Independent book publishing, part 2

rupert murdoch (news corp.) on the cover of time (time-warner)It’s time to get back to the discussion of the dilemma of independent book publishing, following holidays that were more disruptive than I anticipated.

This project began when I discovered that the large changes in the publishing industry over recent decades were not necessarily known even by some who were generally knowledgeable about books.

A caveat before we go on: I’m a guy who likes to make and sell books and knows how to do the various aspects of this. But I’m neither a historian of publishing nor an industry journalist, exactly – I don’t even subscribe to Publishers Weekly anymore. So I can make mistakes. What I would like to establish, however, are the large trends. If I get some particulars wrong, well, as the Chinese literati used to write on their paintings, “Please correct me.”

Last time we saw the storied presses with the country’s longest and most distinguished publishing traditions gobbled up by a handful of giant international corporations. (Thanks to several people who added helpful comments qualifying and fleshing out my account.) Now we have reached the point where a few corporations control most of the country’s book publishing.

In 2003 Publishers Weekly wrote that the five large New York publishers (Random House, Penguin, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, and Time-Warner) accounted for 45% of the market’s sales. But these publishers are only parts of the larger entities, which often own many publishing companies. In 1999 Andre Schiffrin wrote that the top 20 publishers accounted for 93% of all sales, and in 2000 he said that 80 percent of book sales are controlled by five corporations: Bertlesman, News Corp, Time-Warner, Disney, and Viacom/CBS.

Today we’ll take a look at these corporations and quickly survey what other sorts of things they own in addition to book publishing companies. In what follows, I use the word “own” for convenience; often control is shared in complicated ways, and “has a major stake in” would be more correct.

  • Bertelsmann owns Random House, Knopf, Vintage, Modern Library, Bantam Doubleday Dell, and Delacorte. It is the biggest television broadcaster in Europe and the largest film producer in Asia. It owns several daily newspapers. It owns a number of radio stations. It owns about 80 magazines.
  • Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. owns Harper Collins and Zondervan, the largest Bible imprint, as well as Fox television, the National Geographic Channel, the Golf Channel, the TV Guide preview channel, and more. With Time-Warner it owns the Book-of-the-Month Club. It recently added the Wall Street Journal to its stable of major newspapers around the world. It owns the Fox movie company, and more
  • Time-Warner owns Warner Books, Little, Brown, and Time-Life. With News Corp it owns the Book-of-the-Month Club. It owns Warner Brothers. It owns more than 64 magazines, such as Time. It owns AOL, CompuServe, Netscape, and things like WinAmp. It owns HBO, Cinemax, Comedy Central (with Viacom), Court TV, TBS, TNT, CNN, and much more
  • Disney owns Hyperion, Miramax, and ESPN Books. It owns Disney Pictures, Touchstone, and more. It owns some 50 radio stations, and the ABC and ESPN radio networks. It owns several magazines such as US Weekly and Discover.
  • Viacom owns Simon & Schuster, Pocket Books, Scribner, The Free Press (some irony there), and more. It owns Paramount Pictures, Nickelodeon, MTV Films, and Blockbuster. It owns CBS UPN, MTV, Showtime, Comedy Central (with Time-Warner), the Sundance Channel, etc. It owns about 40 television stations. It owns several magazines. It owns exclusive advertising rights on buses, subways, trains, kiosks, and billboards in 90 U.S. cities, and more around the world.

Those are just some highlights. A full list would be too exhausting to produce, and — like the crew who paint the Bay Bridge by starting over at the other end each time they finish — by the time you had reached the end of the list properties would have been exchanged and new ones brought into the fold.

Next time we will consider some of the implications of the broad reach of these corporations.


Shown: Rupert Murdoch (News Corp.) on the cover of Time magazine (Time-Warner).


More posts in this series: part one | part three


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  1. Corrections: Time-Warner sold its Book Group to Hachette, and the Book of the Month Club is just a brand name owned by Bookspan, which is now entirely owned by Bertelsmann.

  2. Goog corrections, Ron. I knew those things, once.

  3. Of course, there’s one other aspect of this consolidation that gets swept under the rug: What, exactly, is included in “publishing”? Are we talking only about so-called “trade publishing”? Even there, one finds some disturbing media-conglomerate consolidations — as an exercise in futility, try to figure out which corporation (and nation, for that matter) realizes the profits from the For Dummies series (hint: it isn’t one of the five corporaitons you’re thinking of, but it’s larger than two of them… so far as anyone can tell, since we’re dealing with several close-holds).

    Going the other direction, some categories and subcategories within trade publishing are dominated by fewer than five corporate masters. Consider, for example, Westerns, or nonbiographical writing on sport.

    Worse than the domination by the publishers, though, is the domination by distributors. Whether one is measuring by units or dollar volume, the top two pure distributors (that is, consumers cannot order directly from them) control at least 80% of the market in general trade publishing, and an even higher proportion of the market in trade fiction publishing. It’s all about how one defines the relevant market. And yes, that is the term from antitrust law…

  4. Paul Douglas

    Disney no longer holds an ownership in US Weekly. In 2006, Wenner Media repurchased the 50% stake in the magazine — which Disney had initially made for $30 million — for $300 million at the beginning of that quarter. It was announced during the FiQ07 Earnings Call on February 7, 2007 @ 4:30 p.m. by Tom Staggs, SEVP & CFO of Disney.

    Besides the fact that US Weekly was never a book company in any real sense (it hardly qualified by Wenner Media’s sporadic and often vanity’ish book production) so I don’t grasp why it’s on this list in the first place.

    In any case, though this list is (mostly) comprehensive, it seems somewhat unsophisticated, if not reductive in the way that it serves to distort the way imprints (often) operate as distinct and separate entities under larger corporate umbrellas. There are dozens of imprints contained within these corporations, each with their own byzantine order and fiefdoms. For example, “YA” is at Simon & Schuster is covered by several (almost a dozen, I believe) editors. The list also doesn’t dilleniate how books that are put up for auction are handled when there’s competition under the umbrella. Some imprints are compelled to axiomatically bow out, others go the winner take all route.

    TimeWarner has been an excellent example of the failure (many might even characterize it as a “spectacular failure”) of synergy, on so many levels, that it will serve as grist for many case studies. Why don’t you highlight or at least mention those scenarios, too?

    Hear me, I am no fan of corporate anything. However, where in this list is a discussion of an economy of scale? The distribution of books through this consolidation satisfies a basic aspiration of latter day capitalism: getting as many (_______) to as many as people possible with the highest possible profit margin for the producer.

    Furthermore, the “danger” many comments allude to is more the fact that it’s the marketing department of these publishing companies hold greater sway. The edit committee is but the first stop on the way to the marketeers — hence, the “success” of awful and contrived product such as “The Secret.”

  5. Hallo Tom, can I make a small suggestion – I’m aiming to read all three posts very soon. It would be neat if you could link them to each other? at the beginning is probably best. I know they’re all in the “Publishing” category, but it’s a bit of a beeatch having to hunt around.
    Cheers, Genevieve

  6. Good suggestion, Genevieve. I’m doing it now.