The super league

This week six Premier League football clubs, including Manchester United, Liverpool and Manchester City, as well as some European sides such as Barcelona and Real Madrid, announced their intention to form a breakaway competition known as the European Super League, one which would have seen these top teams compete against each other with no threat of relegation. 

Perhaps uniquely, the plans were rejected by everyone else in the game, from the fans, to players, to the bodies presiding over the other leagues; even the government, not one to eschew the demands of big business, said it would move against its creation. Two days later, having united all of football against them, the six English teams pulled out, claiming, among other things, that they had listened to fans. “We heard you,” said a shamefaced John W Henry, principal owner of Liverpool Football Club.

I raise this not as some kind of football bore, but because there are some clear lessons here for big publishing, particularly as it seeks to grow ever bigger, with a promise to the book community of greater diversity and additional investment in authorship, while at the same time working to maximise profits. And I write this as fan, not just of publishing in general, but also of corporate publishing, which has brought both security and constancy to these often choppy waters. Publishing, it seems to me, is now a well-run enterprise; we rarely hear of publishing companies going bust, or of not paying their authors (though they could pay them more, of course). In fact, the debates we have today around the ethics of publishing, staff salaries, regional offices and inclusion are enabled because publishing is, for the most part, well positioned. Even the pandemic, difficult though it has been on many levels, has barely laid a glove. Agglomeration remains not only our best protection from the vicissitudes of reader choice, but also from those even bigger giants, such as Amazon and Google, that play in our space but use different rules.

Today the UK’s top six publishers make up more than 50% of Nielsen’s Total Consumer Market—a proportion that, despite their best efforts, has increased only slowly over time. Yet in the Super League that is our Top 50 chart they are wholly dominant, taking up 90% of the places this week, with only Canongate, Faber and Hay House the indies among them. The reality today is that market size is now the principal arbiter of what sells and what does not.

We are fortunate in the hardiness of our indigenous sector that includes the corporates and indies alike, and which can accommodate publishing across the UK (see our Scotland Focus). In Canada, according to the journalist and publisher Ken Whyte, writing on Substack (and now here at theBookseller.com), local publishing is being eased out by the import businesses of the majors, which keep “their domestic programs just large enough to ensure the independents don’t amount to anything”. 

Here big publishing does much that is good, including supporting a pyramid structure that allows others to strive. But the hubris that bedevilled the idea of the Super League is not unique to football.