Ddespite a rise of self-publishing, commercial publishers remain the primary gatekeepers to what lands on our shelves. As such, they have great cultural and – if a book takes off – economic power. A case decided by a US court this week gave some insight into how much power is now focused in a small handful of multinational companies.
The problem was a planned merger of Simon & Schuster with Penguin Random House (PRH) – two of the so-called Big Five, which between them control 90% of the American publishing market, a fact not always obvious to the casual observer, as the books usually carry the names of parent company footprints or subdivisions on their spines. PRH, itself the result of a mega-merger in 2013, runs approximately 300 fingerprints. Given the reach of these companies, PRH is active in more than 20 countries – the Justice Department’s successful argument that the planned $2.2 billion deal “would exert an outsized influence on books published in the United States and on the remuneration of authors for their work” applies to worldwide.
There was relief from many in the industry, from agents to authors’ societies to small independent publishers who are already struggling to compete. There was also a cautious satisfaction that the arguments focused on author’s income rather than consumer choice alone. Some observers voiced the hope that the precedent can be extended to producers in other sectors – farmers, for example. The Big Five insist that there is genuine competition among footprints for new properties. That may be true up to a point, but as Stephen King said in court, “You might as well say you’re going to have a husband and wife bidding against each other. another for the same house. It’s a bit ridiculous. In Britain and the Commonwealth, there is more concern about how many of the Big Five are ruled from the United States. There is a growing sense that local tastes, writers and priorities need to be protected.
But there are dissenting voices and undeniable complexities. Book publishing cannot be considered these days without Amazon; his huge sales This means that it dictates terms that are often harmful to writers and editors. PRH is overshadowed by the Bezos juggernaut but – coming just reported nine-month revenue of £12.5bnthe highest in its history – it is in a better position to repel than a small company.
Consolidation also means that the practical demands of publishing – including printing, distribution and advertising – can be streamlined in a world of battered supply chains and paper shortage. This can help address the growing difficulty (due to shrinking review space and fragmentation due to the Internet) in generating interest in new books. While the argument is often made that multinationals are too conscious of their bottom line to release more unexpected, not obviously commercial books, it can also be argued that deep pockets mean the big five can take risks that small publishers cannot for fear of going below.
There is some truth in all of these arguments. But a multidimensional and confident publishing industry is essential to a healthy society; the more multidimensional it is, the healthier it can be. In this context, this week’s decision is welcome.