Steve Wasserman on the Penguin Random House acquisition of Simon & Schuster (hint: it’s not the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse)

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Not this.

Yesterday the Book Haven posted man-of-letters Steve Wasserman‘s COVID reading (the list has proved quite popular!) – but he was posting as a connoisseur, not in his role as publisher of Berkeley’s Heyday Books. He arrived from East Coast in 2016 to head that small, adventurous California-themed publisher, and it’s been on the rise ever since. He had most recently served as editor-at-large for Yale University Press. Before that, he was my editor at the Los Angeles Times Book Review when it was the best, most adventurous book section in the country, bar none.

Below, his thoughts about the major book event in today’s news.

Department of My Two Cents: The news today that Bertelsmann, the German owner of the publishing empire Penguin Random House, has made an all-cash offer of $2 billion to acquire Simon & Schuster, continues the relentless conglomeration that has marked global publishing for the past forty-plus years. If approved, the deal will leave only four gigantic publishing enterprises dominating the landscape of American publishing. The prospect is thought by some to pose a threat to the nation’s delicate ecology of literary and cultural life. Considerable alarm over the fate of the so-called mid-list book and a further contracting of diversity in the marketplace is widespread. How real are these fears?

Berkeley’s natty man of letters

The predicament facing us is best understood against the longstanding backdrop of at least two overlapping and contending crises: the first is the profound structural transformation that has for some decades been roiling the entire book-publishing and book-selling industry in an age of conglomeration and digitization; the second is the sea change in the culture of literacy itself, the degree to which our overwhelmingly fast and visually furious culture renders serious reading increasingly irrelevant, hollowing out the habits of attention indispensable for absorbing long-form narrative and the following of sustained and serious argument. These crises, taken together, have profound implications, not least for the effort to create an informed citizenry so necessary for a thriving democracy. The moral and cultural imperative is plain, but there may also be a much-overlooked commercial opportunity for the plethora of smaller, independent publishers who will likely be a chief beneficiary.

The struggle for market dominance, impelled by the continuing threat posed by Amazon, is, for many smaller publishers, akin to the internecine battles mounted by the gods on Mt. Olympus. If past experience is a useful guide to the future, we need not overly fear such imperial mergers and acquisitions. Indeed, even a cursory glance at the landscape of contemporary American bookselling and publishing makes it hard not to believe we are living at the apotheosis of our culture. Never before in the whole of human history has more good literature, attractively presented, sold for still reasonable low prices, been available to so many people. Diversity, in all realms, is increasingly the watchword guiding publishing decisions as the readership expands and demands to be heard. In a word, all publishers understand that profits are to be had by appealing to an insurgent millennial culture even as the old habits die. Today, you would need several lifetimes over doing nothing but lying prone in a semi-darkened room with only a lamp for illumination just to make your way through the good books that are on offer. There is money to be made in culture and victory will go to those publishers, whether large or small, who are nimble and imaginative enough to take advantage of the opportunities that lie all around them.

But I am no Cassandra. It would be a mistake to regard the quartet of publishing behemoths that will remain after the likely approval of the Bertelsmann acquisition of Simon & Schuster, as synonymous with the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Opportunities abound. It’s almost enough to give one hope.


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