How Raw Capitalism Is Devouring American Culture
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Around the same time a devastating hurricane smashed and flooded its way up the East Coast, leaving millions homeless or without power, another storm collided into a professional subculture based in New York City. While the second storm is only metaphoric, the transformation of publishing could have far-reaching consequences not only for those who work on Union Square, but for readers and writers across the English-speaking world.
As with Hurricane Sandy, it will take a little while to discern the long-term consequences of the Penguin and Random House merger, the news of which was somewhat obscured by the storm and the election. But the short-term impact is not pretty — and it follows other recent bad news from the books world. The Free Press, known primarily for smart, contentious nonfiction from Emile Durkheim and Francis Fukuyama but also the publisher of Aravind Adiga’s best-selling Indian novel “The White Tiger,” just collapsed. Several well-regarded editors are now out of jobs as the imprint is merged into Simon & Schuster.
The Penguin and Random House merger would join two of the largest and most successful publishers in English. It’s likely to be completed late next year, and the new company will control more than a quarter of the global book trade. The number of major publishing houses will go from six to five, with credible predictions that it could easily go down to three. (Some in publishing note grimly that the publishers chose to announce this on Monday, Oct. 29, a day when the storm – which saw many editors and agents stranded at friends’ and relatives’ houses, without phone connections or power — would make meaningful news coverage almost impossible.)
The get-big-or-go-home strategy may allow bulked-up publishers to stand up to Amazon, which has become the industry’s Goliath. “The book publishing industry is starting to get smaller in order to get stronger,” the New York Times judged.
Lke a lot of publishing folks, Jonathan Galassi, publisher and president of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, doesn’t know quite how to read all this. But it’s significant: “Publishing is going through a sea change,” he tells Salon. “It’s going to be different when it comes out.” Whatever else is happening, “It feels like a contraction to me.”
The likely CEO of the combined publisher, Markus Dohle, sent a cheery note to agents, authors and booksellers. “For us, separately and in partnership, it is and always will be about the books. Your books,” he wrote. And he told the Times that the merger will not lead to the shuttering of imprints; there was no talk of “redundant” employees. “The idea of this company is to combine the small company culture and the small company feeling on the creative and content side with the richest and most enhanced access to services on the corporate side.”
That, after all, is what they always say.
But the implications are larger. If you work in, say, journalism, or the music business, you’ve seen this kind of thing before: the erosion and then collapse of an industry, often after mergers and acquisitions announced with buzzwords – “synergy”! – or reassurances that new ownership means that nothing significant will change because, after all, we really value the kind of work you people do. Will publishing continue to slide, gradually, or will it fall apart, like newspapers – which have lost approximately a third of their staffs since the recession and seen advertising revenue sink to 1953 levels — and record labels – where annual sales of the top-10 albums have gone from over 60 million to about 20 million in roughly a decade. Members of the creative class have been here, and it hasn’t worked out real well for them.