In a letter from Markus Dohle, CEO of Penguin Random House, made available by Britain’s The Bookseller, sent to staff in conjunction with co-parent Bertelsmann‘s record first-half 2013 results, the head of the newly merged publishing behemoth hymns the cultural and social contribution that his new group makes. “We are united by a greater purpose: the societal impact we as a team make every day by putting the very best books in the hands of readers around the world,” he says in the letter, as quoted by The Bookseller. “Our financial achievements are a reflection of the excellence you bring to what you love doing as members of our publishing family. Whether by publishing award-winning authors and the books that people just can’t stop talking about, or through innovating in digital and enhancing print capabilities, we are implementing our vision to shape and redefine the reading experience.”
As stated in the announcement, “Random House revenues were among its highest ever for a half-year,” and “the biggest success was Dan Brown’s new novel ‘Inferno,’ with first-week sales of more than one million copies in North America, and four million hardcover and digital editions sold in the English-language territories during the reporting period.” Presumably this isn’t one of the cultural triumphs that Dohle is alluding to.
Also, the Bertelsmann announcement continues, “Random House has expanded its worldwide e-book portfolio to 52,000 titles, and has strategically invested in the development of new digital marketing tools and data analytics to further improve the dialog between readers and authors, and the sales potential for their books.” And “Germany’s Verlagsgruppe Random House had an outstanding first half-year, and saw strong growth in e-books during the first half of the year, with digital now accounting for more than 10 percent of its revenues.”
Penguin Random House now describes itself as: “The world’s first truly global trade book publishing company.” It still counts the modern-day vanity press Author Solutions as: “A Penguin Random House Company.” And I have to wonder whether the high-pressure sales tactics employed by Author Solutions, and highlighted by David Gaughran and others, are executed by their staff “with a commitment fuelled by a genuine love for what you do,” as Dohle terms it in his letter.
Yes, Author Solutions is a small part of a very big group. And it may not be fair to judge Dohle by that one entity, which he probably had nothing to do with acquiring. And yes, it’s part of the responsibility of a modern CEO to give rousing morale-boosting messages to the staff, who need to believe in what they do. Dohle probably needs to believe in it himself.
But if Penguin Random House and Dohle really want to live up to the rhetoric and deliver cultural and societal value to readers and communities, then they have many means at their disposal. What about free ebook donations to libraries, for instance? More dedicated programs to foster and develop new literary talent? Cultural donations and activities? Literacy campaigns for the underprivileged? Support for schools?
Corporate social responsibility is high on the list of major enterprises from chemicals to transportation these days. Why should publishers be exempt? Especially when what they do has a direct, immediate role in societies. If Dohle wants to demonstrate what Penguin Random House does for society, I’d like to see a roster of the newly merged giant’s CSR activities. Perhaps one exists. I await it with great interest.