The world is getting smaller, and the tides that lap at our shores now arrive from further away

Once a year The Bookseller reserves the right to tell its trade publishing audience that, contrary to what we may have reported over the past 12 months, it is not the only game in town. This week the Global Ranking—the annual listing of the world’s biggest publishers, compiled by consultant Rüdiger Wischenbart (pp04–05)—shows that four of the biggest groups focus on markets nominally known as “non-trade” (STM, Professional, Education, Academic publications), and that within the top 10 only Penguin Random House, Hachette Livre and Holtzbrinck have sizeable consumer (trade) operations. Of these, PRH is the only pure-play trade house.

A year ago I might have speculated that the schism between these two sides of publishing was closing. The big professional publishers have been ahead of the pack in chasing the global consumer (dollar) and developing platforms to service their audience in format-neutral ways. But the trade houses are beginning to play catch-up—witness the global publishing of Grey this week, or HarperCollins’ capture of Karin Slaughter earlier this year, or the development of Bloomsbury as a publisher of both types of content. But it now seems truer to say that as content format-shifts, publishing shifts form.
Publishers, of course, face a common problem—how to profitably move ideas from A to B—but their responses are now uncommon. Within the trade there is a split between those who are actively exploring new ways of selling to consumers via digital, and those who see the new world as a way of amplifying what they do, but not changing how they do it. Non-trade has become similarly mixed up: much of its audience demands access to content digitally, but there remain some notable hold-outs where such markets are not yet fully realised. In both areas there are indie publishers profitably mining between the cracks—from smaller presses such as Liverpool (LUP) or Edward Elgar, to indies such as Galley Beggar and Search Press—authors looking for an escape hatch, and start-ups hoping to disrupt. The ranking depicts an industry coalescing at the top, but below these supergroups there is more movement than is immediately visible.

The other shift this year is the arrival of the big Chinese groups—indicative both of a widening of our purview, but also the decline in influence of British-owned publishers. We cannot underestimate the importance of the former, or overstate the significance of the latter. The world is getting smaller and the tides that lap at our shores now arrive from further away. Yet as Independent Bookshop Week has shown (see pp16–17), this remains a business where there are many hands at work. That is a common denominator.