Noisy neighbours

Being the biggest only makes sense if you can also be the best. Last year four of the 10 bestselling print titles of the year were published by either Penguin Random House or Hachette UK. But of those four, only one — Jeff Kinney's The Long Haul — was first published in 2014. This may be a one off. There is a sense that both PRH and Hachette are preparing for the years ahead: when their relative sizes (PRH had 23% of the Total Consumer Market in 2014, Hachette 13%), combined with the fact they are about to become neighbours along the Thames, will colour how we think about publishing in the long term. 

There are striking similarities. The task that the management of each company shares is how to run competitive units within a corporate superstructure, without damaging the federalist spirit that has served publishing well. At Hachette UK, c.e.o. Tim Hely Hutchinson believes its new offices at Carmelite House, 50 Victoria Embankment—which will house all of Hachette’s UK companies in one building for the first time—will enable it to work better together, with publishing “inspiration” backed by the group’s commercial heft. At PRH, its global chief executive Markus Dohle said this week that its combined business had in 2014 “made a powerful statement: We are stronger together”. 

Both groups see the agglomeration as attractive. Hely Hutchinson wants the new building to be a visible “magnet” for talent, an expectation PRH UK chief executive Tom Weldon also has of his group. 

They share a confidence in publishing, but a coolness about new business models, particularly subscription and direct to consumer—”the existing model works really well,” Hely Hutchinson told me. Growth will come from new product, and from reaching consumers. For Hachette, there is also room for acquisitions, though Hely Hutchinson says it is key that ”there is not a customer of ours for whom we are not important”.

Their rivals will not stand still either. HarperCollins has already acquired Harlequin Mills & Boon, and last year put out the biggest book published in 2014; Pan Macmillan was the only big group to grow through the TCM last year, and in 2015 it has poached from both Hachette (Kate Mosse) and PRH (Danielle Steel). Bonnier, too, wants a seat at this top table.

This is all good news. The transition to digital brought with it an odd period, when publishing’s guns have been focused rather more on dealing with the tech disruption than on each other. That may be changing, with the volume already rising. Remove the World Book Day titles from the first quarter chart, and between them PRH and Hachette published eight out of the 10 top sellers across the past 12 weeks.