By Shawn Coyne | Published: April 13, 2012
I admire Macmillan CEO John Sargent.
He had the courage to pre-emptively send an email (read it here) to hundreds of industry insiders this past Wednesday. In that email, Sargent did something that gives me great hope about the future of publishing.
He used the word “I.”
“I am Macmillan’s CEO and I made the decision to move Macmillan to the agency model. After days of thought and worry, I made the decision on January 22nd, 2010 a little after 4:00 AM, on an exercise bike in my basement. It remains the loneliest decision I have ever made, and I see no reason to go back on it now.”
We live in an era when the big publishers choose to refer to themselves with the sterile and unspecific “we.” We regret to inform you… After careful consideration, we came to the conclusion… That kind of thing.
But book publishing has been the bastion of a High School-esque collective of dysfunctional, often weird—but always passionate—book nerds from time immemorial. They work crazy hours for something other than overtime or stock options. Some have accidentally made a very good living, but no one enters traditional book publishing to get rich.
At their core, publishing people care about words. They live to facilitate the magical communion between writers and readers. Is there anything nobler?
But over the years, corporate overseers have reengineered publishing’s idiosyncratic DNA. Books are now acquired by committees. There are a lot of meetings. Like a crazy number of meetings. And finding books that every department can get behind are the order of the day. There is now a very long process to get a book from acquisition through publication. It’s a gauntlet that only a master of business administration could love—form filings lead to PowerPoint presentations which lead to catalogs and sales calls with more PowerPoint…
Publishing has been a business-to-business concern for decades now. But passion is rarely found in a purchase order.
Rest assured, book nerds are still in-house. They just get shot down trying to acquire the odd books that the category buyers at the retail chains “wouldn’t get.” So those strange book phenomena like the Fifty Shade of Grey trilogy are only published by the Bigs after they’ve emerged from the primordial self-publishing soup.
Like other corporations, big publishing today announces its decisions in well-vetted press releases written by anonymous publicity department professionals. Rather than any one person willing to be the face of a company and saying something meaningful, we get headlines like this: Hachette Admits No Liability, and Asks Government to Ensure “We don’t return to the days of monopoly”; Harper “Made A Business Decision.” Without a human to come out from behind the curtain, it’s hard to click through that kind of link. That’s probably why they make statements anonymously. Less clicking, less caring. But when no living person comments, we forget that there are real live people who work at those companies. Remind us and we will care.
In the context of this murk, Macmillan CEO John Sargent’s decision to put himself forward is all the more heartening. We’ve all been on that bike in the basement sweating out a tough decision at least one time in our lives—if we’re really in the heat of our work we’ve been there multiple times. We have to choose whether to do what everyone else is doing, or to fight for what we think is right.
John Sargent chose to fight in 2010. Not only that, he put the decision squarely on his own shoulders. He publicly battled Amazon in a throw down public confrontation. And his insistence on the agency model not only helped Macmillan, it brought considerable financial stability to the supply side of the business—publishers. It seemingly made the old school model viable again. And the book business went back to normal. He’s choosing to fight now too.
But the Justice Department thinks that this stability came at the expense of the demand side of the business—book buyers. This is the crux of the contretemps.
Are you still awake? Is it hard to really care about the fall of the agency model? It is for me and I love this kind of stuff.
I don’t know John Sargent well. We’ve met a handful of times close to a decade ago when my small publishing company, Rugged Land Books, was distributed by the Macmillan sales force. This was back in 2002 when he was new to the job. I was at sales conference and I expected to be ushered into a corner of a ballroom and introduced to the new CEO. He’d be in a suit holding court, nodding a lot…looking implacable.
Instead Sargent could have been the sales rep from (ironically) the Pacific Northwest. He was wearing khakis and a flannel shirt and we bumped into each other in the salad bar line. I didn’t know he was the CEO until he went on stage to give the company’s state of the union address.
I got the feeling that he purposefully didn’t wear the CEO costume because he didn’t think the company was all about him. He was there to do his best for Macmillan’s books just as everyone else was. So the fact that he has put himself forward in the way that he has now speaks to his commitment to his tribe. After all, character is revealed by action. While others hid behind “we,” Sargent went with “I.”
Today, John Sargent believes that nothing less than the entire book publishing business is at risk of being overrun by a sinister force. He’s not alone. With the agency model gone, the thinking is that Amazon will go back to slashing eBook prices and the now inevitable race to the eBook price bottom will resume. With its deep pockets and rapidly expanding global distribution, Amazon will slowly lure the big bestselling writers from the big publishing companies over to its side.
Revenue at the big houses will continue to fall—only now exponentially—forcing the Big Six to downsize and/or merge. If someone doesn’t do something, Amazon will become a book publishing monopoly and once it does, intellectual content and discourse will be dominated by a single uber-company. Not good.
John Sargent has the guts to do something about this doomsday scenario. It means that much to him. He will stand up for, and with his colleagues, prove that the agency model was not the result of collusion. In fact, it was the best practice to ensure competition.
Book publishing needs an army of men and women like John Sargent—passionate about what they believe and willing to withstand the slings and arrows of powers much greater than they are. His is a very compelling story. Much better than “Harper Made a Business Decision.”
The only problem is that John Sargent chose the wrong fight. He’s on the eastern front when he should be shoring up the western.
He’s going to defend his company against the oxymoronic Justice Department? To what end? An apology? Less onerous terms for Macmillan’s ultimate settlement?
I love impossible odds. I started an independent publishing company in 2001. But geez, even a black Irishman like me can see the endgame here.
The fact is that the agency model is dead. And the reality is that it was only a stop gap anyway.
I think John Sargent should swallow his anger and good old-fashioned American stubbornness about this footnote in publishing history and redirect his passion. He and his fellow publishers—separately of course—should focus their energies and resources on innovation. Not strategies to manipulate “terms of sale,” but real innovation.
Let’s face it; the future of book publishing is B2C—business directly to the consumer. If you can talk to the consumer and the consumer trusts you, you’ll survive. If you rely on other people to talk to customers for you, you’re in deep trouble.
So make publishing personal again.
Come up with business models that allow the strange creatures within your citadels that dedicate their lives to books shine. You know who they are—editors, artists, sales people, publicists, marketers. Introduce these people to readers. Let them be weird. Let the conversations begin…and make sure to have your own store. Sell direct.
Rather than “stopping Amazon!” from taking over book publishing, I think John Sargent and all of the incredible people who work at Macmillan should focus on “out Amazoning, Amazon.”