John Sargent – we still do it better

Ed Nawotka
News - Publishing Thursday, 11 October 2018

Macmillan ceo at Frankfurt addresses the durability of books, and reflects on publishing Michael Wolff


John Sargent, ceo of Macmillan, gave this year's Frankfurt CEO Talk in the new Frankfurt Pavilion on Wednesday. The conversation ranged across topics from the future of print books to Sargent's battle with the White House over the publication of Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff.

Publishing consultant Ruediger Wischenbart led the conversation, which included questions from the editors of several international trade magazines, including PublishNews, Publishers Weekly, Buchreport, Bookdao, and Livres Hebdo.

Fabrice Piault of Livres Hebdo opened the questions by asking Sargent how the company defined itself as a publisher in the age of the internet. "There are things that can be done better on the internet," Sargent replied. "Travel books really struggle because the internet can give you better answers. Those parts of the business have fallen away and fallen away globally. The focus is to do what we are good at and what the internet does not do effectively."

Piault went on to ask if book reading was threatened by the growing popularity of streaming television series. "I think there are things that we do better," Sargent said. "There is a thing about storytelling that is done better than on the television… Book reading in long-form narrative is a different experience."

On the subject of the conglomerate publisher's role, he said: "Millions and millions of people are self-publishing their own books. But every day people come up to me and say they want me to publish their book."

Asked about President Trump's efforts to stop the publication of Fire and Fury, Sargent acknowledged that his first reaction was that the interventions would "sell a sh*tload of books". But he quickly rethought his position. "I thought initially it was a commercial decision [to continue with the publication], but then realised it was an extremely important decision. Freedom of speech is the very foundation of democracy."

Trump's efforts to block the book "were not acceptable to us, to any employee, and it should not be acceptable to any citizen of America no matter how they vote", he noted.

Carlo Carrenho of PublishNews cited the rapid global growth of companies like Sweden's Storytel and Canada's Wattpad, and asked whether Macmillan was going global fast enough. "Most people are interested in books in their home language written about their home countries," Sargent said. "Music and movies have been more global in nature. The question is: is the content we produce global in its nature or isn't it? There are many countries in the world where it is difficult for us to compete at scale. We are not [Penguin] Random House."

Photo: John Sargent (right) and Ruediger Wischenbart

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