Taking flight

Taking flight

As the merger between Penguin and Random House nears closure, the global ranking of the big publishing groups (pp19–20) reminds us that even with projected sales of £2.5bn, PRH will not rank as the world's largest publisher. More worryingly, it will also be somewhat behind other media businesses. Yet in July, the combined entity will become the world's largest trade publisher, and with that great might comes great opportunity.

This week we asked a range of individuals what advice they would give the new management team: the opinions varied from the wild ("bring back the NBA"), to the more achievable ("restructuring publishing around readers"), to the essential ("protect the printed book").

One of the more intriguing suggestions came from US indie Dennis Johnson, who recommended splitting the businesses up into their essential components, Penguin, Knopf and so on. I wouldn't echo this, but Johnson is getting at something: how to maintain the key qualities that define an imprint within the global structure created in order to fulfill the ambitions behind the merger.

The global ranking illustrates the issue. As publishing groups go, size isn't everything. The biggest publisher on the list is Pearson with publishing-related sales of €7bn, yet even within this global ranking there are relatively diminutive publishers, with sales closer to €200m. The average size of a top 50 ranked publisher is just €1bn. Other sectors might be similarly stretched, but at the top they tend to be bigger: Disney has sales worth more than $40bn; Comcast more than $60bn; Microsoft $70bn; Amazon $61bn. If PRH wants to be a player in this world, it'll need to punch well above its weight. But it'll also need to defy the bookish gravity that—for a multitude of reasons—has so far prevented the sector from flying higher.

The ranking also points to the opportunity: one of the more subtle changes over the years has been in those businesses at the top that have reoriented themselves around digital, and those declining enterprises that have not.

The challenge for global publishers is how they get from here to there without forgetting the qualities that got them here in the first place. A new study, helpfully about penguins, has concluded they don't fly because they don't have to. They found fish in the water and chose swimming. Publishing businesses don't have this option: they have to do both.