This article, by Stephen Page, originally appeared on the Guardian UK Books Blog on 1/7/13.
Richard Ford’s brilliant new novel Canada opens audaciously: “First, I’ll tell you about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later”. An account of the dramas in publishing last year might begin in similar vein: “First, I’ll tell you about Agency pricing and the Department of Justice. Then about the mergers that happened later.”
2012 was a fascinating year in publishing, a year of accelerated change, culminating in the Penguin Random merger. 2013 has kicked off with Pearson (Penguin’s owner) investing in the Nook e-reader. Whatever one might think about the wisdom of these strategies, both these events are bold moves in the war for the heart of the reader, and indicate dramatic change.
For some time the market for writing has been in demonstrable good health in the UK, with a large audience buying a great number of books. From the rise of Waterstones in the 1980s, through the mass-market explosion of the 90s, and more recently the arrival of writing for the web and the ebook with the new self-publishing model, UK readers have been a substantial, various audience with an appetite for books and reading. The hunger has been for writing from around the world, but it is especially well-served by a highly productive community of writers in Britain and Ireland, many of whom are read across the globe. Reading and writing are strong in the UK, not in crisis.
The revolution is happening in the pipeline between writers and their readers. The merger of Penguin and Random House currently taking place will create a large and powerful international publishing business that has at its disposal the most powerful and well-known consumer books brand in the world: Penguin. The move should not be misread as a retreat or a simple attempt to drill out cost but as a direct move towards the consumer and against the technology businesses that have become powerful in the market. It will be followed by further aggregation of the largest publishers – talks have been reported between HarperCollins and Simon and Schuster.
So what does this mean for reading, writing and publishing? It is certainly a dramatic opening chord in a new movement, a movement that will be high tempo and full of development of familiar subjects in new ways.