Readersforum's Blog

November 6, 2012

Book publishers have long been playing into Amazon’s hands

Penguin, soon to get into bed with Random House.

The proposed merger of Penguin and Random House might be too late for a publishing industry seemingly set on self-destruction.

By John Naughton

There’s something quaintly touching about the spectacle of two publishing conglomerates – Bertelsmann and Pearson – arranging for their book-publishing arms (Random House and Penguin respectively) to huddle together for warmth against the icy blasts coming from California (Google and Apple) and Seattle (Amazon). When the deal (which still has to be approved by regulators) was announced, there was the usual corporate guff about “synergies” – aka job losses – and about how the new partnership will be “the world’s leading publishing house”, which will give it “the upper hand” in its dealings with Apple and Amazon.

Ho, ho. In the long view of history, the Bertelsmann-Pearson deal will be seen as just the latest instalment of a long-running story: a tale of formerly dominant industries trying to prevent their venerable business models being dismantled by the internet. The early victims were travel agents, record labels, newspapers, magazines and broadcast networks.

In each case, the relevant executives could be heard loudly declaring that while it was indeed the case that the guys “over there” (gesturing in the direction of some other industry) were being disintermediated by the network, nevertheless the speaker’s own industry was special and therefore immune from technological contagion. Universities and book publishers have been arguing like this for quite a while. The Bertelsmann-Pearson deal suggests that the publishers have finally heard the tocsin. Universities haven’t got the message yet.

The funny thing about the publishing industry is that long before it was really threatened by the internet it was busily rearranging itself so as to make it more vulnerable to it. The process was vividly described by sociologist John Thompson in his book Merchants of Culture, the best account we have of what happened to publishing.

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