During the time that I have been in the bookseller, the big publishers have gotten bigger, while almost everyone else in this business has gotten smaller. The past couple of weeks, during which a US judge blocked Penguin Random House’s takeover of Simon & Schuster, and S&S parent subsequently backed out of the deal, suggests that as an industry we may now have reached our limit. . If so, it marks the end of a nearly 40-year cycle that began in the 1980s when outside investors bought the biggest presses and then, when that generally didn’t work out, bought each other.
In my experience, with a few notable exceptions, every independent press expects to be acquired at some point, if only as an escape route for aging founders.
The justifications for being big are now well rehearsed. The size allows groups like PRH, Hachette or HarperCollins to pay generous advances to successful writers, brand name authors and celebrities, with little real risk to their businesses, which in turn allows them to dominate what book buyers see. But size is then greedy and wants more, and usually more than a mature market can offer, so each conglomerate gets stronger by chasing the next reinforcement. In my experience, with a few notable exceptions, every independent press hopes to be acquired at some point, if only as an escape route for aging founders; few manage to hand their businesses over to other independent-minded generations, as Faber or Kogan Page have. Size also becomes the only answer to the many imponderables that being in publishing poses: for example, it becomes the best answer to the challenge of the global market, and the best bulwark for the rise of true giants like Amazon, Apple or Spotify. , and the bad deals they sometimes offer. Ultimately, size allows you to say “no” and that, in the end, becomes its own drug of choice.
But all of that now seems a bit academic. Paramount has indicated that S&S remains non-core, and given the judge’s verdict and the Justice Department’s desire to protect the high-advance portion of the market, it is hard to imagine a scenario in which it is bought out by one of the other “Five Large”. ”, which means that a four-decade-long strategy to be the biggest, or the next in line, has come to a halt.
There is good and bad in this. A the booksellerAt the FutureBook Conference in London last week, Kelli Fairbrother of audiobook retailer xigxag urged big publishers to invest in audio as the next opportunity, suggesting, not unreasonably, that publishers’ obsession with print it has long undermined their ability to realize the potential of these other formats. He’s right, but print built this business, and much of what we see today, from advances to returns, remains in place precisely because of that format’s preeminence, as well as its ability to sustain a broader ecosystem, from bookstores to up to BookTok. Unravel that, and maybe more of what we want goes with it.
As I said before, we are concerned about size in this business, and too often companies are blamed for the ills of the market, while also being forced to offer the solutions. However, these businesses now face a cuter problem. If getting bigger isn’t the answer anymore, what is?