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Are big publishers going to get bigger?

4 April 2005

The increasing conglomeratisation of publishing is worrying if you are trying to sell rights, as it simply reduces the number of publishers you can sell to. Agents have expressed increasing anxiety about this over the years, An acquisition model which allows different imprints in a conglomerate to bid against each other up to a certain level, or until they are only competing against each other, is one effective answer. Random House UK’s superb 2004 results, with sales rising 20% in a single year, are partly at least the result of nurturing a number of relatively competitive imprints where the editors are given the space to build their lists.

However the corporate approach is here to stay. In a session at the London Book Fair entitled Publishing - the Next Decade, Tim Hely-Hutchinson, Chief Executive of the newly created Hachette Livre UK group (made up of Hodder Headline, the Orion and Octopus Groups and Watts) said further consolidation was inevitable: ‘Trade publishers feel squeezed competing for authors and retail space. Increased publishing strength in relation to retailers will redress the balance of power. I see the number of major players becoming fewer over the next few years, down to about three or four.’

The situation is much the same in the States, where Random House, Penguin, HarperCollins, St Martin’s Press and Simon and Schuster battle it out for market share, and many think that sooner or later Simon and Schuster is likely to be sold by its parent company Viacom.

The one thing you can be sure about is that all of them will have their sights set on competing with the others for market share. They will work in a ‘big company’ way, with a corporate aversion to risk and, surprisingly perhaps, a very short-term view of the world.

This short-term thinking is particularly important in its effect on publishing, as most writers take time to learn their trade and need the support of a good editor whilst they do this and whilst an audience is built for their books. Unfortunately neither the large publishers nor the big bookshop chains can afford to take a long-term view, as time is money. This is why they would rather spend a fortune on a potential instant bestseller, rather than going for the slow build which suits the way writers actually develop. This approach leaves many new writers out in the cold, but is there any realistic alternative to being published by a big company?

Next week News Review will look at small publishers.