The twilight of American publishing?

This morning, while holed up in my NYC home waiting for the arrival of Hurricane Sandy, I was saddened to learn of the imminent merger of two of America’s largest publishing concerns, Random House and Penguin. As if the storm weren’t enough to worry me, the headlines about the alliance managed to depress me even more than the dangerous weather. Whither publishing in America? That’s a very good question.

With the advent of electronic books and reading devices, the closing of so many bookstores across America, and the sharp rise of Amazon and other online retailers, I guess I’ve been waiting for “the other shoe to drop.” And here it is, the forced merging of two superpublishers for one reason and one reason only: they’re trying to stay alive. Ironically, this act of desperation just might kill both of them.

According to the NY Times article, the new group will represent a huge percentage of the American publishing market. This may look good on paper, but nowhere does the article spell out the obvious downside: fewer books, and fewer authors being published. History has shown that whenever major publishers merge, their first order of business is to “clean house,” pink-slipping editors, copy-editors, publicists, etc., in large numbers. Their second agenda is to “tighten” and “streamline” their publishing lists, which means only one thing: pink slips for non-bestselling authors and fewer acquisitions of new writers. In other words, fewer books will be published, and those will be by “safe bets,” meaning authors who are already household names.

Why will this kill these two venerable houses? Because their only real competitor here, Amazon, has already made huge inroads into the new market. Amazon doesn’t merely encourage new writers–they’ve actually provided these young voices with the means to get their work into the hands of readers. At the same time, Random/Penguin will be turning away all but the most famous.

The new generation of writers that would once have gone to these houses for publication will now be forced to bypass traditional publishing entirely. And traditional publishers will soon find that they have no new products to sell. They’ll be stuck with a few big “beach books” each season from a dwindling group of tired old bestselling authors, while Amazon and a few other electronic-savvy online publishers rush up the middle to score the goal. The future of the American (and worldwide) publishing industry is now clearly, firmly in the hands of these online publisher/distributors.

I didn’t believe it before because I didn’t want to believe it, but now I’m forced to agree with the many, many business forecasters who see this merger as a bad sign of trouble to come. I guess we can call it the publishing industry’s very own Hurricane Sandy. It is just as ominous, and every bit as potentially deadly. I sincerely hope the doomsayers are wrong. But, however you look at it, this merger is not good news for anyone–least of all the two companies themselves. And it probably won’t be long before the other major American publishers follow their lead and begin forming desperate, doomed alliances of their own.

I’ll be very interested to see what happens next….