Thursday 6 February 2014

The squeezed middle is now everywhere

I am happy for my old publishers Constable and Robinson that they have agreed to sell themselves to Little, Brown, part of the vast Hachette empire.

Yes, I'm happy.  But put on my other glasses and I can't help seeing another example of the notorious Squeezed Middle emerging.

The news that Quercus is also looking for a buyer, and dark rumours of other difficulties, just go to prove the point.  We don't really need the emergence of Penguin Random House to realise something scary is going on.

These publishing houses retain their old identities.  Constable is even keeping its old offices.  But do we really believe it will be good for publishing, free speech, literature and culture to peer into the not too distant future and see - well, how can I put it...

HarperRandomPenguin Hachette PLC?

Of course, this isn't the fault of the individual publishers, who are responding to over-concentration in the distribution market.

When the competition authorities so forgot themselves as to allow Waterstone's to snap up Ottakar's, and when we shortly afterwards lost their other competitors, they ushered in a period when there were only four ways of buying books.

There is the struggling Waterstone's and the increasingly healthy cadre of local bookshops, but between them they hardly dent the other two ways - the discounted shelves of the supermarkets, which remove the profitable titles which used to support a diverse publishing industry, and the fiercely monopolistic Amazon.

The lesson here is that competition is important, but it has to be defended everywhere.  We need competition authorities which can tell the difference between an innovative new distribution system and an emerging monopoly.

If they don't then the emerging monopolies will be too entrenched to challenge, and we won't be able to read anything challenging to spur us to liberate ourselves.

There is one other important point.  The Squeezed Middle is a phenomenon everywhere.  To be independent, in any industry, you increasingly have to operate on the margins.  In every sector, and in every sector of the population, the middle is disappearing - to be replaced by a tiny and unassailable elite and a vast sprawling, struggling proletariat.

It isn't just publishing, it is all of us.  To find out more, see my book Broke: How to Survive the Middle Class Crisis.

Subscribe to this blog on email; send me a message with the word subscribe to When you want to stop, you can email me the word unsuscribe.

No comments: