Asking any publisher to give the keynote speech at a booksellers’ event is a bit like asking a farmer to tell supermarkets how to sell food. And inviting Markus Dohle was a clear case of two steps forward, one step back for Sharjah.
It’s almost a month now since Markus Dohle, former CEO of the world’s largest trade publisher, Penguin Random House, gave a keynote speech at the 2023 Sharjah International Booksellers Conference in the UAE.
The arrangement was presumably made when Dohle, then still head of PRH, was at Sharjah for the Publishers Conference events leading into the Sharjah International Book Fair in late 2022.
An unfortunate choice. The 2023 2nd Sharjah International Booksellers Conference was a welcome addition to the global publishing calendar, but asking any publisher to give the keynote speech at a booksellers’ event is a bit like asking a farmer to tell supermarkets how to sell food.
And inviting Markus Dohle was a clear case of two steps forward, one step back for Sharjah.
To be fair, Dohle had been head of the world’s largest trade publisher for well over a decade, earning himself the nickname the Emperor as he strode the publishing stage, “for 14 years the most powerful and successful publishing warlord in the room”, dispensing words of supposed wisdom to all those below him (effectively everyone) in the publishing food chain.
But all that began to unravel in the summer of 2022 as Dohle’s biggest gamble backfired in spectacular fashion, leaving one unnamed “top executive” to say: “People were trying to decide if they still needed to kiss the ring, or if there was even a ring left to kiss.”
Had the planned buyout of Simon & Schuster gone ahead, Dohle would have been master of all he surveyed, CEO of a publishing empire quite unparalleled in scale and power to determine the trajectory of the industry. Which of course was exactly why a US Court stopped the take-over bid in its tracks.
With the worst possible timing, the Court decision came as Dohle was at Sharjah, preening about the stability and strength of the publishing world as perceived by the Emperor himself. The problem here being that Dohle’s preferred perceptions and cold reality of the industry had long since drifted apart.
Had the Court decision gone in favour of PRH then, alongside all the accompanying power and glory, there would have been no $200 million break-up fee to pay, and all the many, many embarrassing revelations that emerged during the trial would have been quietly forgotten. Everyone loves a winner.
Instead Dohle found himself having to put a brave face on a disastrous loss, and a short while later he tendered his resignation. But by then, the damage was done.
More on that as we go.
Fast-forward to May 2023, and the 2nd Sharjah International Booksellers Conference in the UAE is happening, where Dohle is not just a keynote speaker but is giving an “onstage interview” with Porter Anderson, the Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives, paving the way for Dohle to peddle his usual agenda of disingenuous industry data, selective facts and large doses of self-serving hypocrisy.
A bit strong? Be serious. Dohle’s Sharjah’s Booksellers Conference talk was a colander of holed arguments backed by baseless facts and a remarkable demonstration of being completely out of touch with modern publishing.
Here’s the thing: Publishing may like to think it still lives in a world of smoke-filled gentleman’s club rooms where the gatekeepers determine, over a glass of fine port or sherry, which books the unwashed masses will be allowed to read (and as we’ll see, Markus Dohle still believes that) but the publishing industry has moved on, into a digitally enhanced new dog-eat-dog world where tuxedos and gentlemanly charm alone simply doesn’t cut it anymore.
Not that Dohle was ever as gentlemanly and erudite as some commentators would have us believe.
Who could forget Dohle in November 2021, complaining bitterly to The Bookseller’s Philip Jones about Spotify and Storytel buying into the US book market.
Whined Dohle: “Look at these investments this week: big bucks flowing into the United States publishing industry, Storytel and Spotify entering the scene.”
That would be Spotify paying $123 million for Findaway, and Storytel paying $135 million for Audiobooks.com. The sky is falling! The integrity of American publishing is under threat from foreign invaders!
No, hold on. That was a total of $257 million from the Swedes. At the exact same time, Dohle was intent on spending $2.175 billion (750% more!) on a German company gaining total domination of the US book market by acquiring Simon & Schuster.
Luckily for the industry, a Court took a more sensible view, scuppering Dohle’s grandiose plans, and with them Dohle’s future at PRH.
Of course, PRH could have appealed the ruling, but what point? Dohle had made such a pig’s ear of the case, exposing to Court and public scrutiny so many embarrassing flaws in PRH operational policy and strategy, that his reputation as “the Emperor” of publishing was holed below the waterline. There really was no ring left to kiss.
Here was the Emperor himself, the man who had led PRH to such grandiose success as the most powerful trade publisher on the planet, suffering the public humiliation of having to admit to a Court that since Random House acquired Penguin back in 2013, the newly formed PRH had actually lost market share. Curiously not something Dohle ever mentions of his own volition in interviews or speeches.
Dohle was further forced to reveal in public how much PRH paid its top authors, and worst of all, how little real business acumen was involved in running PRH, the Emperor explaining luck and instinct were more important than being the biggest publisher in town. Business ability? That didn’t really crop up at all.
Worse still, Dohle in as many words said that PRH was desperate to buy Simon & Schuster not to expand to new heights and boldly go where no publisher had gone before, but just to recoup some of that lost market share he had presided over for the past decade or more.
And that’s just the market share Dohle is willing to admit to. There is another huge chunk of market share being gobbled up by self-published authors that Dohle studiously avoids ever mentioning. I believe, Markus, that a half billion dollars, if $257 million counts as “big bucks”, must be double big bucks, right?
As the Court decision was announced, the sound of champagne corks being popped at rival publishers – especially those Dohle has ridden roughshod over during previous years – could be heard around the globe.
Over at Publishing Perspectives, much was made of Dohle’s affability, articulateness and general jolly good fellow qualities, with Porter Anderson leading the gushing. Dohle, Anderson assures us, is “a man of articulate, animated candor when he speaks—it’s one reason that publishing audiences, like journalists, always enjoy hearing him.”
Well that explains it. Who cares how disconnected to reality a man’s speech is, so long as it’s delivered articulately and with animated candour (forgive the UK English spellings when I’m not quoting).
Just in case we were still unclear about Dohle’s pedigree, Anderson explained: “Since stepping down…Dohle has found himself in constant demand as one of the most comprehensively experienced, internationally oriented, and energetically articulate ambassadors available today for the world publishing industry,” adding sprightly that Dohle, “urged his audience to shake off inaccurate but dogged views of book publishing as a business doomed by digital developments and to seize achievable prospects for both book publishing and book retail in an ever-growing world reading market.”
Wait, what? Shake off “inaccurate but dogged views of book publishing as a business doomed by digital developments”?
But Markus, this has been your stock in trade for the past decade, and your finest hour in Court!
What was it you told the Judge last year? That digital subscription is the biggest threat to the industry, not PRH buying every rival it can lay its hands on? That digital subscription will destroy bricks & mortar book retail in just three years unless PRH is allowed to buy Simon & Schuster?
In fairness to Markus, there’s nothing “dogged” about that beyond it being a beyond ludicrous idea, coined on the spur of the moment during the trial as all rational legal arguments were exhausted.
Previously, the nearest Dohle had come to such an outlandish forecast was in 2021 in the aforementioned interview with Philip Jones at The Bookseller, where Dohle solemnly explained: “When it comes to subscription, I am convinced that in the long run it is not good for author income, it is not good for retail.”
Now no-one in publishing, an industry that makes the South American three-toed sloth look like an Olympic sprinter, would ever argue three years is “in the long run.” And no matter how many times I re-read The Bookseller report I cannot anywhere see imminent book retail apocalypse mentioned. That of course being because Dohle only invented that particular nonsensical argument at the trial. They do say desperation is the mother of invention.
Dogged? We need look no further than Dohle’s constantly doggedly telling anyone who would listen that the ebook market has been stuck at exactly 20% since forever, which of course takes us into another layer of the Dohle publishing cocoon where the only facts that matter are those that suit the Dohle agenda. I believe we nowadays call them “alternative facts” in the real world.
In March 2021 Dohle talked smugly of the industry reaching new heights, and of course he was correct. A global Pandemic had brought the world to near stand-still, and an unprecedented lockdown scenario meant people had more time to read that ever before. So they bought books.
So yes, sure, Dohle presided over the company as it rode to record profits on the tail of the Covid-driven bookselling bonanza, but let’s be absolutely clear that that was a rising tide that raised all boats.
In fact, PRH was among the first publishers to furlough its staff as Covid-19 arrived in the UK, fearing the total collapse of the publishing industry.
That lockdown instead boosted reading to new heights was as much a surprise to Dohle as to everyone else, and the record profits that came in 2021 had very little to do with Dohle’s leadership. He happened to be in the right place at the right time.
Much of those record profits derived from digital, but you won’t find Dohle acknowledging anything positive about that particular format. Rather his nonsensical talk of “digital fatigue” echoed a long-term commitment to side-lining digital to keep print at the fore.
Back in 2017 at Frankfurt, Dohle was asserting: “Sales of the most popular ebooks by traditional publishers have declined in the last three years in the major Anglo-American markets.”
Note the caveat “traditional publishers”, a rare concession to the industry-accepted reality that ebooks are booming when given free reign by self-publishers and digital first presses like Bookouture, but struggling when being priced out of the market by certain traditional publishers.
In Dohle’s own words: “I made a bet on print, when all the experts were saying printed books would be gone. I invested a lot into the print format.”
In other words, I had a vested interest in making sure digital remained a sideshow.
Here’s the thing: This is not like slapping a few bucks down on a horse running in the 3.30 at Kempton Park. The punter placing the bet has no way of influencing the race.
Dohle, on the other hand, made his bet knowing full well he had the means to ensure victory for the winning side. As CEO of the world’s largest trade publisher Dohle could decide which format would be favoured, and which hindered.
And for the decade or more since, Dohle has gone out of his way to subvert the digital market to favour print, while paying lip-service to consumer choice. In Dohle’s own words: “We don’t care in which format our readers want to read. We want to reach as many readers as possible, so it’s not an ‘either-or.’”
And here once again we are in Dohle’s fantasy La-La Land of saying one thing and doing quite another.
This is the man who routinely prices PRH ebooks equivalent to or higher than their print editions to make ebooks less attractive to consumers.
The man who pulled all PRH titles from all-you-can-eat subscription platforms, denying consumers that option, while simultaneously asserting consumers would decide the fate of the unlimited subscription model.
Dohle insists (perhaps believing that if you say something enough times it magically becomes true) that ebook sales have stabilised at 20%, as if there is some consumer glass ceiling out there. And of course such glass ceilings do exist. They are artificial constructions of businesses manipulating the market, as we clearly see in the above example. Dohle’s 20% ebook market is as artificial as a plastic Christmas tree. As artificial as an ebook costing more than a hardcover.
But this matters not a jot to the Emperor. Let’s fast-forward to May 2023 and Dohle’s words at Sharjah as reported by Roger Tagholm in The Bookseller: “Physical bookselling is having a great renaissance. Amazon has shut down the Book Depository and books are further back in their marketplace store now.”
No, it’s not a pretty sight watching a publishing professional of Dohle’s stature gloat over a failed bookstore just because it was owned by Amazon. But we have more important fish to fry here.
Speaking on Monday 1st May, Dohle told delegates: “When the Kindle launched in 2007 everyone was saying that print would be gone by 2020. Instead, we see a market that is 80% print, 20% digital. The durability of print is the best life insurance policy for this industry, and bookshops, with their community focus, have proved the best place to offer advice to customers, the best place to browse for books.”
Yeah, that must be why no-one ever buys books from Amazon, and why online book retail has been such a disaster.
But hold on, guys. There’s some history here that needs un-rewriting.
Yes, the Kindle launched in 2007, but Dohle’s memory is seriously faulty here, because absolutely no-one was saying in 2007 that “print would be gone by 2020.”
In 2007 the Kindle was so expensive ($399 for a steam-powered model the size of a car), ebooks so expensive, and so few ebooks were even available, that no-one anywhere was predicting the demise of print. Sure, it sold out. It was a new gadget on Amazon. But tablets were still in the future, reading on phones was being dismissed as a “Japanese fad”, and ebook sales just didn’t move the needle in publishing terms.
The International Digital Forum reported $33 million in ebook sales in 2007, while Statista offers a more impressive value of $113 million, but neither figure would have had the publishing industry quaking in its boots. But let’s not diss Dohle’s fantasy totally out of hand. By the 2010s ebook sales were indeed beginning to worry some in the industry, although the sky is falling brigade were mostly hype over substance.
And in any case, Dohle had the solution. Ramp up those ebook prices so that a digital book (with no paper and ink printing costs, no distribution and warehousing costs and no shelf-display value at home, and which by the way you would not own and could not sell on) would cost as much, or more, than its paper equivalent. And let the consumer decide.
Prince Harry’s PRH-published Spare, for example. Buy the ebook on Amazon UK for £13.99, or pay a single penny more to get the hardcover. Thanks, Markus. We consumers really appreciate the choice.
But Dohle isn’t finished: “I’m very optimistic about the future of a diverse books retail landscape going forward, and that is really an important takeaway…The physical format has prevailed over the last 50 years. It’s getting a lot larger, and that doesn’t show any signs of weakness. It’s quite the opposite.”
Wait, what? “Over the last 50 years”? So which format, pray tell, dominated before the 1970s?
As for “It’s getting a lot larger, and that doesn’t show any signs of weakness. It’s quite the opposite…”
Markus, you really must get a grip. These delusions are getting out of hand.
As January 2023 set in, the 2022 publishing numbers began to pop up, as they do. This one caught my eye.
Yeah, Markus, the NPD Bookscan report down from $843.1 million in 2021 to $788.7 million in 2022 absolutely shows how print sales are rising.
But no, it’s not just me being awkward. Here’s what Jim Milliott at Publishers Weekly had to say about these same numbers: “The decline was not a surprise: many in the industry had predicted that as Covid-19 lockdowns were lifted and more entertainment and travel options opened up, interest in reading would fall.”
And we shouldn’t for one second forget Jim Milliot’s Feb 2023 report for Publishers Weekly where he noted of US online sales: “The largest gain in the year was for audiobook sales, which jumped 22% over 2021, to $3.04 billion. For a second year, audiobook sales topped that of e-books, where sales increased 6%, to $2.57 billion.
“The most popular format in terms of units was e-books, with unit sales rising 8% in 2022, to 526 million. Unit sales of audiobooks increased 23%, to 188 million units, and print unit sales fell 1.3%, to 403 million.” Milliot added: “Self-published titles accounted for 51% of all unit sales and 34% of revenue in 2022.”
Of course none of that even moved Markus Dohle’s digital needle, which rain or shine remains resolutely (dare I say doggedly?) at, you guessed it, 20%.
And of course, it wasn’t just the USA.
In March 2023 Publishing Perspectives ran with the headline “Nielsen BookData 2022: A ‘Slight Decline’ in UK Book Sales”.
Memo to Markus: “decline”, even if “slight”, is “quite the opposite” of “getting a lot larger.”
That was 2022. In 2021 The Bookseller ran this headline: “UK publishing income up 2% in Covid-hit 2020 despite print decline.”
The Bookseller explained: “Total publishing income hit record levels in 2020, rising 2% to £6.4bn, buoyed by a digital surge that helped offset a 6% decline in print sales, a report by the Publishers Association shows.”
Okay Markus, sit yourself down while I explain some of these big words to you. “Print decline” does not mean “getting a lot larger.” In fact, it means “quite the opposite.” Now, “a digital surge”, on the other hand…
Over at Publishers Weekly, just four days after Dohle’s Sharjah speech, Edward Nawotka was also taking a look at the bigger picture, under the headline “Print Book Sales Were Flat in 10 Major Markets in 2022.”
Memo to Markus: “flat” does not mean “getting a lot larger.”
What about in Dohle’s homeland, Germany?
Oops! This was the headline in Publishing Perspectives (official organ of the Buchmesse, so safe to rely on on this count) in January of this year: “German Book Sales in 2022: A Market Down 2.1 Percent.”
Memo to Markus: “down” is also “quite the opposite” of “getting a lot larger.”
In 2020 things were much worse. This headline from The Bookseller tells an interesting story: “German book sales drop nearly 14% in 2020 first half.”
Okay, that was a lockdown hit (which curiously sent sales surging in some other countries), but what about before the Pandemic? After all, Dohle insists the 80-20 print-digital split is carved in stone and has never wavered this past decade or five.
Let me here defer to the LSE, which knows a thing or two about retail.
“In Germany, the sales of physical books went down by approximately 11 per cent from 2011 to 2017. In the same period, the number of brick-and-mortar stores went down by approximately 20 per cent.”
Memo to Markus: “Down 11%”, even if only approximate, is “quite the opposite” of “getting a lot larger.”
Clearly Markus Dohle could do with a dictionary. There are several I could recommend, all published by Penguin Random House, because of course being a Merchant of Culture (on which more below) means more than just publishing commercial fiction and celebrity gossip. So while PRH is of course the world’s largest “trade” publisher, it is also a major player in educational publishing. Here, for example, is the PRH Education website. And the PRH Higher Education website. The PRH Academic website link appears to be broken, but according to PRH Business Services, PRH publishes over 4,000 academic titles.
Okay, so PRH is also an education publisher. Big deal, you might say. But actually it is a big deal.
Because while Dohle is happily telling the Sharjah International Booksellers Conference how print is soaring and digital is stuck in its 20% rut, educational publishing is making a massive transformation to digital, and educational print publishing is in massive decline.
Bear in mind Dohle was speaking at Sharjah on May 1 2023. This was the headline in Publishers Weekly just five weeks earlier: “Educational Publishers Adapt to a Print Death Spiral.” Ken Brooks has the detail over at PW.
Nowhere in educational publishing is anyone saying there is an 80-20 print-digital split. In fact, in the same month Dohle was spinning his yarn at Sharjah, the Edinburgh University Press was publishing its annual report.
“At the end of FY22, books consisted of 58% print and 42% ebooks and we are forecasting it to be 50:50 in a few years’ time.” The report adds that ebooks grew 24% in 2022 after 49% growth in 2021.
Memo to Markus 58:42 is not 80:20, and 50:50 is even less like 80:20.
So as we are clearly seeing, by the simple expedient of looking at the facts, rather than reciting the blinkered gospel according to St. Markus, while it’s still true print remains strong, and ebooks undeniably lag behind, the gap is much closer than the Emperor would have us believe. And if we extend our brief beyond the core PRH countries, namely the USA, UK and Germany, the Dohle bubble shows serious signs of strain.
You see, while in the real world there’s no question print is holding its own in the trade sectors in some countries, there is zero evidence to suggest this is at a constant 20% (what retail sector ever in history has managed such an economic feat?). And other countries are blatantly defying the Dohle doctrine.
Take Thailand, for instance. Thailand insists on seeing digital reading expand every year. At the 2023 Bangkok International Book Fair, Thipsuda Sinchawanwat, President of the Publishers and Booksellers Association of Thailand (PUBAT), reported ebook market share at 42%.
Memo to Markus: that’s more than double 20% and worrying close (for those who have “made a bet on print”) to the 50% tipping point that is Markus Dohle’s very own Room 101.
So no wonder he’s got it in for the Swedes, who have inconsiderately allowed digital (more audiobooks than ebooks but by any definition not print) to wrest dominance from Dohle’s favourite format.
Don’t take my word for it. Publishing Consultant Carlo Carrenho lives there and has crunched the numbers. Markus, shut your eyes for this. 64.2% of unit book sales in Sweden are digital and happening through subscription. And 54.4% of unit book sales in Sweden are audiobook subscription downloads.
No wonder Markus Dohle is so sh*t scared of subscription and pulled all PRH titles from unlimited subscription services worldwide in blatant contradiction of his waffle about letting consumers decide. It won’t close bricks & mortar bookstores in three years, but his gamble on print doesn’t look quite so safe when you start bringing reality into the debate.
And for Markus’s sake, we also certainly mustn’t let digital libraries come into the debate. After all, digital libraries by definition are not lending print books, and as we all know, 80% of consumers only want print. So digital libraries will have been stuck at 20% of nothing for the last, er, fifty years, right?
To keep the Markus Dohle fantasy alive and kicking, all we have to do is totally ignore the 506 million digital downloads OverDrive handled in 2021, which was up from 430 million in 2020.
And it simply wouldn’t be cricket to mention that in 2022 that number went up to 555 million downloads. After all, someone with a degree in kindergarten maths might work out that those numbers don’t sit very well with the 20% forever digital market-share fantasy Markus is disingenuously parading as an industry statistic.
But Dohle is too wrapped up in his own importance to let mere facts permeate his publishing bubble. After all, as he plainly asserts, he is a Gatekeeper that ensures the common man (or woman, or other preferred gender attribution), too stupid to find their way around a website and quite unable to choose a book for themselves, will find the books they’d better like.
In his own words, “Readers need guidance and orientation provided by publishers and retailers who help them to find their next best read.”
But there’s more. Dohle’s condescension knows no bounds. “As publishers and booksellers, we are not only the merchants of culture and words. We are, first and foremost, in service to society. Putting yourself into other people’s shoes by reading, in a very profound and deep way, generates empathy and human values, democratic values.”
“Merchants of culture?” “Putting yourself into other people’s shoes?” This is the man who paid God only knows how many millions for Prince Harry’s spoilt-brat victim-of-a-cruel-world memoir (ebook currently on sale in UK for £13.99, hardcover £14.00). The man who has presided over a criminal amount of ghost-written celebrity trash that is somehow found by eager readers with zero “guidance and orientation” from the culture merchants.
But Dohle’s waffle didn’t end there. He had further industry disinformation for us.
At Sharjah, Dohle droned on: “The audiences are there. Literacy rates are going through the roof. The markets are there. And we need to actually open up these markets and grow these markets together.”
This of course said to a global audience but speaking in the UAE, so let’s here remind ourselves what Dohle had to say (at Sharjah, late 2022) about opening up and growing Arab markets:
Dohle, remember, is at the Publishers Conference that precedes the Sharjah International Book Fair, which routinely attracts over 2 million visitors (2.17 million in 2022), and where the Emperor is guest of the then IPA President, Bodour Al Qasimi. Dohle politely pays lip-service to the Arab markets while making it very plain he had no intention of PRH pursuing the MENA publishing opportunity.
Before the event Dohle spoke of looking forward to “Spending time in Sharjah and learning more about the long-term growth possibilities in the Gulf region, from increasing readership to publishing local voices.”
But when it came to nailing his colours to the mast, Dohle could only say, “I can see quite significant operations here two-generations from now.”
In other words, thanks for the invite and the nice dinner, but not in my lifetime.
So yes, Dohle knows “the audiences are there (and) the markets are there”, but for small-fry publishers, not the mighty PRH. After all, the MENA markets can only be meaningfully expanded by embracing digital, not constraining it. And Dohle has, as he so likes to remind us, made a bet on print.
On the bright side, Dohle is optimistic about global publishing prospects because, his words at Sharjah in May 2023, “Literacy rates are going through the roof.”
So which roof will that be, Markus? The doll’s house roof in La La Land? Because it sure as hell isn’t in your home country, Germany.
With bitter irony, Porter Anderson having just three weeks earlier reported as fact Dohle’s assertion that “literacy rates are going through the roof”, is telling Publishing Perspectives readers how German kids are leaving primary school unable to read.
Anderson himself summed it up, noting that “unless (primary kids’) reading skills make some progress, they may reverse the trend toward bookish consumerism that has gladdened the eye of many in the industry’s retail sector.”
And of course, it’s a similar story around the PRH primary markets like the US and UK, with educational standards in freefall and literacy rates through the floor.
In 2019, one in four children in England left primary school in unable to read to the required standard, according to DoE statistics, and in 2022 a landmark study at UCL Institute of Education called out badly implemented phonics teaching practice as the reason so many British kids could not read.
None of the above should detract from the fact that Markus Dohle is a swell guy, and for many years captained a huge publishing empire on his own terms and to much acclaim.
But the cracks were showing even before the 2022 trial, and the trial itself should have been the excuse Dohle needed to retire gracefully.
Regrettably, as we saw at Sharjah just a few weeks ago, reality has not sunk in. And that matters when industry journals are allowing Dohle to continue to peddle, without question or counter-balance, his economical-with-the-facts views in support of a bet he made.