Dennis Johnson on big publishing

Ur-blogger and upstart publisher Dennis Johnson writes in The Atlantic about his experience testifying before the Department of Justice about big publisher mergers. This guy is a badass and I love him. Everyone should buy some Melville House books just to say thanks. Also, he’s wicked funny in person and his blog MobyLives (which I spent many years as an unofficial proofreader for before starting my own blog), was a foundation of the “industry”, such as it is, and is much missed.

How YOU doin?

As the big houses have become bigger and bigger, their business has become more about making money than art or protest, so that small publishers now provide a far wider variety of literature, politics, history, and journalism, of art making and truth-to-power-speaking, of actual risk taking—and from a far more diverse group of authors —than the commercial conglomerate publishers. And the bigger the big publishers get, I told the DOJ attorneys, the more risk-averse they become. The less willing they are to lose money. Audiences need to be expanded, not necessarily diversified. And then the safer, less boat-rocking, bigger-demographic-satisfying stuff they publish becomes what the marketplace they dominate adapts itself to sell. The risk aversion becomes systemic.

The attorneys didn’t disagree. And when the interview was over, I felt a huge sense of relief. They got it, I thought. They definitely got it.

The merger, of course, was approved shortly thereafter.

Thus a publishing behemoth was born, a behemoth that now, a mere seven years later, is once again taking over a leading competitor, Simon & Schuster. PRH has purchased S&S for $2.2 billion, or twice the asking price—a fee none of the other big publishers could match. News Corp, the owner of HarperCollins, blasted PRH for “buying market dominance.”

This is exactly right. Just seven years ago, the industry had six dominant giants. Now three of them have merged together. The other giants, let alone the numerous independent players, are not just smaller; they’re smaller by billions of dollars. I said it in 2012, and I’ll say it again now: The DOJ needs to stop the consolidation.

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