Who wants whom

Like the characters of a Jilly Cooper novel, publishing companies enjoy many tangled relationships, with some assignations going back decades.

In the 1990s The Bookseller tried to make sense of all this, ahem, attraction with the publication of a number of supplements—Who Owns Whom—that charted the changes in ownership of publishing imprints over the years. Later editions included a family tree, beginning with names such as John Murray (1768), A & C Black (1807), Collins (1819), Cassell (1840), Hutchinson and The Bodley Head (both 1887) and culminating in their then parents, W H Smith, Bloomsbury, NewsCorp, Hachette and Bertelsmann. The sense was that such entanglements were hard to put off: Faber being the only publisher founded before 1930 that was still single.

The view today is not much different. Penguin and Random House have fallen in together, of course. Hachette UK continues to look for new blood (including, this week, e-book publisher Bookouture). HarperCollins has swooped for Harlequin, and Swedish group Bonnier has come to the ball, with its UK business now a major suitor for companies (such as John Blake) and lists. Much of this has been put down to a quest for supremacy, but also the more recent argument that the internet rewards scale.

Yet to imagine that publishing now is simply a story of agglomeration would be wrong. This week HarperCollins launched a new website (200.hc.com) to mark 200 years since James and John Harper began printing books in the US, and 198 since William Collins set up shop in Glasgow. Over that period HC has acquired (at least) six different publishers, with the two halves (Harper and Collins) brought together by NewsCorp in the late ‘80s. But the real story from the past is less about the bolt-on growth and more about the necessary innovation and reinvention along the way—from Collins' 1953 purchase of the publisher of The Chronicles of Narnia series, the 1999 acquisition of US mass-market publisher William Morrow, the acquisition of Fourth Estate (which included the recruitment of Victoria Barnsley) and, more recently, the purchase of Harlequin. The innovation came from new printing techniques and experiments in form and content, including in 1917, the ‘bubble’ book, a book and record in one bundle.

One need not become dewy-eyed about this, acquisitions are tough and some publishers are best left on the shelf. But the fashionable view that big publishing will consolidate further, whittled down to two mammoth groups large enough to go head to head with the giant tech firms, is not necessarily supported by history.

Not all publishing deals are about size. Many, such as that of Bookouture, are about acquiring talent, access to new markets, or fresh thinking. Marriages, you might say, of convenience.