As I write this HoZ is advancing with steely determination towards its first million pounds in sales revenues. At the same time The Bookseller reports that Penguin notched up sales in 2012 of over one billion and recorded profits of £100m or so. This is more than a little scary and makes me feel like a fellow who has just put up a garden shed in the shadow of the Shard.
Scarier still when you remember that the Penguins have decided that their Shard is too small to compete effectively on a global scale and entered into a pre-nuptial agreement with Random House. By the time the lawyers are done I reckon that the legal fees alone will be more than sufficient to cover the capital requirements of HoZ over the next decade. The New Leviathan will field over 150 imprints with a seasonal catalogue running to 1,000 pages and account for one in four of all books sold in the English language.
What does this mean for the rest of us, particularly the independents who dwell in the garden sheds?
First item on the agenda: don’t panic. I recall the advice of a man who agreed to chair the Orion Publishing Company when it was little more than a shed. I asked him why he wanted to join a tiddler like us when he had just retired as chairman of a world class pharmaceutical giant. He replied that the problems and opportunities facing a business of any size were identical in all respects save the number of zeros in the financial reports. His name was John Cuckney and I carry his words close to my heart.
Item 2. We have to accept that very large companies are inclined towards becoming a conspiracy against the public interest, a point that Leviathan will establish right at the outset when its lobbyists convince the competition authorities that the merger is a Good Thing. This is not because Penguin Random’s executives are bad people but because it is hard-wired into the nature of the beast. Monopolists monopolize.
So be it. But the independents will draw some comfort from the fact that their market share is too trivial to trouble the vampires. Leviathan’s first instinct is to prey upon the überfranchises, which sustain his closest rivals. Leviathan’s dream is the dream of the bean-counters: why don’t we publish only bestsellers?
With item 3 we come to the heart of the matter. The consumer end of the book business doesn’t lend itself to monopoly. For two reasons. The first is its baffling, riotous, extravagant diversity. Thousands of new books are created every month across a vast range of subjects, each endowed with the unique voice of its author, and none quantifiable in value by any objective measure other than its eventual sales.
It is in this diversity that the independents seek their opportunities and find their inspiration. Particularly in the new authors untainted by the dire self-fulfilling prophecies of Bookscan/EPOS. We have acquired books by some eighty authors over the past 15 months. The great majority are unknown and untried. A riot of endless forms, mostly beautiful. Some will fall by the wayside. Others will take years to establish. But every one of them has its champions at HoZ.
And finally, a faintly embarrassing admission. Far from being at war with Leviathan, we are actually in cahoots with him. Leviathan provides us with sheds to warehouse our inventory, computer services to crunch our data, overseas agents to act on our behalf across the world, and print facilities to manufacture our books. In this sense we are symbionts, not rivals – in a way that reminds me of the pilot fish who groom the great white shark or the killer whale in an Attenborough documentary.