This post, by Mike Shatzkin, originally appeared on The Shatzkin Files blog on 11/26/12.
So now in addition to the Random House and Penguin merger that is being reviewed by governments far and wide, we have the news that HarperCollins is exploring a tie-up with Simon & Schuster in a deal that hasn’t been made yet. That leaves Hachette and Macmillan, among the so-called Big Six, still on the outside as the general trade publishing behemoths rearrange themselves for whatever is the next stage of book publishing’s existence.
I am not sure we really need an “explanation” for what is the resumption of a perfectly natural phenomenon. Big publishers have been merging with each other for several decades in a process that suddenly stopped after Bertelsmann acquired Random House (to add to its holding of Bantam Doubleday Dell) in 1998. We didn’t know it at the time, but that concluded a long string of mergers that had recently included Penguin’s acquisition of Putnam-Berkley, but which stretched back to the 1970s when pursuit of the paperback-hardover synergy had driven Viking and Penguin; Doubleday and Dell; and Random House-Ballantine and Fawcett into each other’s arms.
(Perhaps HarperCollins should get credit for the resumption of the era of consolidation. Their acquisition of Christian publisher Thomas Nelson, combined with their holding of Zondervan, created a powerful position in one of publishing’s biggest vertical markets shortly before Penguin and Random House announced their plans.)
But consequential events always get an explanation, whether they deserve one or not, and this merger appears to many to be driven by consolidation among the retail intermediaries and the rational concern — amply documented by recent experience — that the retailers would use their leverage to press for more and more margin. This is complicated by the fact that both of the dominant retailers — Amazon in the online world and Barnes & Noble in the brick-and-mortar space — have small publishing operations of their own that are always available to put additional pressure on publishers at the originating end of the value chain.
There is an important asymmetry to take note of here. The retailers publish and are always a threat to acquire manuscripts directly and cut the publishers out but the publishers, particularly the biggest ones, don’t do retail and there is no obvious path for them to enter retailing in any significant way. (That last sentence was written with full cognizance that we await the debut of Bookish, which is an attempt by three of the Big Six to enter retailing in a significant way. Maybe when concrete plans for it are announced there will be some reasons provided to amend that thought.)
In my opinion, the dominant position that Amazon holds in online retailing and that B&N owns in shops are impregnable on their own terms in ways that the positions of each of the big publishers are not.
The threat to Barnes & Noble is that bookstores will become unsustainable: that a retailer trying to exist at scale with books as its primary product offering will, because of ebooks and online purchasing of print, simply become unviable. The threat to Amazon is more nuanced and more distant. One can imagine a world developing where content retailing evolves into niches by subject or tastemaker. But that world is not around the corner (an environment toxic to bookstore chains appears to be much closer) and it would be far easier to imagine how Amazon could adapt to niche online retailing than to see B&N adapting to deliver retail book selections that are only viable at a fraction of their current size.
(I consulted to them a decade ago and suggested that to no interest. They were shutting down their mall stores at the time and the idea seemed totally counterintuitive. I’ve also written about it.)