Under my byline

Publishing sentiments

Posted in Books by Rrishi on 6 December 2008

OVERLEAF 8

A meeting a few weeks ago with Arnaud Nourry was instructive. Nourry is the capo di tutti i capi of Hachette, the second-biggest trade publisher (that is, the kind of publisher whose books you will find in retail bookshops) in the world. The French-owned Hachette is the last major international publisher to set up shop in India, and Nourry was here for the official launch. The UK’s Pearson, German-owned Random House and Rupert Murdoch’s HarperCollins have either been here for ages or have set up operations in the last few years.

This migration to India by the most powerful actors in publishing is not surprising. Major English-language publishers here say they are achieving 20-25 per cent annual sales growth rates. Of course they’re starting from a low base, but nevertheless such numbers are a delight to Western publishing executives used to flat or anaemic growth in the saturated markets of Western Europe and North America.

It also comes at the end of a decade that has thoroughly shaken up the world of book-making. To take just one perspective: the idealised publisher, a fairly small and not terribly adventurous firm devoted to bringing out good books at good quality with careful attention, has not yet vanished but it’s certainly endangered. Instead, consolidation and conglomeration have created multinational behemoths in search of economies of scale, access to new markets and better bargaining positions in the marketplace (especially vis-à-vis booksellers, which have themselves been undergoing major consolidation). And this is not even to mention technology, computers, Internet, digitisation, outsourcing, Google…

Hachette is one of the new monsters. Its parent company is the French defence giant Lagardère (apparently they make missiles), but the Lagardère heir has been working to tilt the balance of the group towards what he sees as its future: media. And Hachette is part of this strategy. Hachette has been buying access to English-language markets since the mid-1990s, with major recent acquisitions in the UK (Hodder Headline, for example), USA (Time Warner books) and elsewhere. In India there was nothing to buy, so like the others Hachette set up a subsidiary, hiring Penguin India’s former head Thomas Abraham to head it.

The takeover experience has been mixed for quite a few smaller publishers and imprints. After the Bertelsmann group bought Random House in the USA, for example, change at the top and what some call micromanagement by the new German chief executive have severely curtailed the independence of the heads of individual subsidiaries and fuelled fear and resentment.

Not so Hachette, and Nourry’s satraps seem to be thanking their stars. Hachette’s subsidiaries still function as independent units, pretty much as they did before Hachette bought them. And yet the group as a whole is showing impressive revenue growth. Why?

Well, Nourry’s French. The French books market is far less driven by bestsellers and celebrity blockbusters. What Nourry calls the “mid-list”, the niche or run-of-the-mill books of which perhaps 1,500 copies each are printed, is robust and solvent, with France’s network of independent small booksellers and rules against aggressive retailer discounting. Nourry believes in “small teams of motivated people dedicated to their authors and to passion”. Dedicated to passion?

Big advances are supposed to secure bestsellers and a cascade of money. But Nourry says that while bestsellers are good for business, they are from “cultural and other perspectives not very good. They won’t last in the history of publishing as a key book.”

These are peculiar and reassuring sentiments in a publishing tycoon. Others talk mainly about the market (including Thomas Abraham, who also knows his books) or major releases, but Nourry talks about the kind of book and the kind of people and environment he wants. I can’t wait for the Indian market to grow big enough (it’s certainly complicated enough) for it to test Nourry’s sentiments.

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