Quick Thoughts on the Penguin Random House Merger


Hi, this post was in my drafts. For some reason I was too shy to post it. So it’s old news as of like February 20. So sue me.

Naturally Dennis Johnson has some dreadful things to say about the Penguin Random House merger, calling it “one of the most important publishing and cultural stories of our lifetime.” He points to the lack of coverage in the news as a big downplay, and the scandalous lack of government oversight as something that’s hard not to see as a conspiracy.

The first page of André Schiffrin’s The Business of Books discusses how, when Random House acquired AA Knopf in 1960, the DOJ started looking into the merger—until they realized that the combined companies would be worth only $15 million. Why’d they take an interest? Because it was front page news, which isn’t the case anymore (though the combined value of Penguin Random is $3 billion). Why is this Times article, about the US regulator’s approval of the merger, so short?

Johnson speculates that Penguin Random House will be putting out 50% of the literary fiction that makes it into bookstores. I’m like, “What are bookstores?” He also notes that the merger has shut down Penguin’s case against Amazon with that whole Agency Pricing thing for eBooks (which is an important but confusing subject—in a nutshell, Penguin and MacMillan were the last holdouts in a DOJ antitrust suit against the Big Six publishers and Apple for colluding to set prices on their ebooks, as a line of defense against Amazon).

There’s a lot to wring your hands over. But here’s an old (Nov 2012) NYTimes article by Adam Davidson that compares book publishing to the route of the envelope business—more mergers and consolidations. There were still be publishers, just like there are envelopes, but they will be produced by subsidiaries of larger companies that do other things. The crux:

it’s difficult to imagine how, in the digital world, publishers could ever monopolize the sale of written material. Even if there were only one house left, it would compete with every blogger and self-published e-book author. Eventually, it’s likely that book publishing will embody both conflicting visions of digital-age commerce — lots of small businesses and a few massive ones that handle big-ticket items.

That phrase “big-ticket items” reminds me of the way the music industry has reshaped itself around indie bands (you need Ticketmaster to see the Stones but just pay at the door at the cool bar down the street). In response, people who (try to) run small presses (try to) emulate indie rock’s business models somehow, or at least like to wonder why small press books can’t be as successful. Which, like, whatever.

I haven’t been worried about this, or even about the ways Amazon is reshaping publishing, because these huge shifts are nothing if not historical, and life goes on kinda okay maybe. But I’m feeling more and more like this is naïve. What are books, after all, if not one of the last best places that our ideas come from and go into? Oughtn’t we be concerned about who controls that, especially if 1) they only care about the bottom line, and 2) they aren’t even mothafuckin’ publishing companies?