History of the Book in the Twentieth Century Part 3: the age of the conglomerate, and the revolution of 1935

In the previous post I covered the first 4 of 8 elements of media history. Here are two more.

If many very small publishers have survived into the twenty-first century (even and because of the internet and new digital printing technologies), nevertheless a distinguishing factor of the twentieth century, especially the latter part, concerns ownership of the media. I’m thinking here of the sublime growth of international conglomerates and transnational book production in line with just about every other manufacturing industry.

Ever since Paul Hamlyn in the 1950s escaped the restrictions of paper-rationing still in force in Britain by having his books manufactured entirely in Eastern Europe, book production has become increasingly international. Even in the long gone 1999, it was quite normal for an author to key in her work in London on a word processor, send it to a publisher whose office may be in New York who sends it to be typeset in Hong Kong, printed and bound in Singapore, for distribution to an Anglophone but world-wide market. What once were comparatively small publishing houses of perhaps 50 or so staff which carried the name of their founding father whose descendants headed the business are now huge transnational and transpersonal conglomerates.

It was the 1980s, the era of “deregulated” mergers and acquisitions,  that saw the virtual elimination of the “gentleman publishers” and the restructuring of the whole publishing industry. The restructuring was due not only to deregulation, however, but also and not least by how the contemporary decreased funding of education led to a correspondingly decreased (and less seasonally reliable) demand for textbooks and library books within the UK. The demand was not only smaller but less predictable. Then again, the appreciation of sterling against the currencies of countries to which Britain had been exporting in large numbers since the 1950s made exports expensive and difficult.

Macmillan’s is a good example of a firm to illustrate how the industry was restructured in the second half of the twentieth century.

The brothers Alexander and Daniel Macmillan, originally from the Scottish island of Arran, had founded the company in 1843. They aimed mainly for a target audience with a large degree of cultural capital, publishing Charles Kingsley, Thomas Hughes, Lewis Carroll, Tennyson, Henry James, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, H.G. Wells and so on. In the twentieth century Macmillan’s published Ouida (to whom they were very generous in her declining years), Yeats, Sean O’Casey, John Maynard Keynes, and many other well-known names. The talent-spotting talent of the Macmillan family, their canny awareness of the coincidence of cultural and financial capitals, was not confined to literature – Grove’s Dictionary of Music was theirs for instance. The firm rose through the generations throughout the nineteenth century and most of the twentieth, reaching its apogee in Harold Macmillan. After having served as Prime Minister, he withdrew from politics in 1965 and took on as now Macmillan’s website tells me, “a leadership role at the publisher. He instituted an ambitious program that led to international expansion. The Education Division grew significantly and standard reference works and scientific magazines were also added to the list.” (see Macmillan’s interesting inhouse timeline and also Elizabeth James’s Macmillan: A Publishing Tradition 1843-1970, 2002)

Although the family still have a substantial interest, now however Macmillan’s is owned by the enormous German media company Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrink – which owns the German national Die Ziet, which its website tells me is “Germany’s largest opinion forming newspaper”. It also owns Germany’s equivalent of the London Evening Standard the Berlin Der Tagesspiegel, 5 different German fiction imprints, a Swiss fiction imprint and 2 New York based houses Henry Holt and no less than Farrar Straus and Giroux, 8 local newspapers in Germany, 2 companies that make documentaries for TV, shares in a large number of radio stations, and various subsidiaries that publish on the internet and on CD. Macmillan’s itself has numerous subsidiaries in 70 countries, the result of Harold Macmillan’s global expansion plans. Since 2000 it has run an academic imprint called Palgrave, the result of the merger of the Us  St Martin’s Press and the UK Macmillan’s.
Another and even larger conglomerate is Pearson’s. Pearson’s own Penguin and Longman and Simon and Schuster and produced the late twentieth-century hugely successful TV series Baywatch, The Bill and Zena Warrior Princess; it owns the Financial Times, The Economist; it runs Thames TV, has a large stake in Channel 5 and is the world’s largest education publisher. It has for some decades now invested heavily in the new electronic media, esp. the on-line provision of share prices.

In other words, the late twentieth century saw the triumph of large-scale industrial publishing. There are many issues involved in the creation of these huge conglomerates with their stress on marketability and share prices. One is how it has generated a vigorous resistance to the whole notion of the industrialisation of knowledge. Already in the 1890s small scale presses had been set up, but their energy and usually socialist and artisanal ideals had all collapsed by the early 1960s. Does this indicate the dominance of books tailored by market researchers, the heartless triumph of the machine – and offer opportunities for paranoia about who controls the knowledge available to us?

While made-by-committee books based on detailed market research certainly are published, it’s a universal axiom that the indefinable flair of individual editors and their relationship to individual authors is still key to publishing. As one textbook on publishing says “Good personal contacts are paramount” (Giles Clark, Inside Book Publishing, Routledge 1994: 67 – the site associated with the book is very good). One thinks of the disaster that brought Dorling Kindersley to its knees with its manufactured Star Wars book: phantom menace the item indeed was. It managed to sell only 3 million of the 13 million Star Wars books it had printed and this was the main contributing factor to the heavy losses it posted in May 2000 of £25 million. DK was bought out by Pearson plc, joining it to the Penguin Group.

Furthermore, it’s absurd to think of these conglomerates as efficiently organised from the top down: there’s no controlling dictator at the top who manipulates our minds through controlling what we have access to. I was told a few weeks ago by an editor for Palgrave that although the von Holtzbrink family own large shares in the conglomerate that bears their name, they’re only interested in seeing the balance sheets every 5 years or so. Individual editors operate independently and are, rather, assessed at the local level on the overall profit distribution of the books they have commissioned. Power is diffuse and capable of many different variations, allied to many different tastes and value systems.

While there are certainly issues of control over what becomes available to us to read – the ongoing Assange case is proof of that (and see eg the debate over Canongate’s publication of his unauthorised biography in 2011) –  most us as readers don’t notice much of the above: we don’t feel constrained by what is available to us except by price. And this brings me to my next point.

From the point of view of most British users of books,  issues of ownership are less important than the format revolution of 1935. Indeed, for most book readers today the twentieth century really began that year. 1935 was the year that Allen Lane started the Penguin paperback. Taking advantage of the monotype printing I’ve mentioned in a previous post, a  technology that had been commercially developed in the 1920s, Penguin changed the face of publishing for ever.

Again though, the idea of the paperback was by no means new – books stitched in paper covers date from the late seventeenth century; in nineteenth century France most books were published in them to allow for binding according to the consumer’s choice.

Allen Lane was the owner of The Bodley Head Press, which he inherited from his uncle John Lane who had gained notoriety in the 1890s for publishing The Yellow Book, the showcase of aestheticism. By the mid 1930s however, The Bodley Head was in trouble financially: Penguin was a desperate attempt to save it. Allen Lane got the idea of the look for the series from Germany, where a paperback series called The Albatross had been started up by an English man named John Holroyd-Reece to rival the old-established form of Tauchnitz who had been publishing paperback reprints for almost a century. Penguins were, however, by no means straight imitations of The Albatross.

While early Penguins, like Albatross, were paperback reprints with visually distinctive covers of works originally published by other forms  – as Phil Baines’s beautiful Penguin by Design: A Cover Story 1935-2005 shows us – Lane planned to sell Penguins very cheap: at 6d. Most revolutionary of all, he distributed them through outlets other than standard bookshops: Woolworth’s played a large role in the success of the Penguin imprint. Penguin’s revolution in fact lay not in its material identity as a cheap distinctive paperback but  in establishing the book both literally and metaphorically in places in the market it had never before settled in. It paved the way for the supermarket books we know today.

For the next 20 years Penguin dominated the paperback market in the UK and helped normalise the format to such an extent that for most of us now the paperback IS the book.

What once was a technology meant for disposable reading, ephemeral in its structure, transitory in its nature, came in the twentieth century to represent the quintessence of the book, the repository of (what we like to think of as) non-ephemeral knowledge.

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Andrew King

Andrew King is Professor of English Literature and Literary Studies at the University of Greenwich. He has always been interested in how and why certain texts are kept for posterity and others disappear. His first degree was in classical and medieval Latin, and he has MAs in Medieval Studies and English. He completed his PhD in English at Birkbeck, supervised by Laurel Brake. He taught for many years at Universities overseas, though immediately before he came to Greenwich in May 2012, taught at Canterbury Christ Church University. His official profile can be found at http://www2.gre.ac.uk/about/schools/humanities/about/departments/cca/staff/andrew-king.

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