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In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson in Publishing Perspective on December 8, 2017

At Bonnier Publishing, “We decided we were going to stand for something. (1) We publish for everyone. (2) We recruit for everyone.”

That woke everyone right up. Richard Johnson, the CEO of Bonnier Publishing, gave an opening keynote titled “How Bonnier Publishing Became a Major Force in UK Publishing.” No nation’s industry necessarily runs to meet another country’s newcomer at the docks, and the UK’s publishing community is tight-knit, even while it competes internally. The success of Sweden’s Bonnier, Johnson had arrived to tell everyone, is because it’s not as snobbish—his word—as the overall industry in place.

“Books have the power to enrich everyone’s lives,” Johnson said, “particularly the youngsters that we sell to, the ones who need education and have got no money. We should be selling to those people. And we do, but the industry should as well. The industry is too snobbish still.”

He’s not wrong that his company’s focus on inclusivity has been on display to all. The fun caricatures of its staffers in all their diversity have been on the site for years, and some of us have written about this. As it turns out, these are the faces with which Johnson feels he was able to get ahead of the current acute need for egalitarianism in publishing, and he sees this as having set him and his company way ahead. He may not be wrong.

He took it farther, too, urging the business to think of itself as “an entertainment business, not the literary business. Sometimes we create literary masterpieces which is fantastic,” he said, “but we have to entertain people to attract people.

For years, Bonnier Publishing has pictured its multicultural staffers in fun caricatures

“And let’s not be afraid to say that: We are in the entertainment business.”

This goes, of course, to the imperative of the digital reality now gripping an industry that in many ways has responded well and profitably to the potential but still can be myopic when it comes to recognizing just how much of the wider world of culture—Johnson wants you to say “entertainment”—is now publishing’s competition.

Johnson’s commentary was particularly good when he talked of arriving at Bonnier to find the Swedish family-owned business culture in place to be built around silos “and old ways of thinking.” He asserted that in 2012, he guided the company to define the change it would generate in itself: “We decided we were going to stand for something. (1) We publish for everyone. (2) We recruit for everyone.”

And while he defined publishing as “an industry like no other,” Johnson had come to warn his colleagues that all other industries, in the media world, at least, are prepared to eat the book world’s collective lunch unless the kind of recognition of a multicultural reality he enabled isn’t taken up.

Having delivered himself of a decidedly boastful presentation, Johnson followed up with a funny video in which he was the butt of many jokes, apparent Bonnier staffers shrugging as if they’d never heard of him, and one viewer on screen asking, “Do you think he knows he’s an ass?” The fact that the reception among FutureBook conferees was rather muted indicated that, for all his swagger, Richard Johnson had hit the nerve he’d intended.