The rocket league

Between 1950 and 1970s, the US and the Soviet Union (USSR) spent millions in an attempt to beat each other into space. The activity, known as the Space Race, led to a technological leap, paving the way for many of the things we take for granted today, including GPS, powdered milk and the PC mouse. Publishing has never quite made it into orbit, but just as the world changed once the US landed Apollo 11 on the Moon, so publishing was irrevocably altered by its own celestial eclipse: the 2013 merger of Penguin with Random House.

In the run-up to the mega-coupling, Random House and Hachette had long duked it out to be top dog in the UK, with Hachette ahead at the turn of the last decade thanks, in large part, to the runaway success of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series. With digital just beginning to make its mark, it was a period when print success made the difference to the publisher rankings, with Random House only leaping over Hachette again in 2012, thanks to E L James’ own leftfield take on Meyer’s chaste vampires.

The rest is, um, history. As this week’s publisher league table shows, PRH has an unassailable lead over the rest—a gigantic market share of 21%, making it bigger now than the next two, Hachette and HarperCollins, combined.

Elsewhere, there is little movement. Bloomsbury’s market share has inched up by a tenth of a percentage point over the past 10 years, taking it into fifth, largely at the expense of the academics, who now do proportionately more of their business outside the Nielsen-measured print book universe. Simon & Schuster, also up a tenth of a percent, is ninth, exactly where it was way back when. The brash new element is Bonnier Books, having spent much of the past few years trying to crash the party. It now has. Pan Macmillan is the fast-grower, up a remarkable 25% in one year, yet after a decade of growth, with sales up 66% since 2009, it remains behind PRH, Hachette and HarperCollins, just as it was at the turn of the last decade. Not to diminish the achievements, but this rocketman will need to refuel for the next giant leap.

The curiosity is Hachette, for so long—and, for the purposes of this analogy—the USSR to RH’s US. In 2019 its sales fell 2.7%, with a market share of 12.2%, way off its 2009 high of 16%. While much has remained the same since P joined RH, Hachette has not, consolidating its divisions within one building, and broadening its business with smart acquisitions, such as Bookouture, Quercus, JKP and Short Books. What it has not done is chase the market. If there was an element of vanity about the Space Race, it is hard not to read Hachette’s settling into second as an effort to put profit before growth, to focus on maintaining its bloc, rather than re-engaging in a disorderly hustle for the top. 

I don’t wish to overstate it. Both Russia and the US continued to develop their space programmes, as do other smaller countries, and every publisher wants to publish hits. But if the destination has changed, we might want to stop howling at the Moon when we don’t get there.