Simon & Schuster CEO Carolyn Reidy: Publishers Need to Change the Conversation

“We need to shift the dialogue from ‘will publishing survive,’ to how we are taking our industry forward, seizing unprecedented opportunities for transforming the very nature of the book, for disseminating information, and for distributing content,” said Simon & Schuster CEO and outgoing Association of American Publishers chairman Carolyn Reidy, speaking at the AAP’s annual meeting in New York.

Her speech opened the meeting and ended with a rousing call to action among publishers to change the conversation around the book publishing industry. Reidy implored publishers to be vocal about the value they add to the “marketplace of ideas.”

“We must also give life to a new type of discussion about publishing. What we do; the value we add; our role in perpetuating the marketplace of ideas; our investment in content, in enabling authors to create great works; our roles in helping students learn, and assisting professionals to improve their job performance; in providing first class entertainment and information to the general reader; in extending the reach of American ideas and culture throughout the world, and of course our innovation and work with our technology partners,” she said.

Over the past several years, publishers have been on a charm campaign among readers, authors and other stakeholders, to explain what they do in a world in which anyone can publish a book.

In 2012, Random House released a series of videos explaining what it does in the process of creating a book. In late 2011, Hachette had circulated a publisher manifesto that explained to agents and authors the value that the company adds to the publishing process.

Reidy called the publishers in the audience to do more:

We need to speak out more about what we do, and we need to speak about it more loudly, and with more conviction. There is no question about the vibrant contribution we make to the life of this country, its citizens, and the rest of the world, yet our accomplishments, in both print and the new world of digital, have been undersold.

The AAP cannot change the conversation by itself. Each of us, for our companies and our industry, must be more forceful in communicating the value of our work.

To publicly establish the enduring significance of our industry in this rapidly changing world we will need a long campaign, and it is one that we must begin if we are to assure a favorable outcome many years hence.


5 thoughts on “Simon & Schuster CEO Carolyn Reidy: Publishers Need to Change the Conversation

  1. Michael W. Perry

    Sounds like it was a great speech with many excellent points. But there’s no indication from the article that other, more somber points were touched on. Those points center on changes brought by new technologies that aren’t developing in ways that benefit publishers, large or small. It’s not that the old things that publishers do well no longer matter. They still do. It’s that the new things that publishers could be doing aren’t being added to their skill set. Publishing is becoming like the Henry Ford of the mid-1920s, still turning out his reliable and cheap Model T, but adding no new features as technology grows.

    I can give one telling example. Perhaps twice a week, I get a letter from Amazon describing books it thinks, based on my purchase history, I might like. I can’t recall getting a similar letter from any publisher. Even if I were a great fan of one of their authors, they’ve got no readily available, much less almost automatic way to let me know about a new book from him. Yeah, if I tried really hard, I might find, on some obscure webpage, a way to sign myself up to such a list. But like many readers, I’m not going to do that.

    Multiply that by a thousand, and you’re getting a hint at the problem. Amazon is investing a lot of money in creating ways to add value to its ebooks, as is Apple, which is rapidly becoming their sole competitor. But given that Apple’s heart really doesn’t seem to be into ebooks like it’s into music and given that the DOJ seems to be playing the role of Amazon’s junkyard dog, attacking Apple, it’s likely that more and more of the new features brought on by technology will be controlled by Amazon.

    As that happens, publishers, large and small, won’t find themselves simply playing second fiddle to Amazon’s first fiddle. They’ll find themselves dependent on Amazon for even being on the stage.

    The best illustration of that is what Amazon’s already getting away with. Even a quick look at the retailers author/publisher royalty structure shows that it’s getting away with paying from 20% (due to download fees) to 100% (due to variable royalties) less that most other ebook retailers. That money, taken totally out of the pockets of publishers and authors, then allows Amazon to sell ebook readers below costs, capturing a large share of that market for its proprietary system.

    By allowing that, publishers (large and small) are subsidizing their own marginalization. They’re bankrolling Amazon and putting it into a position to bully them still more effectively. And I suspect, what Amazon is doing should be easy to challenge in court.

    For instance, for a 99-cent novel, Apple pays 70 cents while Amazon only pays 35 cents. Why shouldn’t an author or publisher have the right to set the Amazon price to $1.99 instead to get the same return on each sale as with Apple? That clearly seems grounds to challenge Amazon contractual claim that publishers and author’s cannot sell a book lower elsewhere. And Amazon’s 70% market share does suggest that it’s using a its near monopoly size (over twice the size of all its competitors combined) to reap unduly large royalties.

    I might add that Amazon self-serving pricing scheme also works to drive up prices. If a publisher prices a book at 99 cents, they get 35 cents. Tripling the price to $2.99 changes the royalty to 70% and earns them six times as much money. That drives prices upward.

    Publishers should be doing what Amazon has done quite well–persuade law firms to file class action lawsuits. In what I’ve described above, it’d mean two lawsuits: one by shortchanges publishers/authors and one by consumers stuck with inflated prices. Given Amazon’s size, the settlement could be huge.

    Were I at Amazon, I’d be hustling very, very quickly to match Apple’s flat-rate, no download fee payment scheme before these lawsuits get filed. The major publisher’s aren’t going to sleep forever.

    1. Ellen Hopkins

      Thanks for the added insights, Michael. I haven’t been able to figure out why Amazon skates along, doing exactly as it pleases while every other player capitulates. If/when Amazon becomes the ONLY player, it will not serve anyone, from author to consumer, well.

  2. Dave Bricker

    The Association of American Publishers is an industry group that represent the interests of 425 players at the top of the publishing industry. Though I don’t dispute the value of publishing’s contribution to society or the influence of those at the top, one premise of “the conversation” that needs to be changed is the idea that 425 media leaders represent anything but big money.

    Hundreds of thousands of books are published by independents every year. Big publishers have responded by buying up vanity presses and skimming cream off the hopes and dreams of would-be self-publishers who don’t know the difference. But I don’t see many efforts on the part of big publishers to use their history and expertise to elevate the standards and assume a leadership role. Instead, they package and sell expensive mediocrity through their subsidiaries, sometimes even lending a hint of false prestige by allowing the subsidy press to advertise its affiliation with whatever New York house or big media conglomerate happens to be at the receiving end of the money stream.

    As a self-publisher, I am decidedly not of the “us versus them,” persuasion; I’m awed by what big publishers are able to do, even with their dwindling network of physical bookstores and eBooks that approximate the capabilities and aesthetics of an early 90s web browser. New York continues to publish and profit from books, and despite my criticisms, this speaks to their curatorial expertise and business savvy.

    But distributing 30,000 copies of a book come with its own limitations. Tiny type and small margins save real money on paper, ink, and shipping. Trade books, like eBooks, are functional but rarely beautiful—and this is a shame. Print-on-demand publishers have a notable aesthetic advantage—at least those who procure the expertise to realize that advantage do.

    It’s only natural that a large industry wishing to sustain itself should focus on what SELLS. But at least part of what sells has to do with what’s EXCELLENT. I see wonderful books that are typographically butchered by trade publishers every day. I’ve abandoned plenty of fluffy, overhyped literature in airplane seat pockets. I hear lazy “needle in a haystack” excuses about why big publishers don’t have time to consider indie books, but it takes mere minutes to Google award winners and well-reviewed examples. Try it yourself.

    The Internet has fundamentally changed the way people communicate. If you’re interested in lutherie or depression glass or horology, your community is a click away. All these niche markets seem inaccessible to big publishers who use still use big distribution chains and massive marketing campaigns to create products with broad appeal. But broad appeal is also a dwindling market. Network television has fragmented into hundreds of cable channels. FM radio competes with satellite channels. We watched the major record labels sue Napster, fumble the digital music football, and turn Apple (!) into the world’s largest music retailer. With some vision, publishers could have run their own eBookstores but instead, they handed the pot of gold to upstart Amazon. The disappearance of traditional channels, traditional media, and traditional marketing is catalyzing a passive handoff of wealth and influence to new players.

    The future of publishing is at least somewhat reliant on search results inside online bookstores. And in an online bookstore or an online record store, indies show up in searches right alongside the majors. In our “world without Borders,” as physical bookstores recede, trade books will have to compete more and more directly with indie books.

    The survival of publishing as a business likely depends on the dissolution of imaginary categories that separate “indie” books from “trade” books. Success lies in finding the very best books (regardless of origin) and in developing the ability to scale promotion and distribution of those titles to reader groups of ALL sizes. By partnering with authors who know how to access niche reader markets, publishers can lend business expertise, production resources, editorial and design support, and prestige that represent their VALUE to an ever-widening circle of readers who, themselves, would love to continue to have a trusted source for book endorsements.

    But, if history offers clues to what will happen, I won’t be at all surprised if the wheels of industry don’t get stuck in the ruts of tradition – again. The topic of the new “publishing conversation” should be “ongoing relevance.” For that to happen, it will have to involve a lot more than 425 participants.

  3. Judy

    I’m not sure that I totally agree with Dave Bricker’s comments but I suspect there has been a tendency among publishing houses to see themselves as the ‘manufacturer’ with others taking the ‘retail’ responsibility and to a degree they (the publishers) are still hampered by their reluctance to compete with the retail outlets that actually get their ‘products’ into readers’ hands. A booksellers’ association that became a true retail outlet for all its members and yet dealt with all its members on an equal footing might have provided an answer the global behemoth but maybe the horse has bolted on that one ….. unless you can find a truly entrepreneurial individual who could drive such change across the industry. As a business Amazon may in fact be like News Corp, expanding business for strategic reasons yet failing its shareholders.



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