The Eurocrush on Books

By Schiffrin, Andre | The Nation, December 31, 2001 | Go to article overview

The Eurocrush on Books


Schiffrin, Andre, The Nation


It's too early to tell what the long-range effects will be on the American economy of September's disastrous events--certainly the short-term effects have not been salutary. And the recession we had been fearing is now officially declared. We can be sure that the cost to book publishing will be great.

If it were simply part of the decline of sales within the overall entertainment industry, there would be less cause for concern. But at a time when the country badly needs more information, new ideas and countercyclical analyses of American foreign policy, the chances that these will be published have diminished considerably. The recession will bring increasing profit pressures on the conglomerates. The natural reaction to this, as we know from the past, will be to cut back on "smaller" books, the ones that have little chance of selling in any large number, precisely the books we will be needing at this critical juncture in our history.

In the year since The Business of Books: How the International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read appeared, the trends I tried to analyze have continued unabated. In country after country, the few remaining independent publishers have decreased still further in number and the large international conglomerates have taken over an ever-increasing share of publishing. In Britain, where there were only four important independents, one of the most promising, Fourth Estate, was bought by HarperCollins, part of the Murdoch empire. One of the first decisions taken after the merger was to cancel the contract for a biography of Murdoch, which the publishers realized would be critical of its subject. The impact of Fourth Estate's sale negatively affected other independent publishers. A number of the smaller British firms, like Granta, Profile and Verso [whose managing director, Colin Robinson, recently joined The New Press--Ed.], relied on Fourth Estate's excellent sales force to represent their books to the bookstores. Once the merger had taken place, this was no longer possible, and these smaller firms had to find new ways of selling their wares. This task became even more difficult with the announcement that Britain's largest bookstore chain, Waterstone's, would demand much higher discounts from smaller firms, a decision that threatened economic ruin for many of them. Appeals to the appropriate authorities in Britain went unheeded. Interestingly, a similar development has occurred in the US record business, where the giant Tower chain has decided to cut back drastically on its stock of the smaller, classical-music labels.

In France the long-established nineteenth-century firm of Flammarion, the doyenne of French independent publishers, was bought by Rizzoli, the Italian publishing firm partially controlled by the Fiat Corporation, just as last year's Frankfurt Book Fair opened its doors. I have yet to find a French or Italian publisher who can explain the editorial rationale for such a merger. But clearly the urge to diversify internationally, to become a player on the European scene and in general simply to grow by acquisition is enough to justify mergers that may seem difficult to understand otherwise.

In the United States the merger between Time Warner and AOL had surprisingly swift consequences. The New York Times reported the departure of Little, Brown's publisher shortly after the merger was announced--Little, Brown's list was apparently not sufficiently commercial for the new owners. More ominous, the new merged entity announced that it would transform the nature of CNN, the country's only remaining international news outlet. Four hundred people were fired immediately amid reports that CNN would place less emphasis on news and more on entertainment--and presumably more on profit. Having safely navigated the shoals of antitrust scrutiny, the new AOL Time Warner was clearly intent on being even more profitable than its components. …

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