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The Consolidation of the Lumbering Giants of Publishing

If you can’t innovate, consolidate.

That’s what two large publishers are doing as they face stiff competition from Amazon (as retailer, powerful publisher and enabler of increasingly popular self-publishing) and the world of e-books.

Random House and Penguin Books will combine forces to battle the… what? The fact that they couldn’t figure out e-books and so need to hunker down and try whatever works? Anything other than come up with new ideas.

The music industry went through this over the last decade and a half, as more people turned to the Internet to find and buy (and steal) music, and as the record companies’ hold on musicians’ careers began to give way to the new economic realities of iTunes, Napster, decreasing CD sales and the rise of social media as a way of attracting fans to new tunes and concerts.

In this case, Bertelsmann, which owns Random House, and Pearson, which owns Penguin Putnam, plan to combine those Random House and Penguin divisions. This will make Random House the largest consumer-book publisher in the world.

The publishing industry isn’t the recording industry, of course, but in both industries the giant corporations that controlled the dissemination of content have been battered by technological (and social) change that they have been too slow, too oblivious, too arrogant to deal with.

There was a telling comment in the New York Times story: “Bertelsmann … hopes to avoid the problems that plagued a 50-50 partnership with Sony of Japan, in which the two companies combined their music recording divisions. The venture, Sony BMG, was riven by management turmoil and differences over strategy, prompting Bertelsmann to sell its share to Sony eventually.” Here, Bertelsmann will own 53 percent of the venture.

Still, the similarities with the music industry are evident: too late to the game to make much difference as people move away from traditional books (and traditional publishers) toward e-books. In addition, those writers who still hunger to be published by a traditional publisher are going to have a harder time finding a spot, since it’s likely that there will be fewer imprints, fewer editors, fewer opportunities.

Unless you do it yourself.

If you’re building a platform for your content,  you’re already ahead of what publishers have been doing. You are engaging with your audience and, rather than looking for ways to hold on to decreasing market share and retain what’s left of your business, you forge new ways of doing it.

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