First and foremost, I have no clue what regulators will say about the purchase. This is not my turf. But I have a couple of observations on the underlying stories in the move of German Bertelsmann group, parent of Penguin Random House, picking up the 1924 founded book publishing jewel, Simon and Schuster, for $2.175 bn.

In terms of turnover, Simon and Schuster is relevant for Penguin Random House (PRH), but certainly not a game changer.  But the relevance lies underneath that surface perhaps.

mEUR mUS$
PRH ¬†‚ā¨¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† 3.371 ¬†$¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† 3.782
Simon ¬†‚ā¨¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† 726 ¬†$¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† 814
Combined ¬†‚ā¨¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† 4.097 ¬†$¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† 4.596
Source: Global 50 World Publishing Ranking 2020
(Data from company reports)
www.wischenbart.com/ranking

#1 An ironic tale

All the sales reports and revenue banked from John Bolton‘s “The Room Where It Happened“, Bob Woodward‘s ” Rage“, and Mary L. Trump‘s “Too Much and Never Enough” will be consolidated, together with earnings from Barack Obama‘s “A Promised Land” in 1745 Broadway, New York City, and then reported to G√ľtersloh (around 100,000 inhabitants), North Rhine-Westphalia, South-West of Teutoburg Forest, Germany, home of Bertelsmann.

Speaking symbolics, we may see here a reflection on the loss of American supremacy in the globalized cultural footprint.

This does not mean, of course, that some obscure people from German backwaters would direct what is fit to be printed in New York City, certainly not. Even without Simon and Schuster, German PRH revenue accounts for a mere 7% of PRH global, and editorial decisions are made in New York, not G√ľtersloh, already for many years. But no US power game may have an upper hand under such an umbrella, when already in 2020, well before the deal, any efforts failed in challenging Simon and Schuster’s controversial books on American politics.

So, ‘Simon’ is adopted by ‘Hans’ in a way, rather than married, but Hans and Simon have each a colorful, adult persona already, besides Hans’ clear German roots.

Much more relevant is the second point.

#2 A global strategic bet

Since German Bertelsmann acquired Random House, for $1.8bn in 1998 – back then, as much as today, the world’s largest consumer book publisher, and a strategic expansion that signaled “globalization” to the cozy, national emporiums of books and reading -, a lot of mergers and acquisitions and restructurings took place in the global book business. But the odd riddle of what is the path to success remains unsolved:

Is that consolidation about scale – having more books, more authors, more markets under one company’s clout – or is it about scope – controlling books plus movies plus games plus whatever other form or format for the best exploitation of (‘authors’, or ‘creators’) intelectual property?

Not long ago, the French media empire of Vivendi acquired the country’s second largest book publisher, Editis, in the clear ambition of reading these books first hand, for subsequent cross-media exploitation. Author platforms, from Chinese Tencent Literature to Canadian/global Wattpad launched ‘Studio’ divisions to do just this, turning stories into other formats. Netflix has developed multiple axes to lure (often book) authors to turn stories into TV formats.

Bertelsmann is clearly a multimedia behemoth, with a turnover of over 18 bnEUR coming from TV, books, magazines, music, education, services and print.

But PRH, under its current CEO Markus Dohle, has a 100 percent focus on – books. Fullstop. “A very happy Dohle told¬†PW¬†today was a ‘good day for books, book publishing, and reading.‘‚ÄĚ (Publishers Weekly today)

Of course, Dohle includes under ‘books’ any format, print, ebook, audiobook, and distribution model (even as in the latter, he is more restrictive, when it comes to any all-in or digital lending offerings).

But strategically, not just in the actual acquisition of Simon and Schuster, but in a more long term view on consumers, Dohle’s is a bold bet.

Frankly, I like Dohle’s clear and bold stance (against my personal cross-media intuitions) – which is, by the way, mirrored by others throughout the industry internationally, which, by the way, is really under-reported.

Dohle argues that a book is a book and addresses a reader who is a reader (a clear cut target audience to adress – as opposed to any fluid other things). And, to give one example, by initiating right now a big initiative towards Latino reading audiences, in Spanish, Dohle turns this into a very inclusive – and not just exclusive white middle urban class strategy -, which is great!

I am more cautious though, and even deeply worried, how that bold stance of the global book market leader PRH can be translated into a viable formula, all the way down, to the lower levels in the global book and reading ecosystem. We need the many small and mid-sized independent ventures and platforms, beneath the corporations, and in the many small markets and the thematic niches, in order to maintain the diversity in what books – in whatever format – can offer to readers.

So perhaps the book as a “Jack of all trades” format, which can incorporate any story and any piece of knowledge to any audience anywhere, oddly needs at first a good craddle, to develop its many talents, and thereupon go beyond?

At this point, I have no ready made answer, but encourage thinking, and input, and initiatives on that fragile bottom of our industry.

For more details about Penguin Random House, Simon and Schuster and the onging consolidation in global publishing, see the Global 50 World Ranking, a 260+ page report with facts, figures, 50 extensive company profiles and analysis, for free download at www.wischenbart.com/ranking – and subscribe to our newsletter to be updated on new research.

Addendum:

Bertelsmann Annual Report 2019
Germany Other Countries Total Operating EBITDA EBITDA in % of revenue Turnover in % of total divisional
RTL 2138 4513 6651 1439 22% 36%
PRH 265 3371 3636 561 15% 20%
Gruner+Jahr 913 442 1355 157 12% 7%
BMG 46 554 600 138 23% 3%
Arvato 1697 2478 4175 549 13% 23%
Printing Group 948 620 1568 68 4% 9%
Education 2 331 333 84 25% 2%
Investments 0 13 13 -1 -8% 0%
Total divisional results 6009 12322 18331 2995 16% 100%
Control 6009 12322 18331 2995 16%
% of German vs int’l 33% 67%
PRH Germany in PRH 7%
PRH + Simon (converted 2019 turnover) ¬†‚ā¨¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† 4.097

Source: Excerpt from Bertelsmann Annual Report, 2020, analysis by RWCC for this article.

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Two seemingly separate pieces of news came in this morning: The International Pulishers Association released a survey¬†on “Covid-19’s impact on global publishing“, based on a broad roundcall among their members worldwide. And perhaps surprisingly to many observers, the first challenge that the IPA study adressed was NOT bookshop closures due to lockdown – but an article on how “Supply Chain Disruption Leads to Ecosystem Stress“!

Books in a box with a flowerpot ready for delivery

Books in a box with a flowerpot ready for delivery (Photo: Ruediger Wischenbart)

Incidentally, German trade media like B√∂rsenblatt and buchreport reported yesterday that one of the leading scientific publishers, Springer Nature, ditches their German logistics partner KNV Zeitfracht, and switches across the border to the Dutch “Centraal Boekhuis” (CB),¬† a collaborative initiative owned by some 800 Dutch publishing stakeholders, with a history going back 150 years, and active in both the book and – since a few years – in the health sector.

The IPA report summarized: “Publishers operate in a complex ecosystem with
printers, logistics providers, distributors, and retailers, meaning the supply-chain effects of COVID-19 control measures caused significant supply disruption.

KNV Zeitfracht had indeed drawn criticism recently for underperforming in the strained times of Covid-19 challenges.

But there is a much deeper, and more fundamental underlying issue which gained wider visibility only now.

Under pandemic conditions, with consumers migrating to online and digital purchases, especially smaller independent bookstores suddenly had to rely dramatically on their online capacities for their survival. But many discovered not just limitations in their own digital setup. The challenges were multiple:

  • Ordering books from wholesalers became fragile;
  • Catalogues of titles available for ordering by their clients had many blind spots;
  • Delayed delivery to the costumers required apologies;
  • Wholesalers like KNV in Germany suddenly announced plans to cut down on their traditional service of daily delivery, to just bringing orders to stores only twice a week.

To give just one example from my own customer experience: When I ordered, as a gift to the daughter of friends, a hardcover copy of the English original of the new Stephenie Meyer book “Midnight Sun” – certainly not an exotic title -, the online order was confirmed by my favorite indie bookstore with a note of caution that they couldn’t give me a precise date for delivery, due to supply chain issues.

In return, for a publishing giant like Springer Nature, their market and customer base are global. The Dutch Centraal Boekhuis, Springer Nature said, will take care of all their distribution worldwide. National services alone are simply not good enough anymore.

All these highlighted shortcomings are not only an involontary PR campaign to the advantage of Amazon.com, wich hosts a multilingual, ever expanding catalog of available titles, ready to be served to consumers around the world.

It much more highlights the fault lines of what will shake up the foundations of the book business, in getting their post-pandemic strategies right.

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Music or books? Both! Spotify goes audiobooks
November 13, 2020 by ruediger

Things tend to change quickly these days. In August, publishers across Sweden had a new, transformative customer knocking at their doors – Amazon.

The only surprise was, why that had happened not much earlier. For many years, Amazon had been expected to go into the Swedish online retail market with a dedicated Swedish website, which by now is live.

A few months later, another new entrant is calling, an originally Swedish, now global service for music and podcasts. “Spotify¬†has entered the book industry’s battle for audiobook listeners”, in the word’s of the leading local publishing trade magazine, SVB.

The Spotify announcement is probably as big as the earlier news from Amazon, and not just for Sweden. In these times of profound transformation of everything throughout our societies, the Spotify – audiobook move means simply that an outsider is coming in the ambition to re-invent the one segment where the traditional book business has been growing in recent years, audiobooks.

And Sweden is a very particular market in that regard. It has been pioneering ebooks and audiobooks early on, by making these things different than in other countries. Ebooks were initially an almost exclusive service from libraries. You did not buy an ebook in Sweden, but rented it from your local library.

This opened the path for subscriptions. You don’t need to own that new crime novel, or classic, or educational title. Accessing it, for a modest monthly fee, was good enough.

While in other parts of the world, book people insisted religiously that subscriptions would never work with readers, the Swedish start-up Storytel created  Рand in the meantime expanded internatonally Рjust this, a thriving subscription service for et first ebooks, and then audiobooks. Storyel was one powerful driver, and innovator in the good old book trade.

But the upside-down does not stop there. Spotify, the music company, promises to re-invent the very format of books that you can listen to: “‘We talk about trying to develop the story in different ways, and are quite unlimited in the idea of what it could be’, says Johan Seidefors, Nordic content manager at Spotify, when he is asked if Spotify makes audio books”, SVB reports today, and Seidefors adds that Spotify “will work to make room for new formats.” There you go publishers.

Of course this will bring up many tricky questions, starting with how authors’ compensation will be handled by Spotify, which is challenged regularly for their royalty model from those musicians who are not topping the charts.

And we can, from our own research, clearly predict also that marketing digital works, be they ebooks or, even more so, audiobooks, and again notably those consumed through a streaming or subscription function hugely differently from traditional books. See numbers and charts in our two brand new Digital Consumer Book Barometer studies on German language countries (Germany, Austria, Switzerland), and on Brazil.

We will keep monitoring these developments – so stay tuned, and subscribe to our newsletter, and follow us on Twitter @wischenbart and @rebootbooks .

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