Bookworm game for e-bound bird

John Makinson says what matters is that people read, not how they choose to do it

Penguin celebrated its 75th year on July 30 and is marking the anniversary by repackaging a series of seminal books from the 1960s to the 1980s. Although the company might afford itself a brief look backwards, it feels as though there is little room for nostalgia in book publishing now, as the industry fixes its face firmly, and apprehensively, towards the future.

Amazon recently announced sales of ebooks on its American site had outnumbered hardbacks for the first time, stunning casual observers, even though it had not been entirely unexpected in the trade.

The launch of the iPad has added a sense of urgency. Where music went first, books are set to follow, although Penguin and other publishers would hope without the same devastating effects. This week Amazon launched a cheaper, lightweight version of its Kindle ebook reader and a digital store on its British site, and others, including Google, are muscling in.

Digital book sales are still less than 1% of Penguin, but the direction of the market is clear. In the United States digital books already account for 6% of consumer sales.

John Makinson, Penguin chief executive, says he is a convert. The day after we meet he is on his way to India, as part of British Prime Minister David Cameron’s delegation, and had loaded titles on to his iPad, including a manuscript by John le Carre and some Portuguese classics (in English) ahead of Penguin launching a range in Brazil. He is also reading Lord Mandelson’s diary. It simply makes sense, he says, instead of carting an armful of books in your carry-on luggage.

“It does redefine what we do as publishers and I feel, compared with most of my counterparts, more optimistic about what this means for us,” he says. “Of course, there are issues around copyright protection and there are worries around pricing and around piracy, royalty rates and so on, but there is also this huge opportunity to do more as publishers.”

Publishing, he says, must embrace trying new things: “I am keen on the idea that every book that we put on to an iPad has an author interview, a video interview, at the beginning. I have no idea whether this is a good idea or not. There has to be a culture of experimentation, which doesn’t come naturally to book publishers. We publish a lot of historians, for example. They love the idea of using documentary footage to illustrate whatever it is they’re writing about.”

The very definition of a book is up for grabs, he says, although the company has just published a version of Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth for the iPad in the US that might provide clues – and horrify traditionalists. It includes scenes from a TV adaptation embedded in the text, as well as extras including the show’s music soundtrack and Follett’s video diary during the making of the series.

For now, Makinson says, digital books are expanding the market; hardback sales in the US are up this year, despite the march of ebooks. Piracy is not yet a significant issue and lessons have been learned from the music business.

“You have to give the consumer what the consumer wants; you can’t tell the consumer to go away. So we didn’t participate in this experiment where a number of publishers deferred publication of the ebook until a certain number of months after the hardcover publication. I thought that was a very bad idea. If the consumer wants to buy a book in an electronic format now, you should let the consumer have it.”

He has added confidence because, with tablets such as the iPad, consumers are used to paying a subscription to the wireless operator and for “apps”, creating a more benign environment than the Wild West of the PC, where users are used to getting everything for free.

Penguin’s profits more than doubled to £44-million in the first half of the year. The company gained market share, but one reason for the improvement was the outsourcing of some design and production to India last year. The company now has around 100 designers in Delhi making books for Dorling Kindersley, belying the idea that Britain can at least live off its creative industries.

Makinson defends the decision and says DK is now back in profit, which means it can reinvest in Britain.

About 8% of the publisher’s sales are from its classics and revenues are still growing. It is launching the range in Mandarin, Korean and Portuguese. But it is not all highbrow. What would Penguin’s founder, Sir Allen Lane, whose aim was to publish quality paperbacks for the masses, have made of Penguin putting out books “by” TV celebrities?

“Allen Lane’s view was that we should publish good writing of all kinds for all audiences at affordable prices,” Makinson says. “I’m not saying he would necessarily have approved every single publishing decision we take, but would he have approved of Penguin being a very democratic publishing company, publishing for lots of different tastes? I think he would definitely have approved.”

Makinson has long been mentioned as a successor to Marjorie Scardino, who runs Pearson, Penguin’s parent company. Her departure has been a perennial question, though she has defied the investment community’s chattering classes by staying in the post for well over a decade. She has confounded expectations by keeping Penguin and the Financial Times in a group now dominated by educational publishing. Makinson says it makes more sense than ever for Penguin to remain part of the group, as the digital era draws each division closer.

He says there will still be the need for publishers in the digital world: “I used to have this discussion with [Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy author] Douglas Adams. He created this thing called the digital village, an online publishing platform. Douglas’s argument was: ‘All of my friends will come along and publish on digital village and you the publishers will be disintermediated, you will be irrelevant.’ Well, it hasn’t happened. I am not aware of any successful direct-to-consumer publishing model that exists.

“The reason it doesn’t work is that the publishers do actually perform quite a useful service — they edit the book, then they publicise it.” In the physical world, they make sure it is stocked in bookshops, he says.

Makinson (55) perhaps feels more adaptable than some of his counterparts because he arrived at Penguin as an outsider. A clubbable character, he has taken an unusual career path, from a journalist on the Financial Times to working for the Saatchis, setting up his own investment consultancy, running the Financial Times and then as Pearson finance director, despite having no training as an accountant.

But his passion for books is evident. Five years ago he and his brother bought a bookshop in the small Norfolk town of Holt. For an out-of-the-way independent, the Holt Bookshop attracts a starry line-up of authors for events, including Stephen Fry, due to talk about his new autobiography, which, perhaps not surprisingly, is published by Penguin.

“We are all terribly sentimental about books,” Makinson says. “It is terribly important to me that we sell lots of wonderful books in my little independent in Norfolk and when I talk about digital I do sometimes worry that it looks as though I am neglecting all this,” he points to the books on the shelves behind him, “which I am not.” —

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