Publishers are always moaning about something. But with the Bertelsmann takeover of Random House they finally have good cause to complainby Andrew Franklin / May 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
Book publishers are the farmers of the media: they are always grumbling. If they aren’t complaining about too much rain in August, it is rising paper prices, the threat of CD-Roms and the internet-or simply too many books. The result is that when something serious does happen their cries, like Matilda’s, are ignored. And that is exactly what happened last month. Random House, the largest and most distinguished book publisher in the English language, was swallowed by Bertelsmann, an even larger German behemoth, and no one has batted an eyelid. Publishers have complained once too often.
Most takeovers pass unnoticed outside the City. Does anyone care that Somerfield bought Kwik Save, that the utility companies change hands every few months or even that BMW is going to buy Rolls Royce? But some takeovers do matter. If the GlaxoWellcome-Smith-Kline Beecham merger had gone ahead, the new group would have had a frightening proportion of British medical research scientists on its staff, controlling job opportunities and patterns of research for a whole sector of the economy. The Bertelsmann takeover has the same oligopolistic effect on books in the US and Britain. Until now there have been six big consumer publishing groups in Britain. They are (in order): HarperCollins, Penguin, Random House, Transworld (already owned by Bertelsmann) and Hodder Headline.
We are used to “conglomerisation” in British publishing, but this is something different. Now there will be one giant which controls perhaps 40 per cent of the British fiction market and 30 per cent of bookshop sales. These figures are disputed. Bertelsmann says its market share will be a modest 11 per cent, but this includes law books, medical publishing, school textbooks and so on. (In the US, where the statistics are more reliable, the combined group had 32.8 per cent of all hardback bestsellers and 40.9 per cent of all paperback bestsellers in 1997.)
Bertelsmann is a responsible corporation-everyone agrees on this. But it is also huge and shows the usual monopolistic tendencies of any media conglomerate. It has been swallowing companies throughout eastern Europe and, while buying Random House, has been involved in complicated negotiations with the largest publishing group in France. It already owns the largest bookclubs in Britain and the US, and is setting up Books Online, which is due to become the largest internet bookseller in the world. It is by far the largest publisher in Germany…