Book publishing is far from finished!
Alberto Vitale, you were the Chairman and CEO of Random House, Inc. for ten years, from 1989 to 1998. Do you think that since then many things have changed in book publishing?
Sure, many things, and the biggest change has been a change that was pioneered during my ten years at Random House, and that was the decision not to sign any contract unless we were getting digital rights. I guess that happened in 1993. That really started the digital era for traditional publishing. Digital technology is the really new development in our ability to disseminate intellectual property and eBooks have become another way to read.
Before being at Random House you were the CEO of the Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group and hardcover and paperback books were the only thing available?
Yes. However books started to be digitised in the early nineties and at which time I was already with Random House and it took the major recession that we had in 2007-2008 to wake publishers up to the opportunity presented by eBooks. Publishers who were facing rapidly declining sales of paper books decided to give it a try with eBooks almost in desperation. The rest is history.
I believe it has increased if we put together the number of paper books and eBooks. The publishers realised that the economics of eBooks was infinitely superior to the economics of paper books. With eBooks there are no paper costs, no printing, no warehousing, no pilfering, no transportation, and last, but not least, no returns. The most important thing about eBooks is that they made publishing a real business, producing profits before taxes of anywhere between 12 to 20%, whereas during my days if we had 5, 6 or 7% it made us happy.
What will the future of books be?
It will be a great future, where hardcover books will become more precious, better printed and better bound, but with a much higher price, and I think that this trend is already beginning.
And what about paperbacks?
We have to distinguish between mass-market paperbacks and trade paperbacks. Trade paperbacks will continue to thrive, while rack-size paperbacks will still sell, but in much smaller quantities. But I cannot predict their future because it is very possible that by and large they will be replaced by eBooks.
Are there fewer independent publishers nowadays?
No, there are so many in America that I cannot even give a figure. In addition each large publishing house is made up of many separate imprints that one can equate to an independent publisher. Each imprint is headed by an individual who sets the editorial and the publishing tone for that imprint. In this way you can have great diversity in the types of books you publish and therefore can reach many different types of readers. Each imprint within a large publishing house is a small publishing house itself. In this way you can get the best talent around.
I think it is a good thing to do it, but they have to preserve and strengthen and possibly expand the individual imprints, while at the same time benefitting from economies of scale.
And what about bookstores?
Of course bookstores will be with us for as far as we can see, as well as paper books of course. However, there are ongoing changes in the field of bookstores and only time will tell the future shape of bookstores.
What do you say about Amazon?
It has been the saviour, both for eBooks and regular books. The reach of Amazon is unparalleled. It is true that it competes with bookstores, but publishers would have a terrible time if they did not have Amazon.
Are you still involved with publishing since you left Random House?
I am not active, but I follow everything that happens in publishing and what happens to the many people who worked with me. Since 2007 Random House has a new young CEO, Markus Dohle, who has done a fantastic job for the company.
In 25 years of publishing do you have some books or some authors that you were particularly proud to publish?
I was always very proud and full of admiration for all the books that our imprints published. It would not be fair to single out any particular ones, but among the few where I was involved in the publication process I will always remember Louis L’Amour, Agatha Christie, Ed Doctorow, “90 Minutes At Entebbe” (written, edited and published in less than three weeks), Chuck Yeager, Shirley MacLaine, Mark McCormack, the mega-bestselling autobiography of Lee Iacocca – at the time Chairman and CEO of Chrysler and its saviour, Robert Ludlum, Norman Mailer, Katherine Hepburn, Skip Gates, Elie Wiesel, Ken Follett, Toni Morrison, Colin Powell, just to name a few of the truly great authors we published!
What is the key to success for a publisher today?
As always, pick the right books, pick the right people. It is a very exciting time for book publishing and it is wonderful to see publishing becoming a real business.
16th May, 2015