Maybe I’m just not looking at it in the right way, but I don’t see why a Bertelsmann bid for Simon & Schuster would represent anything more significant than even greater size for the world’s biggest trade publishing conglomerate. Joseph Esposito at The Scholarly Kitchen seems to see the strengthening PRH Publisher Services as the motive for such an acquisition.

Now providing services — sales, warehousing, distribution, and supporting analytics — has I think generally been regarded as a smart way to amortize your costs for providing these services to your own publishing company or companies. Publishers have been doing this sort of thing for years. When I started out in the business in 1965 we were providing exactly these services in London to the University of California Press and Melbourne University Press. If you’re going to fund back-office operations and a warehouse, why not get help from a few other publishers by doing back-office and warehousing work for them?

It is however a little surprising to find this sort of business being looked on as its own profit center motivating a possible takeover. But I guess the service-providing publisher will charge enough to cover their costs plus a bit more. You just have to pitch your charges at a point below the cost to an independent publishing house of providing these services on their own, and you’re off to the races. In principal there’s no reason why we shouldn’t have one vast publishing services operation with lots of little editorial companies feeding product into the machine. Maybe the very success of the current regime of working from home will end up making the splitting up of the book business into this sort of structure more likely.

Mr Esposito tells us that a “360° company is one whose strategy looks and reaches in all directions”. I find this a bit hard to visualize. The concept of the 360º company seems to have originated with a book by Sarah Kaplan, with that title, which was published last year by Stanford University Press. However Professor Kaplan seems to see the 360º company as one which is set up in opposition to “Milton Friedman’s dictum that ‘the social responsibility of business is to increase its profits’” — so a company which takes into account the needs of its workers, suppliers, customers, neighbors in addition to those of its shareholders. Mr Esposito apparently wants it to be a company which seeks to control its entire environment. So upstream: authors and agents beware. (He doesn’t promote that age-old upstream junction: owning your own printing plant!) Downstream: maybe we’ll be negotiating smaller discounts to bookstores. And a bit vaguely, left and right, we’ll be taking over the publishing functions for all the other publishers.

Sounds a bit like an update of the rallying cry of “synergy” which was all the rage at the end of the last century when I worked for a company owned by Viacom, thus linked to Simon & Schuster, and apparently in position to benefit from all the television programming and movies our parent controlled. The only effect I ever noticed was that we had a television set in every conference room which came in handy when there was a day game in a World Series involving the Yankees.

Mr Esposito informs us that “It is axiomatic in the publishing industry that you can unbundle everything except for editorial.” Axiom makes it sound like we are always saying this as we gather at the water cooler: we don’t. But I think we are all alive to the possibility that our jobs could be outsourced: which may be a potent force in keeping pay rates down. Publishing service offerings already include production and manufacturing, so you could really start your publishing company with a single employee, the editor. Of course this might sound a lot like self publishing. However, a big organization like Ingram or PRHPS is not going to be too eager to sign up a “publisher” with a single title on their “list”. But there are of course smaller operations in town, even down to the individual freelance worker.

One reason for buying S&S, Mr Esposito hints, might be to head off Amazon or Ingram. I guess that might make sense. They both provide publishing services, Ingram more extensively as far as the trade is concerned than Amazon. I keep arguing that book publishing wants to be small-scale, but events do constantly seem work in the opposite direction. Could both positions be correct? Maybe that’s the true answer: trade publishing wants to get bigger, 360º, while academic and specialist publishing seeks to get smaller, like a 15º company. Under  such a regime 360º companies would execute all the centralizable functions that PRH Services provide, while little editorial driven 15º companies thrive and multiply, paying the likes of PRHPS for services.