April 8, 2014

The publishing industry is fine, insists the head of the largest publishing company that ever stalked the earth


"No, a massive Penguin in a gerbil ball isn't about to destroy my oddly-shaped house! Every thing's hunky dory! The guano is good for the garden!"

“No, a massive penguin in a gerbil ball isn’t about to destroy my oddly-shaped house! Every thing’s hunky dory! The guano is good for the garden!”

The UK head of Penguin Random House has no doubts about the future of books.

“Some commentators say the publishing industry is in enormous trouble today. They are completely wrong, and I don’t understand that view at all,” said Tom Weldon when interviewed by The Observer‘s Jennifer Rankin

“In the last four years, Penguin and Random House have had the best years in their financial history,” Weldon continues. “Book publishers have managed the digital transition better than any other media or entertainment industry. I don’t understand the cultural cringe around books.”

Weldon is correct: books aren’t going anywhere fast and the publishing industry is doing fine, both in the short and long term. According to polls idle readers are fewer, but revenues across the industry are relatively stable and even up if you count the spike from phenomena like the E.L. James books. Those aren’t difficult arguments to make. Which is why it’s so strange that Weldon seems to be speaking with unnerving Reaganian optimism.

Yes, publishing will survive. Indie bookstores will survive. But acting like you don’t understand people’s concern just makes is not the way to assure us of that. It’s sunny out, but that doesn’t mean you have to insist that clouds are impossible or that you don’t get how umbrellas work.

He emphasized to Rankin that with fewer bookstores and the resulting lack of discovery possibilities, publishers must adapt. “The challenge isn’t digital: it is how do you tell people about the next great book.” Again, he’s not wrong, but it’s as if Weldon is pouring five week old milk into a sad pile of dust he’s managed to shake from an empty cereal bag and then proclaiming his excitement about his Trix-flavored cottage cheese.

I understand that Weldon is just trying to shape expectations. My point is that he’s going too far. Again, Rankin:

Weldon has to be the main UK spokesman for a mega-merger that some feared would leave two great publishers lost in a muddy bureaucracy. “This merger has so much greater a chance of succeeding,” he says. “Eight to nine months in, things are going extremely well. We had our best results. We consistently publish bestsellers.”

Relax, guy! We know you publish some good books. We know you’re at the helm of a book publishing goliath. And it’s fine to be a cheerleader. But sometimes there are more nuanced stances than the “Bob eating hand-shucked corn.”

Dustin Kurtz is former marketing manager of Melville House.