With over 17,000 new titles each year and sales of $2,826 million in 2016, the Hachette Livre Group of companies comfortably sits among the Big Five English language publishers, alongside Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins and MacMillan Publishers. Headquartered in France, its authors include John Grisham, Enid Blyton, James Patterson, Robert Ludlum and Stephen King. While its India subsidiary just completed 10 years of operations in India, the parent company has been in business for almost two centuries.
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The Chairman and CEO of the Hachette Live Group since 2003, Arnaud Nourry, was in India recently to celebrate a decade of Hachette India and spoke to Scroll.in about their strategy and the future of publishing.
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Is Europe still your largest market? Which are the emerging markets with the most potential that you see right now?
One-third of our business is in the French language across France, Belgium, Switzerland, Canada and other French-speaking countries, 25% in the US and English-speaking Canada, 20% in the UK, India, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland, 10% in Spanish, and another 10% in the rest of the world.
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In 2014, Hachette famously took on and won against Amazon in deciding who gets to control ebook pricing – them or publishers. Looking back, has that victory helped?
When I took the job of Chairman and CEO of Hachette in 2003, I studied what had happened in the music and video industries, or in the present, take the example of the magazine industry. I realised that they made two mistakes. The first was to delay the digitisation of their product, which helped piracy to emerge. The second mistake was that they didn’t keep control on the price point of their creations, so they were unable to protect their turnover, the revenues of their singers or writers.
So, in the year 2006-2007, when ebooks came to our market, I was absolutely convinced that when we jumped into the ebook market, we needed to keep control of our price. This wasn’t just coming from thinking of our revenues. If you let the price of ebooks go down to say $2 or $3 in Western markets, you are going to kill all infrastructure, you’re going to kill booksellers, you’re going to kill supermarkets, and you are going to kill the author’s revenues. You have to defend the logic of your market against the interest of the big technology companies and their business models. The battle in 2014 was all about that. We had to do it.
It’s not that we’re against ebooks. People have to pay a price that is about 40% lower than the print price. And it works. The ebook market has gone down a little bit, not much, from say 25% to 20% in some countries. There is still a readership for ebooks but at a price that keeps the ecosystem alive. That’s absolutely key because the music business has lost half of its turnover in ten years. I love music but books are about culture, education, democracy, so it’s even more important to keep the diversity in book publishing, more so than music publishing.
It’s been a little over ten years since ebooks came to the market in the form of Kindle. You mentioned a small decline – do you think the market has plateaued? Are there formats other than ebooks that publishers should be looking at?
There are two different geographies to look at for this. In the US and UK, the ebook market is about 20% of the total book market, everywhere else it is 5%-7% because in these places the prices never went down to such a level that the ebook market would get significant traction. I think the plateau, or rather slight decline, that we’re seeing in the US and UK is not going to reverse. It’s the limit of the ebook format. The ebook is a stupid product. It is exactly the same as print, except it’s electronic. There is no creativity, no enhancement, no real digital experience. We, as publishers, have not done a great job going digital. We’ve tried. We’ve tried enhanced or enriched ebooks – didn’t work. We’ve tried apps, websites with our content – we have one or two successes among a hundred failures. I’m talking about the entire industry. We’ve not done very well.
I’m convinced there is something we can invent using our content and digital properties beyond ebooks but I reached the conclusion that we don’t really have the skills and talents in our companies because publishers and editors are accustomed to picking a manuscript and creating a design on a flat page. They don’t really know the full potential of 3-D and digital. So we acquired three video game companies in the last two years to attract talent from different industries and see how we can nurture one another and how we can go beyond the ebook on digital. We need to offer different experiences to our consumers.
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Do you really think their role is limited to discoverability and advertising? In term of impact, while not being direct competitors to traditional publishing, they are also providers of content and free content at that. Is that something for publishing to factor into their long-term plans?
I don’t think we’ll ever be publishers who give content for free. It’s not something we’re good at. We’re good at selecting, curating, promoting and selling value-added content, which is kind of the reverse of what others do. I don’t think there’s any kind of competition with Google or Facebook. There is only one thing – it’s that the time spent reading books tends to decline everywhere and goes to social networks. So yes, we are competing for people’s time. It’s why we need to be more attractive in the way we deliver our content. But not beyond that. Even self-publishing, which Amazon does a lot and is sometimes pitched as competition, is the opposite of our business. Our business consists of saying no to three thousand manuscripts and saying yes to one. And self-publishing says yes to three thousand and doesn’t see the one that there should be investment and support around. But yes, because of digital, we are competing against all other forms of leisure. We do need to take that into account.
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France, where Hachette is based and which forms your biggest market, has legislation restricting the amount a bookseller can discount a book. It stands at 5%. But what about a market like India where deep discounting is a big part of bookselling strategy? Do you think that’s just a way to develop an untapped market and eventually all book markets should reach a place like France? Or is there always going to be this difference in consumer behaviour across geographies?
The purpose of the law, which was voted in 1981, was to protect all the independent booksellers from the bigger players by preventing them from discounting and putting the small ones out of business. It worked very well. If you’re in a city in France, you can go to a newsstand, a bookstore, or order from Amazon and you’ll get the book for the same price. This being said, there is no such agreement in the US and the UK, where deep discounting flourishes and that also works. There are independent bookstores that specialise in backlists, curation, they still exist. That environment, in fact, helps sell more copies of one book, which in France is more difficult.
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You just mentioned the continuous acquisition of smaller publishers. How does that affect the publishing and editorial landscape – when smaller publishing houses end up under the umbrella of a larger conglomerate, sometimes swallowed by it?
You’ve used a word I hate – conglomerate. I’m not a very good swallower. Acquiring a publishing company to swallow it is the stupidest thing you can do. Its value comes from the fact that it is a different imprint. Of course when you acquire an independent publisher, you’re not going to keep the accounting department, the IT department, etc., – that doesn’t make any sense. In most cases, these companies don’t have huge profits due to costs that bring them down. So we get rid of that and let them grow and develop their publishing list and have entire freedom.
Link to the rest at Scroll.in and thanks to Nate for the tip.