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It’s easy to underestimate – or, unless you’re directly connected with the publishing business, ignore entirely – the role of the publisher in bringing you a book.

Publishers decide what gets published and what doesn’t.

That means they decide the framework of what you should be reading – and equally important, what you shouldn’t.

They decide what part of the world’s knowledge, ideas, imagination, creativity is worth preserving – because books are, after all, a record of our life and times for posterity. When they publish the unpalatable, they take a stand for free speech as much as any activist.

They are, in fact, far more influential, and fundamental to our existence, than we give them credit for.

And in the high-powered world of publishing, it doesn’t get more influential than John Makinson, chairman of the newly-merged Penguin Random House entity that, in one dramatic move, now controls 25% of all the books published in the world annually.

One would imagine that the man at the helm of the new behemoth is someone who’s worked his way up the publishing ranks, an insider who knows his way around the backrooms of the business, a publishing veteran with decades of experience in the industry.

One would be wrong.

Ambitions of being an actor; application – and rejection – by the BBC; a stint with Reuters at their London, Paris and Frankfurt bureaus; editorship of the popular Lex column at the Financial Times; advising advertising biggies Saatchi and Saatchi on strategy; a return to the FT as Managing Director; co-founding his own consulting practice; John’s career has been many things but the one thing it hasn’t been is linear.

On the face of the evidence he’s a business guy, a number-cruncher who understands the FTSE and the balance sheet, who has been Finance Director at Pearson – the parent company of Penguin – and who brings a sound economic perspective to the business.

But that would be to underestimate what sets Makinson apart from your average CEO – an understanding and passion for the soul of the business, a love of books in all their forms, printed and digital; first-editions or Kindle versions; a man who may follow the balance sheet but who also owns an independent bookstore, The Holt, in Norfolk.

And in this duality lies, perhaps, great hope for the publishing business as it battles its biggest challenges yet.

In the word of books today, the only certainty is change as printed books battle it out with digital, independent bookstores with chain stores, and books themselves with television, films and YouTube. It’s the kind of scenario in which people fall back on rigid positions. Traditionalists drip scorn on Jeff Bezos, the Kindle, and ebooks in general and romanticise the printed word. Technologists turn their noses up at those resistant to new publishing formats and new media, and wax eloquent on the freedom ebooks offer. Both look on the other as ‘the other’.

Not Makinson.

He owns a Kindle, reads on his iPad and, in an interview to The Guardian not long ago, said “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. 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.”

It’s this kind of openness to reimagining the very essence of what makes a book that may give Penguin Random House an edge in a nervous business. And yet, Makinson is in no way bearish about the printed word itself. “There is a growing distinction,” he told the Wall Street Journal in an interview, “between the book reader and the book owner. The book reader just wants the experience of reading the book, and that person is a natural digital consumer: instead of a disposable mass-market book, they buy a digital book. The book owner (on the other hand) wants to give, share and shelve books. They love the experience. As we add value to the physical product, particularly the trade paperback and hardcover, the consumer will pay a little more for the better experience.”

It’s this knack for strategic thinking that give Makinson so much influence over the future of publishing itself. In many ways, the direction he decides to take Penguin Random House in over the next few years could well be the direction books themselves take, much as Jeff Bezos has – for better or worse – fundamentally altered the course of publishing forever.

Despite the challenges of managing an enterprise the scale of Penguin Random House, he holds a host of other public positions: he is chairman of the National Theatre in London, as well as a former chair of the Institute for Public Policy Research, the UK’s leading progressive think tank, and the International Rescue Committee, a humanitarian organization. He also has an India connection, having recently married actress, writer and child rights activist Nandana Sen.



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