Book Pubs Headed for the Chop-Shop?

Michael Hirschorn’s recent article in The Atlantic, a doomsday scenario projecting the death of the New York Times as early as May, chilled the intellectual community like an icicle rammed into its heart. For all who care about the shift of paradigms from Ye Olde Printe to digital media, his End Times (a canny pun) is required reading. The fact that a Mexican billionaire rescued the paper with a $250 million investment was a huge relief, for the New York Times Company had been facing a host of unpalatable options analogous to choosing among shooting oneself in the foot, the kneecap, the head or the behind. Sadly, numerous other newspapers and magazines bedeviled by the twin evils of collapsing circulation and plummeting advertising will probably not find such a benefactor. If you’re of a vulturine turn of mind you can learn about them on the website Newspaper Death Watch.

But it was a throwaway line in Hirschorn’s piece that turned my blood to curds. After summarizing the many obstacles that “The Newspaper of Record” faces, Hirschorn wrote, “Alternatively, Google or Microsoft or even CBS could purchase The Times on the cheap, strip it for parts, and turn it into a content mill to goose its own page views.” In other words, instead of rescuing and reviving the paper, the buyer could send it to the journalistic equivalent of an automobile chop shop.

Anyone who’s had a car stolen knows what a chop shop is. It’s an underworld garage where your car is disassembled and the tires, headlights, fuel pump and every other valuable part is removed from the chassis and sold to sub rosa auto body shops. If you think of the New York Times as that car, and its contents the carburetor or transmission or hub caps, perhaps your blood will curdle too. But why stop with the Times? Every struggling print publication is vulnerable to a similar dismantling.

And so, my dears, are book publishers.

Do we believe that they would be less subject than newspaper and magazine publishers to acquisition by media giants whose only interest is mining their content? We would like to think so, and there’s some precedent for hoping it wouldn’t happen. As a rule, in the history of book publishing in the last few decades struggling publishers have been picked up by stronger and more affluent publishers that understood how to exploit the backlist of the acquiree. But there are plenty of examples of publishers being taken over by members of entirely different species, corporations or conglomerates that have little or no emotional attachment to books or empathy for the people who write, edit and produce them. Looking back over the last few turbulent decades we see that a number of publishers were acquired for the cachet of culture and intellectualism; as soon as the cachet wore off and the realities of razor-thin profit margins sank in, the owners were more than happy to dump their book publishing assets.

Today, many of the publishers that are struggling are not modest in size – they’re giants, as characterized by layoffs, reduced acquisitions, or budget cuts by such behemoths as Simon & Schuster, Random House, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Penguin, Macmillan and Harper. If things were to get worse, or even if the owners were hard-up enough for cash, we could see another round of acquisitions by companies less interested in the culture than, simply, in the content. And off the top of my head I can think of outfits like Ingram, Adobe, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, or Verizon that might make a tasty meal of the rich trove of intellectual content in books. The cost would be petty cash to them. Some of these companies have dipped their toes into publishing and backed off, but that was then.

It this scenario too fanciful to credit? Any publishing person over 45 years old has seen things he or she would not have believed could happen, the buying and selling of titans like Random House, Doubleday, Putnam, Bantam, Macmillan and dozens of others as if they were trading cards in a childrens game.

Back in 1986, for the year-end issue of Publishers Weekly, I contributed a bit of doggerel entitled Merger, He Wrote summarizing the orgy of mergers and acquisitions that had taken place that year. Here’s an excerpt:

With tax-law changes ‘round the bend,
Other houses joined the trend.
CBS unloaded Holt:
To Harcourt Brace the firm was solt.
And, glasses raised in loud “L’Chaim!”,
Scott Foresman joined the march of Time.
More turbulence: Congdon & Weed,
Atlantic Monthly Press, Dodd, Mead.

Thus in frenzied syncopation
Proceeds the trade’s consolidation.
Scores of famous names of yore
Have since succumbed to corporate war
Or publish books with but a semblance
Of their former independence.

As the value of print media drops, and the power and wealth of digital media rises, another round of acquisitions could be shaping up, and this one won’t inspire poesy, good-natured or otherwise. Chop shop operators are standing by…

Richard Curtis

“Merger, He Wrote” Copyright (c) 1986, 2008 by Richard Curtis

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