04 December 2008

Fall Out

Sometimes being right can be quite painful. At the time that Bertelsmann purchased Random House, I predicted eventual business-led consolidation in operations that would ultimately inhibit consumer choice by "streamlining" imprints and management. It's happening now.

On the one hand, I can't be too upset at seeing some of the particular executives shuffled off to the side. That is not just because of their poor taste, but because of their mistreatment of both authors and readers. On the other hand, I simply don't believe the assertions that editorial independence will remain untouched, because it presupposes that "editorial independence" exists across these imprints in the first place... and comparing the list at, say, Broadway Books now with that from 1997 demonstrates pretty conclusively otherwise.

More importantly, though, there is a distinct division of the spoils — the dismantling of the former Bantam-Dell-Doubleday segment of the Bertelsmann US empire — that will have a discernable impact on consumer choice in the relatively near future. Within two years, I predict further consolidation of imprints in the commercial trade fiction end of things, along marketing-category lines... because the "divisions" with strong "genre fiction" presence have all ended up in the same part of the structure. This will no doubt be justified on some sort of business-efficiency grounds, completely ignoring the promised retention of editorial independence.

And remember, this is an antitrust problem for another reason: By consolidating the business aspects of these imprints, authors seeking to license their works to these imprints will also face reduced competition in the terms for those works. This is the half of the antitrust puzzle that was left completely unconsidered when this ill-considered merger was approved in the first place, primarily because the maroons in DC (and, for that matter, Brussels) did not understand that publishers are middlemen, not manufacturers.

For those with a taste for both the surreal and the willingness to consider what surrealism does to illuminate this nonsense, consider the episode of The Prisoner that shares a title with this post.