Writing for The Guardian, Faber & Faber chief executive Stephen Page recently claimed that the “Penguin Random House merger begins a new chapter for publishing”. While I’m not convinced that a five-firm oligopoly is dramatically different from a six-firm oligopoly, I decided to read along with him.
Page argues that consolidation as a good thing:
“Firstly, there will be change to the structure of the industry with fewer large players with greater strength, better placed to support the value of both authors' copyrights and publisher activities. Publishers (and therefore writers) have been too vulnerable to the rapid aggregation of retail power both on and offline and stronger publishing structures will be good for writers so long as these larger publishing entities are clear their role is to create value for both writers and shareholders.”
The emphasis on “and therefore writers” is mine. Although Page qualifies his claim at the end of the paragraph (and again at the end of his post), it’s clear that he sees the interests of publishers and writers as synonymous.
Page writes occasionally in The Guardian, steadfastly defending the role of publishers in a changing world. Some of his past columns include:
- Publishers should be proud of their legacy
- The way ahead for publishing (“publishers still have a vital role”)
- Why Waterstone’s is vital to the book trade
- The future of publishing takes shape (how to adapt)
In all of his posts, Page returns to the idea that “publishers exist to create more value for writers than writers can (or wish to) create for themselves”. While I might argue that publishers should exist to create value for readers, there’s no doubt that there is a two-sided market at work here.
While I think we’d quickly come to terms on that distinction, I still find Page's defense of consolidation and scale puzzling. Service to authors is unlikely to come from having struck the best deal with Amazon. In fact, authors could strike a much better deal on their own.
I’ve argued that publishers would be a better draw if they had clear connections with communities that they owned and nurtured. That’s an idea that has picked up some steam of late. If anything, niche and independent publishers are better positioned to innovate around communities. Consolidation seems more like a mid-term effort to wring some costs out of the combined enterprise.