Random House CEO Markus Dohle: “Focusing on What We Do Best”

Random House Chairman and CEO Markus Dohle and NYU-SPI students

Star struck. That’s how the 116 Summer Publishing Institute (SPI) students felt. The man standing in front of us was the embodiment of all that we hoped to achieve in our careers. He strode into the room confidently, smiling, easing our nerves at meeting one of the most influential people in the publishing industry—and someone most of us desperately hoped to work for: Markus Dohle, Chairman and CEO of Random House, was ready to guide us through the changes facing book publishing currently and in the future.

He began the keynote address of the SPI book session by telling the student intently leaning forward in their chairs: “If you are going to choose a career in media right now, then I would choose books.” That’s comforting, we thought. He continued: “Book publishing is actually at a tipping point these days…it is very demanding and challenging, but it is also exciting and fascinating to be part of the digital transition.”

Considering that Random House is the world’s largest publisher of general interest books (with more than 200 imprints in 15 countries), and that the company has been highly successful in its evolution towards an ebook presence, it is clear that Mr. Dohle knows what he’s doing. One must “adjust and acclimate in every corner of your business,” he told us. Part of this acclimation includes never forgetting what built the company: “Print will always be important for us,” he emphasized. “We will always have a very important and significant physical footprint.”

As a newcomer to publishing trying to break into the industry, I had held on to the notion that e-readers were it; the inevitable future. Of course, I assumed that print books would not be eradicated in my lifetime, but that there was serious cause for fear after that. According to Mr. Dohle, however, the truth is that “the publishing world is still very complex…with no single format of choice.” He noted that ebooks currently constitute 30% of total sales in the U.S. with Random House publishing the most in the industry (more than 40,000 ebooks). He added that the company has been able to transition to digital while increasing overall North American net sales. Other major publishers, he commented, were also experiencing healthy print and digital sales. Still, he cautioned, “We don’t want to declare victory too soon. It’s not over yet.”

Encouraging us to ask questions as he talked about the industry, Mr. Dohle was frank and forthcoming. “Why has publishing succeeded better in the transition to digital than the music industry?” asked a student. “When books started to be relevant in digital, there was a paid model in place,” he explained, adding that readers are used to paying for content. [The music industry was caught unaware, with no real digital format in place as music stores floundered.] When another student asked if Random House might consider opening its own retail store, Mr. Dohle responded: “Not really. We want to focus on what we do best.”

He was also candid, even exuberant, about the success of the Fifty Shades Trilogy, calling it a case study in responding quickly to public interest (“staying nimble”) and being willing to take a risk. (Fifty Shades of Grey started as a self-published erotic book). “We paid a multi-million dollar advance,” he explained, noting with a smile that one of Random House’s most literary imprints, Knopf/Vintage, bought the rights. The company was rewarded with perhaps one of the best-selling series of all time.

As for Mr. Dohle’s overall success model? “Create the best books in the industry,” he said. This approach may sound simple, but with print-on-demand growing in popularity, the desire for a brand that a reader can trust is becoming more ubiquitous. “For the first time,” Mr. Dohle said, moving from the microphone and toward the crowd of seated students, “we [as publishers] feel like we have to talk about our role here. We have to communicate better with our authors and our readers.” And that role is simple: develop and showcase quality books for readers while giving authors a supportive publishing team and strong platform. He added that: “We want to have the best people in the industry [working for us].” Why? “Because they care.”

Hands flew into the air with yet more questions as Random House’s chairman finished his speech. To a room full of eager readers, listening to him was like discovering the Holy Grail. He casually put a hand in his pocket and tried to give a thoughtful answer to a question on where the market is heading beyond ebooks. “You have to stay one step ahead of the trends to be relevant,” he said. “You have to anticipate what your reader wants.”

by Erica Sabelawski


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