This week both the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority and the Department of Justice in the US announced investigations into the planned $2.2bn acquisition of the publisher Simon & Schuster by Bertelsmann, which already owns Penguin Random House. The merger, if allowed, would see Bertelsmann have almost one-third of English-language book sales. The move follows a year when a population cocooned at home, reaching for comfort reading, inflated the profits of big publishers. Bloomsbury and Pan Macmillan recently announced that they would be returning furlough payments; HarperCollins did not take them.
Many of the UK’s smaller publishers fared rather differently: a Bookseller survey last summer found 60% feared they would cease to exist by autumn. Indies tend not to have the backlists full of household names that, say, a Penguin has; they depend far more on serendipity, on a customer wandering into a shop intending to buy one thing but coming out with something else as well. This happens far less with online shopping; at least one publisher lost up to 90% in sales. Some also found it difficult to qualify for furlough. They took to social media to announce their plight, or to try new selling tactics; some crowdfunded; some received emergency Arts Council England cash. Many were dragged back from the brink, for which we should be grateful.
Large conglomerates are a relatively recent phenomenon; historically, publishing has always been a rather individualistic affair, and it is still not unusual to find presses with a staff of one or two people. Without the pressures of shareholders and marketing departments, “indies” are able to take risks and follow passions. They are also fleet of foot, able to capture the adult colouring book market, for instance, before the behemoths even noticed it might exist. Obviously quality ranges widely, but indies can punch well above their market weight, from the classic examples of Faber, whose office party photos double as modernist pinups, to Galley Beggar Press, the tiny publisher behind the Booker-shortlisted Ducks, Newburyport, and Sandstone Press, the independent publisher based in the Scottish Highlands which put out Jokha Alharthi’s International Booker winner Celestial Bodies.
In seven years running a small publisher, Jacques Testard has printed two Nobel winners – Svetlana Alexievich and Olga Tokarczuk. He compared his job to dragging a 320-tonne steamboat over a muddy hill in the Amazon jungle (even naming his company Fitzcarraldo, after the Werner Herzog film in which this happens). And then, when you’ve achieved your quixotic aim, it’s quite likely that a state-of-the-art heavy-lift helicopter, in the form of a Big Four publishing house, will swoop down and carry it off. Some grouse about this, but others know that tiny companies can find it difficult to manage a suddenly massive author. Large companies, especially in a marketplace that includes the necessity to push back against even larger ones like Amazon, have their place; the challenge is not necessarily to curb them, but to manage, delicately and carefully, the balance of this vibrant ecosystem.