Is big still best?
One trend over the last few years at Frankfurt has been the ever-bigger stands of the major international groups. Some are so big you can't work out what the various imprints are called any more, and you can spend many precious minutes searching for the designated table for your meeting, which may be all that's left to represent a once-great publishing house.
These monolithic stands are certainly best for access to hot coffee and open sandwiches, but what advantages are there for being part of one of them? One advantage for the big guys must be the creation of a worldwide strategy for the digital future together with the prevention of duplication of effort, and the access to central funds to pay for it all. Surprising then how few UK and American branches of the same companies are working together, with some even offering different royalty terms within the same groups.
Still, if there is no single digital strategy, then presumably sister companies don't have to waste precious time arguing about territorial rights. Well, no, because most of them have thus far been unable to agree among themselves.
Then there's the argument about diversity in large groups—if a conglomerate owns a range of imprints in different countries, then presumably some will have strong years while others can be carried through weaker ones. But if that is the case, why is such enormous pressure placed on everyone to increase profitability year-on-year?
In fact, the very cost of some of the superstructures necessary for global giants may be one of the causes of increasingly homogenous publishing. If publishers have to deliver a profit margin sufficient to pay for it all, they may be driven to produce certain types of books that seem to promise large rewards when they succeed, but which also involve huge advances and, usually, huge risk of failure too—for evidence see the current outpouring of celebrity books for Christmas.
When these big international groups were formed, there were obvious synergies to be found. But once you have centralised the accounting function, closed a few warehouses and built a newer, bigger and more modern one and amalgamated sales forces, is there much more cost-cutting that can be done?
The mood of the times is changing. There is a return to be made from publishing good books but perhaps not sufficient to pay for atriums and limousines. Could it be that some conglomerates are just too big, too costly and no longer offer value for money.