Last school assignment for the week! Hopefully later today I can work on my own stuff.

Understanding the synergy and growth phases of American publishing.

A congruence of push/pull sociological factors administered across more than four decades’ time and throughout two clear phases led to the consolidation of the American publishing industry. Looking at those events gives insight to the current makeup of American publishing and can even allow for a little hypothesis as to the future of the industry.

The mass consolidation of American publishing happened in two phases, according to John B. Thompson in Merchants of Culture. The first phase, which roughly began over the course of the early 1960s and lasted until the early 1980s was the “Synergy” phase. The second phase, which began after the synergy phase and currently exists, is the “Growth” phase.

The synergy phase, according to Thompson, “was characterized by the active involvement in the publishing field of large corporations that had substantial stakes in other industries” (Thompson 105). The reason these companies found publishing to be a prosperous opportunity was because they could use the resources to enhance their other business ventures. Thompson calls this one of the first important pull factors.

The second part of the synergy phase are the aforementioned push factors. Thompson explains that the majority of the prominent trade publishers in the 1950s and 1960s were house by entrepreneurs “who were reaching an age when they were contemplating retirement and considering how best to deal with the problem of succession, sometimes in the absence of obvious family heirs to continue running the business.” (Thompson 105). Merging with other entities solved the problem of succession for some houses, according to Thompson.

The growth phase of the present publishing community, which began in the 1980s, had its own set of push/pull factors to navigate. The evolving issue of the 1980s, for the remaining independent publishing houses, was a structural issue more than an order of succession, asserts Thompson. The growth of retail change, the addition of agents and the increases in advances for new material were all factors that were pushing the remaining houses to merge with corporations.

The prominent pull factors for the period were from media conglomerates outside the US and United Kingdom. Thompson explains that companies throughout Germany and France saw more opportunity with English trade publishing and made moves to capitalize on those venues. While the reasons for acquiring these houses varied from company to company, Thompson laid out three factors of importance:

  • Low growth opportunities in German and French domestic markets,
  • The US market had an excess of great creative talent
  • A need to grow their businesses as illustrated by “The Growth Conundrum”

The growth phase did not enter without any changes. Editorial freedom has decreased throughout the growth of the growth phase. Thompson reminisced that “In the past, if you were an editor of a certain authority, you could almost certainly buy a book that you wanted to buy.” (Thompson 135). That culture has long since changed now. No longer are companies looking for the smaller book, “They’re only interested in really big books” (Thompson 135). Editors also have to clear P&L statements, acquisitions meetings and other procedural formalities that make the process of getting a book more daunting then it has been in the past.

Inside the course resources for this module was a New York Times article about the Justice Department approving a recent Random House – Penguin merger. I feel uneasy about it the more I learn about the publishing culture. How can we trust work to be unimpeded when it is owned by corporations with obvious interests? That really is the big ethical question to the whole process. Why would a company publish a product, even if it has revolutionary societal implications, if it will harm their image or bottom line?

I have no credibility to say X will happen or Y will make the world disappear but if two of the biggest six conglomerates can combine, what is there to say that anything will stop them from eventually being owned by one person or group? The logic is simplistic but it follows. While it may not happen today or tomorrow, who will compete with the one super power when it is formed into existence? Maybe that is the real role of self-publishing in the future – not purely for creative freedom but to prevent against a potentially silencing foe.

Works Cited

Thompson, John B. “Merchants of Culture” 2nd ed. New York, New York: Penguin, 2012. Print.

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