right into revealing the way in which he leads Random House, which has over 120 publishing imprints worldwide —through “shared values, a collaborative spirit, and teamwork.”
The German-born Dohle outlined the path he took to become the head of the world’s largest trade book company, publishing more than 11,000 titles annually (that’s almost 1,000 a month!) and employing over 5,000 people. Although he has spent his whole professional life in book publishing, Dohle has worked backwards. As he explained, he started out on the supply chain and bookselling services end of the business before moving to printing and then finally the publishing side. “I think I have one of the best jobs in the city. What a gift it is to work in the publishing industry,” he told the students. “I congratulate you guys for choosing this industry.”
After showing a brief video about devoted readers worldwide immersed in books, Kindles, iPads, Nooks, Sony Readers and more, Dohle (with a wide smile when the video was over) then launched into a presentation and candid chat. Graciously self-deprecating, he unabashedly showed a slide covered with headlines about Random House’s controversial decision to bring in a German—and an industry outsider—to run the New York-based company. (“Panic over Random Act,” screamed The New York Post).
“People thought: ‘Oh my God,’ ” remembered Dohle, who admitted that his first months were not easy. Not long after he took charge on June 1, 2008, the U.S. economy faltered, Lehman Brothers collapsed, and book sales decreased roughly 12% in the fourth quarter of 2008 compared with the same time period the year before. “It was the perfect storm,” Dohle explained, noting that he had to make some tough decisions. On December 3, 2008, after six months of analyzing the company, he presided over a reorganization of Random House, compressing its over 70 imprints into three new adult divisions: The Random House Group, Knopf Doubleday Group and Crown Group – in addition to the Random House Children’s Books division. His goal was to bring those with expertise in a particular publishing genre closer together and to create healthy competition and a stronger company culture. “I had to be very very thoughtful,” Dohle explained. “I couldn’t afford to make any mistakes.”
After fielding a slew of student questions regarding international markets and Random House’s goals abroad, Dohle turned the discussion to the future of publishing and digital development and strategy. He explained that at Random House, the digital market is divided into three dimensions:“Maximizing the Availability of Content,” the “Development of New Business Models,” and the “Development of New Content Formats,” all of which involve lots of research and development and trial and error. In the end, Dohle said with a smile, the goal is to have “more trial than error.”
Random House currently has over 20,000 titles available in e-form worldwide. Dohle gestured to one of the copies of Laura Hillenbrand’s new bestseller “Unbroken” (stacked up as gifts for the students), and noted that more than 20% of her sales this fall are e-books. He added that Random House sold more than 70,000 e-books of the new John Grisham book “The Confession” in its first week. “With the increasing digital share, it’s hard to plan print runs these days,” he said with a smile.
While he clearly loves print, Dohle is fascinated by digital formats and is a keen observer of sales patterns. Noting the success of recent e-books by Stieg Larsson, Lee Child, and John Grisham, he remarked that early on, people thought the long tail and backlisted titles would most benefit from digital editions—but bestsellers are what’s working. He also talked eloquently about Random House’s interest in bundled print and digital editions, e-only editions, apps, web verticals, subscription models, enhanced e-books, particularly for children, and much more. “In the last 12 months, we’ve seen a significant triple-digit increase in e-book revenues,” he said, adding that e-book sales will well exceed $100 million this year. “Physical is more or less stable. The growth is from digital,” Dohle said, then outlined the three priorities for their digital strategy:“availability,” “creativity,” and “profitability.”
Dohle ended his talk with an explanation of the Random House vision:“our content for everyone, everywhere, in every format, on every device.” He believes that the book industry is the “most interesting media business at this point.”
The visit ended with a group photo, and Dohle insisted that all students get in the picture. This should be, after all, a team effort.
by Julie Ganz