Our book publishing companies keep getting bigger and bigger. How far can it go? We see consolidation in all industries of course. Break-ups seem rarer — are they just less newsworthy? Will every industry end up represented by a single firm? Could monopoly actually be good for us? I suppose it might be, if only human beings were as straightforward and honest as we liberals always like to believe they really are. Evidence in support of our optimism is however painfully sparse. It matters not, as concentration seems set to continue. Of course every consolidation shakes out a few laid-off individuals who may set up their own little publishing companies; so we keep getting lots of new tiny firms which can grow into take-over targets in a few years, and so the cycle continues.

According to The Millions, Julie Bak tells us in Boom!: Manufacturing Memoir for the Popular Market (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2013) that between 1960 and 2001 there were 1,250 mergers in the publishing business. Sounds like a lot even when you divide it down to about 30 a year. I do have a feeling that the pace has slowed down a bit now though, in part no doubt for macro-economic reasons, but of course mergers and acquisitions do still happen in the book business. The siren call of efficiencies through scale has been allowed to overwhelm the self-evident (to this self anyway) fact that publishing is fundamentally a small-scale business. At bottom it’s the offering to individual readers of the writing of an individual author. Now of course if you are a James Patterson your publisher can link you up with lots of readers but each separate book is totally different box of cereal, bar of soap, can of peas from all the others. It’s a container-full of words, true, but the words are different in each item. The processing that’s done in each case is, however, exactly the same whether the publisher in question publishes 10,000, 1,000, 100, 10, or 1 book a year. There’s no efficiency of scale in signing contracts, acquiring books, setting up computer records, editing, copyediting, designing, fixing prices and print runs: Penguin Random House just does each of these functions 15,000 times over every year. The operation of each function is pretty much identical to the same function carried out by the publisher of a single book.

Such efficiencies as there are in book publishing come in the other areas: sales and distribution mainly, and all the back office, accounting functions that can be combined when two companies are merged. Efficiencies in production and manufacturing amount principally to the acquisition of wider shoulders. If you demand favorable treatment from manufacturer A for your $50,000 manufacturing budget, manufacturer A may say “No, why not try B”. But if you’re shopping a spend of $1,000,000, discounts will probably be readily available. Small-is-beautiful-ist that I am, I rather suspect that the existence of these very discounts tends toward boring standardization and occasional overproduction — a few hundred copies here a few thousand there: after all they cost almost nothing! — whereas an individual negotiation will lead to a price satisfactory to both parties.

The main boost from an acquisition may end up being the backlist and books already signed up but not yet published. An editor can only sign up so many books in any year: maybe there’s a slight “efficiency” gain in the fact that a larger company will be able to afford larger advances — but just writing these words forces one to acknowledge their obvious downside.

Are there signs now that Big Five acquisitions are not quite so much focussed on other book publishing companies? Recent targets have included digital creators, digital distributors, marketing companies. I wonder if trade publishing is about to hive off into a sort of mini-movie-company-model where huge investments yield huge returns (with a fair share of huge busts too) — maybe it already has and we just haven’t taken notice yet. Of course it’ll probably prove hard to resist the lure of eating your cake and having it too, and PRH, for instance, may be reluctant to focus solely on the razzmatazz of Becoming, and give up their safe sale of Robert Penn Warren’s books. Brother to Dragons surely cannot sell more than a hundred copies a year, but of course the beauty of backlist books is that there are thousands and thousands of them. But logic has its own logic.

See also Consolidation continues from three years back.