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Big is big

19 July 2010

A recent study published in the Bookseller shows that Pearson has retained its position as the world's largest book publisher with sales of €5.3 billion (£4,476 bn or $6,854 bn). In spite of all the changes in the publishing world, the ranking is much the same as last year, with Reed Elsevier ranked second with €5,024 billion (£5,948 bn or $6,497 bn), followed by ThomsonReuters and Wolters Kluwer.

These are not names that trip off writers' tongues and that's because these giant companies' revenues come from educational, professional and academic publishing, rather than trade or general publishing. At 5th and 6th in the rankings are Bertelsmann and Hachette Livre, respectively German and French companies, which between them control many of the publishing names which are familiar throughout the trade publishing world - Random House, Orion, Little Brown and so on. HarperCollins, owned by News International, has slipped from 16th to 19th ranking.

These big companies have not shown much growth during the last year of recession but there is movement in the chart, although the double-digit growth is restricted to big publishers in Asia. Ruediger Wischenbart, who compiles the data for French trade magazine Livres Hebdo, thinks that the companies which have achieved top of chart positions have done so because they have successfully adapted to the global environment. They have shed national identities and successfully become international corporations, meaning that 'publishing has become truly international at last'. Wischenbart sees this as an ongoing process.

It's remarkable how truly international the list is and no one country dominates the top, with Germany, the UK and the Netherlands each the home to two groups and the US with only one, although eight of those top ten generate the majority of their book revenues within the US. Italy, Spain and Canada also have one each.

What does this mean for writers, many of whom might feel that it has nothing much to do with them? It does show how much of publishing is aligned more with education and professional areas rather than the entertainment industry, which is where writers create books that people want to read, as opposed to books they have to.

Perhaps in some sense it is now becoming so impossible to get your book published by one of these behemoths that it doesn't really matter which one is coming out on top in terms of global domination of the book market. But the comments about internationalism above show these giants' focus, which is on a global vision of the future. Writers can look to the local, the small presses and independent bookshops for support, not to these giant organisations which have become increasingly corporate. Don't write off Random House or Little Brown, for instance, but do realise that their acquisitions will be made through agents, and top agents at that, who are really part of the same corporate world.