07 February 2006

Media Concentration in Publishing Marches On

Hachette, already the largest publisher in France and New Zealand, and the second largest in the United Kingdom, Australia and Spain, is now the third-largest publisher in the world with today's aquistion of Anglo-American publisher Time Warner Books. The two largest book publishing groups in the world remain the UK's Pearson (Penguin, etc.) and Germany's Bertelsmann (Random House, etc.). Man, if people read books, Europe would control the world!

Speaking of ruling the world, let's talk about about media concentration. After the Vivendi Universal débâcle, Hachette owned such a large share of the publishing market in France that the European Union had to step in and force it to sell off some of its publishing empire. It remained nonetheless the largest French publisher by a comforable margin. American publisher André Schiffrin, the longtime head of Pantheon Books (before they were aquired by Random House and he was eventually forced out), addresses the problems of media concentration and the aquisition of publishers by large conglomerates in his three books L'édition sans éditeurs, The Business of Books and Le contrôle de la parole (all are highly recommened!). He explains the enjeux much better than I can, but I'll briefly convey my issues with the way things are headed.

The first problem is that big business that don't understand publishing expect every book to make a profit. They simply see their shiny new book business as a touch of class and a new profit centre. They are unaquainted with the traditional model of publishing in which a publisher's most successful titles subsidize those that meet with less initial success. Some books will lose money. This is done because it is thought that while an author's first book might not make money, if his career is nutured they can profit from the talent they know he has (they would publish authors they believe in, not rubbish ones that they think might earn them a quick profit) as his reputation grows. They grow his audience, and then the audience will come back and buy his backlist. There was some sense that a book was not just a commodity like another, that it had some value beyond the money it could bring in. Hence, some books would be published simply because the content was deemed to be important, regardless of the potential for profit, present or future. Gallimard is a prime example of this practice, and today they hold the position of the largest independent publisher in France. It has been said that they have the best backlist in the world (Proust, Camus, Gide, Sartre, Cocteau, Beauvoir, etc). All of this is releated to the French concept of the exception culturelle, that culture should somehow be treated differently and not entirely left to the market.

The second problem is that as publishers are bought up and grouped together, there are fewer people deciding on which books will eventually make it into the shops. They could still be making the great decisions and publishing great books. The fact that the power to make those decisions are concentrated in fewer and fewer hands will be reflected in the resultant output. A narrower range of voices get through and the public debate suffers.

All of this having been said, and keeping in mind that I do realise that when we are dealing with huge publicly-traded companies nationality doesn't matter, part of me (the incorrible europhile I suppose) is somehow reassured by the fact that it's Europe that's building these great publishing empires. Hopefully this is less an end to democracy and more a first step to Mark Leonard's better, brighter future.