Writing will survive this catastrophe

Adam Davidson mused:

When you see a merger between two giants in a declining industry, it can look like the financial version of a couple having a baby to save a marriage. At least that was my thought when Random House and Penguin, two of the world’s six largest publishers, announced that they were coming together last month. Ever since Amazon began ripping apart the book business, the largest houses have been looking for a way to fight back. If this merger is any indication, they have chosen an old-fashioned strategy: Size.

A combined Penguin-Random House, which would control a quarter of the global book market, is a conglomerate designed to take on another giant, though it’s not exactly a fair fight. Because the new entity will only have about a twelfth of Amazon’s annual sales, most observers expect that this is just the beginning of a series of mergers — like those in the music business — that will take the Big Six publishers down to the Big Three and perhaps one day even the Big One. As John Makinson, Penguin’s chief executive, told The Times, “We decided it was better to get in early rather than be a follower.” The question is whether this strategy will work.

Capitalism has never been a true friend of good writing and publishing. Large and complex markets can crush a serious and well-written book as effortlessly as the Inquisition once silenced Galileo. Book publishers, of course, want to profit from their work. They even want to produce books that reflect well on them and their companies. These goals, taking profits and achieving status, can undermine a commitment to publishing quality books — books of lasting value. Yet works of distinction can appear, find an audience and endure despite such obstacles (e.g. Galileo’s Two New Sciences, Walter Benjamin’s The Origin of German Tragic Drama and The Arcades Project). But markets and organizations often are medicines which simultaneously heal and harm the patient looking for a public for her work.

In all cases, an author can only toss her work into the world and consider the results of her intervention. This is the nature of the venture.

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