Do Publishers Need a Bigger Boat?

If HarperCollins does merge with Simon & Schuster will that be good news for writers? Or, for that matter, readers?

One possibility is that the acquisitions boom of the nineties/early noughties which was fuelled by the last big round of publishing mergers will be disinterred and it will be good times for authors again.

But that seems unlikely. This isn’t about market share. There will undoubtedly be some massive fights for big, brand, list-defining authors. And there will be the occasional debuts which will go for extraordinary sums if publishing group-think locks into place and they all decide to fight for the same book.

But for the vast majority of authors there will simply be fewer people to sell to and less chance of having any kind of negotiating position if they do get an offer.

It is impossible to believe that a diverse, creative, risk-taking industry will be the result of creating ever-bigger corporate juggernauts.

The irony is that publishers feel they are being forced into clumping together as a response to the threat posed to them by the new market conditions, but that response may itself hasten their demise.

It is, funnily enough, a problem also faced by Amazon, the company that has done the most to bring about these new market conditions. It has gone to all of this time and expense to create a publishing division, which is in effect competing—not very effectively—with its retail side’s support for the self-publishing community.

It will become increasingly hard for new authors to be published by major publishers and increasingly attractive (and socially acceptable) to choose the self-published route to market, and that in turn will boost the creation of an infrastructure that will make self-publishing increasingly easy.

That is not to say that traditional publishing will die – as long as the book lives it won’t, and the book is going to live a long, long time. I know almost no one who thinks e-books are preferable to books: more convenient, easier to carry and to buy, but not actually better.

But a vast section of the market is and will continue to be digital; and online, is a publisher anything other than the place where the readers are? That is why Amazon has frozen out Lovereading. Publishers will talk bravely about building communities – just as Amazon announces its own initiatives like Amazon Worlds, and maybe these initiatives will work, but it is hard not to wonder if the solution will be something altogether nimbler and nearer to the ground and that in fact what these mergers and rumours of mergers represent are great examples of the square-cube law in action.