Late last year, Hachette UK announced a consolidation of its many London offices into one location on London’s Embankment. It was described as “a bricks and mortar move”—one designed to enjoy the benefits of having a centralised location, without diminishing the federalist structure that has served the corporates well.
This week Penguin Random House announced the creation of one giant children’s publishing business, merging the formidable and individual operations currently based at the Strand and in Ealing under one management, overseen by Penguin Children’s m.d Francesca Dow, with RHCP’s Philippa Dickinson taking a step back before retiring in 2015.
I hesitate before reading too much into these corporate shifts. PRH chief executive Tom Weldon is right to point to the uniqueness of the children’s marketplace, telling The Bookseller that there are no plans to combine the adult divisions in the same way.
Weldon has highlighted children’s publishing for years as a cornerstone of growth. He is right to. The figures speak for themselves. A decade ago children’s books accounted for a quarter of all printed book sales by volume, now they are up to a third. Some of the biggest brands in the media world—Disney, Skylanders, Lego, Harry Potter—are focused on children.
The value of imprints
Nevertheless, publishing cannot carry on as if the world around it has not shifted, and we cannot pretend these moves aren’t part of a new reality. One might think that much about publishing has changed in the past decade. But some important things have not: imprints, such as Jonathan Cape, Michael Joseph, Black Swan and Puffin still retain separate identities, with their cultures underpinned by distinctiveness of employees, authors and location.
This week we report that Penguin’s Pelican imprint is flying again after 30 years in the nest. The zeitgeist might be against “the imprint”—important to insiders, but not to readers, so we are told—but these parts should not be under-estimated, since they often outperform the whole.
In an interview in The Bookseller in November, Orion’s chief executive David Young said of Random House’s decision to keep Transworld in Ealing in the noughties: “They’ll change that at their peril.” It was not a flippant statement. The publishing body is a fragile thing: expecting it to do different things and flourish may lead to disappointment.
We may think, with publishing’s smooth transition to digital behind us, that the road ahead is clear. But this is unlikely. Digital will continue to disrupt, print to waver. The new business models (such as subscription) may not be as lucrative as the ones being replaced. Even the brands, as we learn this week, are not so secure.
There are difficult choices ahead - for all.