Los Angeles – Markus Dohle looked happy to be there, he really did. Clean-shaven and dressed in a stripey, light-gray suit, the sunny but intense 39-year-old walked around and smiled broadly at every person who shook his hand, and whenever anyone made a joke, he laughed with his whole body, sometimes even rocking back and forth. His auburn hair, punctuated with a playful blond streak, was slicked back and parted carefully on the side. He looked a little like a news anchor, with his tough jaw and dimples.
This was in Los Angeles during the second day of Book Expo America, an annual convention aimed at publishers and booksellers, about 48 hours before Mr. Dohle—pronounced DOH-la—was scheduled to take over as the new CEO of Random House Inc. Mr. Dohle had spent the previous week back home in Gutersloh, Germany, tying up loose ends at the printing company where he worked until the CEO and supervisory board of its corporate parent, Bertelsmann AG, decided last month that he would be more useful running their publishing operation.
Mr. Dohle, who speaks with a strong but unobtrusive German accent, officially started at the Random House tower on Monday. He has been working from an office on the 25th floor—unclear if it’s the same one that his predecessor, Peter Olson, occupied during his 10 years at the helm.
“I am looking forward to becoming a real New Yorker,” Mr. Dohle said in a brief interview Saturday afternoon. His wife and kids, he said, have not yet left Germany, but will be along soon to join him.
“Everybody gives me a very good feeling,” he said, noting that even Jane Friedman from HarperCollins and David Young from Hachette Book Group USA had come by the Random House booth. He had also met Salman Rushdie, Lee Child and Barbara Walters, all of whom he can now call “his” authors.
He met some of these people on Saturday on the convention floor, and some others the night before, at parties. Barbara Walters, for instance, he met on Friday evening at a pre-dinner cocktail hour hosted by Knopf, the most idiosyncratic and rarefied of the Random House divisions, at a restaurant called Comme Ça.
Random House’s corporate spokesman Stuart Applebaum, widely believed to have been a close adviser and friend to Mr. Olson, watched over Mr. Dohle as he made his way around the room. He would continue to shadow him all evening and through much of the next day at the convention, introducing him to authors and industry types.
IT WAS Mr. Applebaum who put Mr. Dohle before Barbara Walters, who smiled politely as she shook his hand before asking him about his plans for the company.
The question was asked in earnest, but it would have sounded naïve to any reasonably engaged literary agent, editor or publishing executive, all of whom have at least a vague sense of what is at stake in these early days of the Dohle administration. Ms. Walters’ question was a loaded one, in other words, pregnant with the rumblings that permeated BEA about What Mr. Dohle Might Do.
The prevailing conventional wisdom is that Random House’s six main divisions—Knopf, Crown, Bantam Dell, Doubleday, the flagship Random House adult trade group and the children’s operation—will likely lose some of the autonomy they enjoyed during the Olson era. At the moment, each of the divisions possess an unusual level of independence, with various back-end operations carried out separately and with rules in place that allow imprints from different divisions to bid against each other on the same book. These luxuries, which are not offered at the other big houses, arguably protect the individuality of Random’s various divisions and help keep stars like Knopf’s president, Sonny Mehta, happy.
But they also cost Bertelsmann money, and with sales at Random House Inc. down, Mr. Dohle might be tempted to scrap these freedoms as he tries to realize his mandate to grow the company. (Mr. Applebaum said yesterday that in conversations throughout the weekend Mr. Dohle “stressed his commitment to maintaining the independence and autonomy of our publishers.”)
It is a tall order in the current climate, and though some of his rival publishers marveled at Mr. Dohle’s youth (“He makes me feel like an underachiever,” said Geoff Kloske, who heads Penguin’s Riverhead imprint), one got the distinct sense that they do not envy him. With the advent of superstores, online retailing, the Kindle and print-on-demand technology, publishing as we know it is over, most people at Book Expo seemed to think. Against that backdrop, taking over the largest publishing house in the world seems like an act of martyrdom.
Everyone, from the dinosaurs to the 30-something publicists, seemed to agree this weekend that the only conversation worth having was about how the Internet will bury them unless they act fast. This conversation is characterized by a furrowing of brows and an optimistic enthusiasm for change affected as a means of self-defense. Nobody wants to go extinct, in other words, so they’re all pretending to be interested in e-books.
IN THE MEANTIME, attendance at BEA—once an essential event for the industry during which publishers would pitch their upcoming titles to booksellers and take orders right at their booths—fell by about 6,000 people compared to last year, when it was held in New York. People walked around the floor saying things like: “The meeting has no meaning. What’s the purpose? No one can explain it.”