2015: The shape of things to come

This time last year I wrote that we were just beginning to see the future shape of conglomerate publishing as the merger of Random House and Penguin rolled on, and the two other giants in the UK HarperCollins and Hachette prepared for their real-estate moves.

One year on, and I could say the same thing. As Penguin Random House chief executive Markus Dohle noted in his year-end letter to staff, 2014 has been a year of getting ready, with the bigger stuff likely to emerge in 2015. “Most of the process changes we’ve laid the groundwork for will take effect next year,” he wrote. “The work ahead will allow us to more fully realize the potential of our new company.”

At Hachette the group is still preparing for co-location and the challenges that will follow the putting together of businesses used to operating within Hachette's much-lauded federal structure. We saw some moves with sales forces merged at Little, Brown and Orion, and the bringing together of its children's businesses under one business head. How consolidated this consolidation is likely to be, remains one of the big questions to be answered in 2015.

HarperCollins' rebirth begins in January when it finds itself relocated from Fulham Palace Road to The Place, next to The Shard in London Bridge, a move that will allow its still newish chief executive Charlie Redmayne to refocus the business within the context (and proximity) of News International's newspaper businesses.

This conglomerate refresh comes at an interesting moment for the trade. Neither fish nor fowl, 2014 has been a mixed year for most publishers.

In books, the big bets mostly failed to work this year, meaning that those publishers doing best will be those with the most diverse lists. Ironically, of course, this plays into the big publishers hands just as much it does smaller players. There was no Sir Alex this year for Hachette's Hodder, but there was Lynda Bellingham. Some of PRH's bigger celeb punts may have failed, but it did have Zoella, Jamie, the surprise hit from Guy Martin, and, of course, Russell Brand. Harper has had David Walliams, the Divergent series, and Brian Cox.

In the end of year analysis, PRH's UK chief executive Tom Weldon nailed it, saying that publishing had demonstrated "its resilience, its diversity and its deep-rooted cultural relevance", despite a "tough" UK market, which meant growth came mainly in children's and export. Publishing also showcased its speed of thought, with brands and concepts such as Minecraft, Loom bands, and the bloggers Alfie Deyes emerging very quickly into a landscape where new trends appear and disappear over night.

There was also a sense of rekindled stability over the year, with the decline in print book sales slowing, and the renewal of Waterstones -- with sales from books up. As m.d. James Daunt said, this growth "in effect answered positively the question whether there is a sustainable, long-term future for the current number of range-holding, dedicated bookshops in the UK".

I thought this was emphasised in two titles that can only really work in a world where there are thousands of booksellers championing such titles: H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald and The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton. Both prize-winners, and at a time when publishing's worth is ever questioned, they demonstrate it.

In digital the market was more difficult to call, though this analysis on FutureBook might help. Overall, the urgency that has characterised this market for sometime now, lessened, and the landscape appeared more subdued in 2014. In retrospect it might come to been seen as a year of reckoning: the dial didn't move, there was no platform shift, and no significant new device. Some start-ups folded, and many new initiatives were shuttered. The big news was around subscription, and the rise of Oyster and Scribd, and that, I think, will continue to be a major focus for 2015.

It is now clear that Amazon lost its long, and troubling battle with Hachette signing an agency contract, after first coming to similar terms with Simon & Schuster, and then later with Macmillan. Since the big publishers have now regained control over their e-book prices, one might conclude that their best bit of business happened behind closed doors. As Carolyn Reidy, president and c.e.o of Simon & Schuster in the US, said in her end of year letter, the publisher had a successful year when it came to "the business of our business", naming the publisher's multi-year agreement with Amazon as one of its highlights.

Macmillan's c.e.o. John Sargent was similarly robust in his blog. Clearly still wincing at having to settle with the Department of Justice in 2013, Sargent took the opportunity of his latest missive to point out the obvious flaws in the DOJ's case against publishing, while articulating what has become apparent this year: that subscription is another way of fighting back against Amazon.

“In reaching agreement with Amazon, we have not addressed one of the big problems in the digital marketplace. Through great innovation and prodigious amounts of risk and hard work, Amazon holds a 64% market share of Macmillan’s e-book business. As publishers, authors, illustrators, and agents, we need broader channels to reach our readers.”

By these broader channels, I think, he means Scribd, Oyster et al, leaving Amazon's subscription product Kindle Unlimited starved of big publisher content. In short, these agency deals are not just about e-book pricing, they are also about taking control over the wider marketplace again.

Of course 2015 is not going to be without its bumps. Amazon is still hugely dominant and domineering, the high street fragile, and small pubishers increasingly struggling for space. Nevertheless, there is a sense going into 2015 that with the market robust, the larger battles behind them, and the new business models in front of them, the big publishers have an opportunity once again to shape this - not be reshaped.