Of course, it isn’t a fragmented marketplace—it’s dominated by even fewer giant players than it was in 2013—and “market share” is a pretty fungible concept. Precisely what part of the marketplace is it talking about: trade books? Trade plus library sales? Total sales? U.S. sales? World sales?
The most pertinent market share to examine, as per my long-ago discussion with the DOJ, is dominance in a category. In its statement decrying the deal, News Corp said that a PRH-S&S “literary leviathan would have 70% of the U.S. literary and general fiction market.”
Here’s why that’s troubling: If you’re an independent or even a chain bookseller who gets, say, 50 percent of your fiction, 50 percent of your nonfiction, 50 percent of your kid’s books, and so forth from one giant publisher … well, it owns your checkbook. You are in its thrall. If that’s not bad enough, let’s say there’s, oh, I don’t know, a pandemic, and your store’s sales collapse. Sorry, every other publisher in the world, but I have to pay the big guy first, so I won’t pay you and I’ll in fact return your books to help myself pay that publisher.
In these most parlous of times, this is a particularly frightening prospect. A hurting marketplace, after all, is even more vulnerable to big players and monopolistic practices.
But in roll-ups like this one, much of what’s feared turns out to be slow moving and hard to register. Looking back at the merger of 2013, can we say for sure that it had all that much of a homogenizing influence? We can sense it more than prove it. But the situation is more obvious if we take a wider perspective, and examine what the big houses have been publishing since they started buying up smaller houses—since 1960, say, when Random House bought Knopf. Before that point, while the industry certainly put out its share of commercial dreck, publishers were far less reliant on lowest-common-denominator best sellers. The privately owned houses were less like faceless corporations, and their lists had individual character reflecting the whims of their owners. Now even insiders would be hard-pressed to explain how one house’s taste in fiction differs from another’s. They're all trying to sell the same kinds of books, to the same (big) demographics.
And what about the purported impact on democracy? There, too, the influence is not so immediately obvious … or is it? Many journalists covering this story have noted that S&S, the publisher of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s All the President’s Men and John Dean’s Blind Ambition, published some of this year’s very biggest political books—anti-Trump books—including Woodward’s Rage, John Bolton’s The Room Where It Happened, Mary Trump’s Too Much and Never Enough, and the scathing look at Fox News by CNN’s Brian Stelter, Hoax. It also distributed Disloyal, the book by Donald Trump’s attorney Michael Cohen. This was smart and in many ways brave publishing, for it was not without risk: S&S had to stare down the White House, and spend a lot of money defending itself against multiple legal threats.