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A shifting of the tectonic plates of publishing

8 July 2013

This was an unprecedentedly eventful week in publishing, which saw the completion of the Penguin Random House merger, but with some surprises, and the completely unexpected departure of Victoria Barnsley, CEO of HarperCollins UK.

The merger of Random House and Penguin has been some time in the making, although it's been apparent for some months that there were not going to be any objections from the regulatory authorities. It creates the largest ever global publisher, with sales worth £2.6bn. There are 250 imprints worldwide, which publish over 15,000 titles annually with a staff of 10,000.

The new company will be 53% Bertlesmann-owned but will be headquartered in New York. Its announced intention is to continue to allow its imprints autonomy. Tom Weldon, new CEO of Penguin Random House UKPenguin Random House have more than 50 creative and autonomous imprints, publishing the very best books for all audiences, covering fiction, non-fiction, poetry, children’s books, autobiographies and much more. Click for Random House UK Publishers References listing, said: ‘While there are clearly differences, we share more than divides us. There is a genuine belief that distinct diverse centres of publishing excellence are really important, and each centre should publish different kinds of books in different kinds of ways.'

The merger has been widely interpreted as a response to the growing size of Amazon, with some estimates suggesting that the internet giant could account for as much as 40% of typical trade publisher's print and e-book business. Although this has not been commented on recently, it's also the result of Penguin deciding to concentrate on its profitable and less risky educational businesses.
The Telegraph commented that: ‘The merger comes at a critical time for the companies, as well as for the wider book publishing industry which spent most of the last decade in major turmoil, as new online businesses like Amazon, Google and Apple tried to stake their claims on their traditional business .‘

Inside the publishing houses, there has been real anxiety about job losses, but at the moment it looks as if these are more likely to affect support departments such as finance, as the stated intention is to retain the large number of imprints - a strategy which has worked well for Random House UK in particular in the past.

The other, more sensational, news of the week, of Victoria Barnsley's sudden departure from HarperCollins UK, relates to the increasing internationalism of the publishing industry and the decision by HarperCollins to remove the overseeing of its non-UK international companies to New York. Barnsley appears to have decided to resign.

Her replacement is a surprise for many, the CEO of the very successful Harry Potter website, Pottermore, Charlie Redmayne, who had himself been recruited to HarperCollins UK by Barnsley as Digital Director not many years ago. Possibly this series of moves at the company was set in motion by the phone-hacking scandal at its owner News International's UK newspapers, and a subsequent decision to undertake a partial withdrawal from the UK to the US.

So what does all this mean for authors? Those published by the two big companies are bound to feel a little nervous, but at the moment there is nothing to suggest a cut in imprints or in publishing output.

What it does mean is that traditional publishing has become even more global in its approach, so the pressure to sell world rights will be increased. The other notable change is that, although Tom Weldon is an editor by origin who has grown up in the traditional publishing business, Charlie Redmayne came into publishing from BSkyB and has a very different approach to his predecessor, with really sensational success in the digital arena to point to.

Perhaps it's all too remote to matter for many authors, who have chosen to make their own way through self-publishing. But even that will be affected by these changes, some of which seem to reassure writers about the health of traditional publishing - and some not.