Penguin Random House’s CMO On The Future of Publishing
By Amy Shoenthal
Every so often, Penguin Random House’s Chief Marketing Officer Sanyu Dillon hears someone say that publishing is a dying industry. After two decades of seeing that industry cycle through societal changes and evolving consumer reading habits, Dillon has learned not to dwell on such critiques. She simply does the same thing that has allowed her to succeed in this industry for so long – finding creative new ways to connect with readers.
That deep understanding of consumers is one of the reasons Dillon has been lauded for her incisive, visionary marketing leadership and her ability to create meaningful change across the organization.
Dillon is also extremely passionate about driving inclusiveness in publishing, which is why she launched All Ways Black, a community and platform that celebrates Black literature, curated by bookstagrammer Cree Myles.
Dillon isn’t worried about her industry dying – in fact, people are reading more than ever right now, despite the unlimited media options available. And in an era of doom scrolling and the toll social media has taken on society’s collective mental health, she points out that the act of reading a book is one of the only forms of media consumption that can actually make people feel good. That insight is actually what inspired the company’s newest campaign, “Slow Down, Read a Book,” which launches next week and hopes to motivate people to put down their phones and pick up more books.
I spoke to Dillon about her unique career longevity in publishing, the initiatives she’s most excited about, and her vision for the future of the publishing industry.
Amy Shoenthal: You’ve been at Penguin Random House for 18 years, which is an eternity in the publishing world. What has kept you there so long?
Sanyu Dillon: I’ve had the pleasure of working with hundreds of authors over the course of my career, each with different stories and different audiences. Plus, marketing is ever-changing. Penguin Random House has always encouraged entrepreneurial thinking, so my natural curiosity has been stoked and satisfied.
My role has also evolved. When I first started, I was marketing individual titles to readers, and now I’m expanding the market for books and marketing the act of reading to consumers.
Reading is a highly disruptable habit. Things like getting a new job, a new commute, getting married or having kids will determine the amount of time someone can devote to reading. One of the initiatives we’re launching this year is to keep people in the habit of reading by encouraging them to put down their phones and pick up a book.
People often cite that their New Year’s resolutions are to spend less time on their phones and to read more books. But we know it can be very hard to put our phone down. That’s why the activation is called, ‘Slow down, read a book.’ It is a social first campaign that will prompt readers to unhand their devices, shut down social media and read an actual book.
Shoenthal: Like many industries, publishing has seen a significant shift over the past two decades. What has been the most surprising thing about that evolution?
Dillon: Despite all the new tech we’ve seen, word of mouth is still the best tool for book discovery. The primary way to discover new books used to be when someone walked into a book shop, saw a book on a table or got a recommendation from a store clerk.
Those methods are still essential, but now there’s things like BookTok. It’s not about favoring one method of discovery over another. That’s why a key strategy for us has been to build relationships with influencers. We also rely on brand partners, like Lululemon. We launched a reading nook with them a few years back.
In our industry, marketing is so much bigger than it was when we first started. Marketing used to be focused on B2B (business to business) with book sellers, as they were the ones to bring the consumers into the store. Now we develop relationships directly with consumers as well.
Shoenthal: That’s overwhelming. How have you navigated that transition along with your colleagues?
Dillon: I recently heard a term called “infobesity” and I cannot strike it from my mind. We spend a lot of time understanding the audience we’re trying to reach, what their motivations are, and how we can use creative to invite people into the experience we’re creating.
Books provide a lot of different experiences for people. Reading to escape, reading to better understand something, or reading as a form of self care are key motivations for readers to turn to books. We saw that more than ever during the pandemic.
Shoenthal: You’re incredibly passionate about shifting publishing to be a more inclusive industry, and you’ve been able to innovate there with All Ways Black. Can you tell me about that, and any additional efforts you and your team have made to move the industry into more of an inclusive space?
Dillon: We’re focusing on ‘always-on’ initiatives, which means a shift towards year-long campaigns instead of focusing on heritage and history months. We do that in order to create lasting and more meaningful relationships with our readers.
All Ways Black is a platform we created with Bookstagrammer Cree Myles. She’s the curator of the platform and has total creative control. It’s dedicated to highlighting Black stories and Black authors and how they intersect with readers more broadly.
It started in 2021 as an Instagram channel, and has since moved into events and a newsletter. It’s now a key pillar of our brand.
Most of our campaigns have an element of social impact. We’ve worked with organizations like the Black Creatives Fund. For our recent Pride campaign, ‘Pride in Your Words,’ we partnered with local grassroots organizations. We ran advertising in banned book cities and markets.
We worked with a lettering artist to pull out quotes from various books by queer writers. We showcased this creative with headlines and excerpts from those books, specifically in markets where we felt there was sentiment against LGBTQ people. We made sure these quotes were posted prominently around those markets.
Shoenthal: That’s amazing. Can you talk about some of the internal initiatives you’ve put in place to help drive inclusivity across the industry?
Dillon: We talk about ‘building cultural fluency.’ We have to look at our internal systems and processes. That’s why we created an anti-racism rubric to ensure we’re approaching campaigns through an anti-racism lens. That means being intentional around the authors we feature, our advertising outlets, creative, ensuring proper representation even in the places people can’t see. We’re applying this lens with our suppliers, with our agency partners, and with the influencers that we work with.
We dedicate a percentage of our yearly media budget to BIPOC-owned media outlets and activations. We make sure there’s diverse representation in all our creative. When we send out RFPs, we make sure to reach out to BIPOC-owned suppliers.
Shoenthal: Publishing has been seen as this very old institutional, overwhelmingly white, workforce. How have you seen the makeup of the workforce evolve over the past 18 years?
Dillon: Our industry has a long way to go to properly reflect the makeup of our society. We’re making moves in the right direction, but the pace has been slow. I’m ready to see an acceleration.
My team and I feel a great responsibility to help accelerate that change across the entire industry. It will take continual focus and conversation to get there. That continued focus, assessing where we are and making a plan to achieve our goals is going to be crucial. Sure, it’s a marathon not a sprint, but we also don’t want to hit a wall. We have to keep going.
I’m in a unique position because I’m a Black woman in the C Suite. I’m in a leadership position, so I have the ability to drive change. That’s why the makeup of leadership has to be diverse.
Shoenthal: How are you feeling about the state of publishing today? Are there any changes you’d like to see?
Dillon: I love the question because I am actually very hopeful. At the beginning of the pandemic, there was a lot of uncertainty around the future of the industry. Despite the limited service at bookstores, despite the collective emotional trauma of the pandemic era, people turned to books for escape, reflection, and understanding.
I can’t tell you the number of times when someone outside of the industry has said publishing is going to go away. They said that when ebooks launched, and they say it now.
I’m a lifelong reader and have always understood the power of a good book. As a parent, I understand how books are shaping future generations, and how those future generations perceive the world and their place in it. Books are unique in that way. People are reading more than ever despite the unlimited media options available such as social and streaming, and that makes me optimistic.
According to our qualitative research, of all the media you can choose, books are the only thing that can make you feel better. Reading is a habit that people always want to get back into. The dopamine hit is unique.
Photo Source: Alexis Buryk