New Ground for the Book Trade

John Sutherland

The British book trade is experiencing change more drastic than anything it has undergone since the 1890s. What is happening – something that can loosely be called deregulation – will undo the controls on free trade that were installed in the 1890s by the then newly-formed publishers’ and booksellers’ associations. This dismantling appears as three trends, each apparently separate but in fact converging as a single tendency. Most spectacular is the absorption of venerable middle and small-sized publishing houses into conglomerates, often with non-publishing or foreign management at the highest level. Penguin, Hamish Hamilton, Michael Joseph, Frederick Warne and Longman – all once imprints with independent identities – now congregate within the Pearson group (best known for its ownership of the Financial Times). Random House UK (whose American parent was long since swallowed up by RCA) own Hutchinson, Cape, Chatto and Windus, Bodley Head. Below this league, which numbers about ten major players, there have been some marriages of convenience. Weidenfeld holdings, for instance, include the brash Weidenfeld and Nicolson and the staid J.M. Dent and Everyman imprints. There have also been some bloody dismemberings. Methuen (which celebrates its centenary in 1989) was sold in 1987 to International Thomson, who broke it up, selling the general and children’s list to Paul Hamlyn’s Octopus, itself subsequently acquired by Reed International. Methuen’s academic books remained with Thomson, who now bring them out under the Routledge imprint, another victim of conglomeration.

In itself, merger is not alien to the British book trade. The conger and opportunistic partnership were common in the 18th century as capital-raising devices. Despite their reputed ‘gentlemanliness’, British publishers have always been willing to gobble up their weaker brethren. ‘Longman’ is modern shorthand for Longman, Brown, Rees, Orme and Green; Routledge for Routledge, Kegan Paul, Trench and Trübner. Chatto and Windus began in the 1870s as a partnership between Andrew Chatto who had drive, and W.E. Windus, a minor poet who had some capital. But the firm only took off with the acquisition a few years later of John Hotten’s, Henry Bohn’s and John Maxwell’s publishing properties. Macmillan absorbed the house of Bentley in 1898; Murray absorbed Smith, Elder in 1917; between the wars, according to Ian Norrie, Hutchinson ‘absorbed so many imprints that no complete record of them exists’. The archaeology of British publishing shows an industry constantly stripping and reassembling its productive components into new formations.

Coalition, then, is neither new nor frightening in itself. What alarms is the pace and indiscriminate nature of 1980s conglomeration. Take the case of Secker and Warburg, one of Britain’s best-known general trade publishers. The firm was begun in 1910 by Martin Secker, and rescued from bankruptcy in 1936 when Frederic Warburg joined as a partner. Warbarg went on to build an outstanding list and was independent to the point of being a trade maverick. (It was Secker and Warburg who took on Animal Farm after Faber, Cape and Gollancz all decided it was too controversial for them to handle.) In 1951, however, Warburg ran into financial problems and his firm became the target of a predatory American takeover. To protect Secker and Warburg’s character he entered on a sheltering relationship with the larger and (as he thought) rocklike Heinemann. Heinemann, it was arranged, would take over all the marketing, production and distributing functions – ‘everything that makes a publishing house a business’, as Warburg put it: ‘what was left for Secker and Warburg to do? Everything that was individualistic and personal.’

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