The contrasts between big and small publishing never cease to throw up points of interest about how this business works. This week’s edition of The Bookseller explores these edges in some depth, with profiles of Atlantic’s new c.e.o. Will Atkinson and Planeta’s Jesús Badenes and Santos Palazzi, as well as an analysis of indie publishing. For reference, Atlantic is (thereabouts) the UK’s 48th biggest trade publishing company, while Planeta is Spain’s largest publisher and the eighth biggest publisher in the world (it also owns Editis, the second largest publishing group in France).
The two companies occupy different worlds. Planeta operates in climates (Spain and France) where publishing is largely protected from commercial forces by fixed price agreements. Its home market is on the slide, and alarmingly impacted by piracy, but by keeping control of prices publishers have retained strong retail channels — Spain boasts 8,000 bookshops. Little wonder that Badenes is confident of a return to growth when the economy picks up.
Atkinson has less reason to feel assured: Atlantic has been on the brink for years, undermining both its ability to market the titles it has and to acquire new content to bolster its lists. Small publishers often have troubling lean years, but what almost killed Atlantic was its year of fat, when the standout success of Aravind Adiga’s début, The White Tiger, convinced former c.e.o. Toby Mundy to pursue expansion. That was 2008 — and the rest is history. Atlantic is now 80% owned by Australian firm Allen & Unwin and Atkinson believes he can put it back in the game. I wouldn’t put it past him.
One might think that is a sentimental view — Quercus, Constable & Robinson, Osprey and Mainstream have all fallen by the wayside in recent years, with their lists and names subsumed into new corporate homes.
Conventional logic suggests that to deal with today’s giant retailers one needs to be equally big, or at least protected by the umbrella of a larger parent — or, in the case of many indies, an alliance. But books are like Teflon when it comes to agglomeration: they tend to slip through the mesh (We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves, rejected by Penguin but picked up by Serpent’s Tail, being one good recent example). This week’s Lead Story suggests that indies remain in good health — pioneering in D2C strategies and sharp-elbowed in trade negotiations. Around 300 (of infinite variety) will gather at next month’s IPG Conference, with presentations from Amazon, Waterstones and Blackwell’s underlining their importance.
The corporates show how publishing at scale is adapting to these occasionally choppy waters, but the welfare of indies is the true test of sustainability.