And Then There Were Four: Book Publishing and Oligopoly

Most people would be surprised to learn that there are only five major English-language book publishers on the planet. Book-publishing isn’t as glamorously naughty as, say, the oil industry, so this concentration of industry power largely exists outside popular consciousness. Besides, the existence of imprints (trade names) disguises the situation. Your average reader will have probably heard of Viking Press, and assumed it to be a publisher. And, yes, it once was. These days, it’s owned by Penguin Random House, for whom the imprint represents a particular brand.

For anyone other than company shareholders, this is not a great situation. It’s what economists call an Oligopoly – not quite a bona fide Monopoly, but not far off either, since only a handful of firms control the publication of most books in the Anglophone World.

In more concrete terms, writers have less bargaining power versus the publisher – where else are they going to go? Readers have to pay higher prices, as profit-maximisation encourages a cut in quantity supplied. Cultural discourse itself becomes more narrow, since these books are the literature that reflects, entertains, stimulates, and inspires the twenty-first century West. Sure, there are always Small Presses (like my publisher) or self-publishing… but they’re small by definition, and readers are often reluctant to take a risk. Good luck getting a self-published book into your local bookshop, where the vast majority of items are being produced by one of the Big Five.

The five companies in question?

  • Penguin Random House
  • Hachette Book Group
  • Harper Collins
  • Simon and Schuster
  • Macmillan

And, wait, dear reader… it gets worse. As of this week, Penguin Random House has bought out Simon and Schuster for a mere $US 2 billion:

https://www.cnbc.com/2020/11/25/viacomcbs-sells-simon-schuster-to-penguin-random-house-for-2-billion.html

The Big Five has just become the Big Four. And one of those Big Four is now rather larger than the other three. 34% of books published in the United States (and 70% of general fiction) are now Penguin. Not that one should feel much sympathy for the others in the oligarchy… the complainants in the article already own Harper Collins, and besides, they’re Rupert Murdoch’s merry men.

Now, to be fair, the situation is a bit more complex than mere corporate greed (though that is a hefty part of it). This Atlantic article argues that this is just book publishers responding to Amazon’s market leverage:

https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/11/penguin-random-house-simon-schuster-monster-about-amazon/617209/

Amazon as the greater-scope villain behind the book publishers? Does Jeff Bezos moonlight as Emperor Palpatine? Maybe. But from the viewpoint of the people who write books, it isn’t Amazon who sends them the rejection letters, and who decides what will be published traditionally. Amazon merely controls the process by which books are bought and sold, not what the books are, and indeed self-published authors find the platform necessary to get their stuff out there at all. In terms of gate-keeping, the industry may kick downwards, but it is the Big Four who kick readers and writers, not Amazon.

If the full-weight of anti-monopoly law (insofar as it still exists in the modern political environment) needs to be brought to bear against Amazon, that does not in any way excuse the book publisher oligarchy. After all, while the publishers may have the luxury of turning themselves into a cartel to fight Amazon, it is not as if authors and readers can do the same to take on the publishers.

In the meantime, one can only hope that the independents (small presses and self-publishing) preserve at least some variety in Anglophone reading material…

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