November 2, 2012

Why the Random Penguin merger could be good for indie publishers


The news that Penguin and Random House will merge into one large frankenpublisher sent shockwaves through the book industry as the frankenstorm lashed the northeast. The move is motivated by bad news—declining sales and troubled chains—and has inspired fears that there will be more bad news to come for the publishing industry. Agents and authors worry they will lose competition for advances, there’s a sense that the other big four publishers (Simon & Schuster, Hachette, Macmillan, and HarperCollins) will navigate mergers next, and publishing employees wonder about layoffs.

And that’s just the beginning—Jack Shafer offered more negative notes in his Reuters opinion piece “Mergers alone won’t save the book industry”:

The Penguin-Random House merger would theoretically give the new company more leverage in the pricing fights with Amazon et. al. But as important as that struggle for control might be, it still leaves Penguin-Random House operating in a moribund and hidebound enterprise that looks and acts like something out of the 18th century. Book publishers are playing against a stacked deck. They don’t own the distribution channels, they don’t own the stores, they don’t control any proprietary technologies or patents, they’re terrible at inventing new products, and the market value of their brands is dwindling. Plus, their most valuable properties, their writers, are free agents who don’t really belong to them.

This merger—and other book industry consolidation to come—is less about winning than it is losing more slowly.

But could there be a glimmer of hope in all of this pessimism? On The Guardian’s Books Blog yesterday, Gavin James Bower, editorial director at UK independent publisher Quartet Books, offered a positive spin on the conglomerate consolidation, speculating that the merger might offer opportunities for indie publishers.

[T]his could well be an opportunity for independent publishing to prove its vitality…. In any recession, the vanguard is to be found beyond the mainstream—and risks taken by those typically seen as outsiders. Indies, as they always do, will be seen as the risk-takers in a climate of doom and gloom, nurturing talent and publishing books not deemed safe enough for the panicky, profit-driven corporations.

Beyond the nimble risk taking, adventurous spirit, and willingness to publish books that may not be blockbusters, perhaps the small scale of indie publishers allows for niche consumer appeal. As the biggies fold into one or two major giants, a proliferation of small independent publishers could make an impact by working with the basic ideas outlined in Colin Robinson’s ten tenants of publishing—ideas like selective publishing, a focus on editing and design, quick turnaround, and internet sales—creating an environment that allows small publishers to experiment with sales models and creative marketing ideas while publishing new and varied voices.



Claire Kelley is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House.