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‘Apple Penguin Random House’: the monopolies that could curate our culture

7 Apr

'Apple Penguin Random House': the monopolies that could curate our culture

Mr Lawyer Boy is very proud of himself this morning, as he has successfully ‘done the internets properly’ and sent me an interesting, if rather geeky, blog post from the International Economic Law and Policy Blog. Don’t be scared off by the whiff of academia lurking around that link – it’s a quick snapshot looking at the international book industry: where it’s headed, and what a financially sustainable model might look like for us Book People.

Among other things, it quotes economics blogger Tyler Cowen:

I expect two or three major publishers, with stacked names (“Penguin Random House”), and they will be owned by Google, Apple, Amazon, and possibly Facebook, or their successors, which perhaps would make it “Apple Penguin Random House.” Those companies have lots of cash, amazing marketing penetration, potential synergies with marketing content they own, and very strong desires to remain focal in the eyes of their customer base. They could buy up a major publisher without running solvency risk. For instance Amazon revenues are about twelve times those of a merged Penguin Random House and arguably that gap will grow.

There is no hurry, as the tech companies are waiting to buy the content companies, including the booksellers, on the cheap. Furthermore, the acquirers don’t see it as their mission to make the previous business models of those content companies work. They will wait.

Did I mention that the tech companies will own some on-line education too? EduTexts embedded in iPads will be a bigger deal than it is today, and other forms of on-line or App-based content will be given away for free, or cheaply, to sell texts and learning materials through electronic delivery.

The  post goes on to discuss other problems (do second-hand ebook sales spell financial peril for authors? How can we ensure libraries have access to ebooks without completely removing digital restrictions and demolishing sales? Will a successful business model include any middle-men publishing-types?)

While I fully accept that the book publishing industry is experiencing – and facing – some serious demolition, rebuilding, restructuring and remodeling, I still get a creeping, cold feeling across my skin when I think about the monopolisation of the book industry. Any media industry.

The concentration of power over our books (and thereby so much of our thoughts, our culture) should scare us. Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon already basically own the internet and predictions for changes in the publishing model seem to indicate that at before long they will also control the selection and distribution of long-form content.

In light of the rabid, frothing News Ltd response to prospective media regulation reforms in both the UK (where The Sun cast Cameron’s government as ‘The Ministry of Truth’) and Australia (where the front page of the Daily Tele depicted Communications Minister Stephen Conroy was depicted as Stalin), it’s clear that right-wing corporate interests have a strong hold over media. It’s a short step from misrepresenting policies in order to defend those interests to selecting manuscripts for publication based on the commercial interests of global conglomerates.

Apple already commonly self-censors. In that environment, would Lolita get past the slush pile?

 ‘If we don’t like it, we won’t commission it. If you publish independently and we don’t like it, we won’t distribute it.’

I know it sounds Orwellian, but while these huge internet corporations are benign now, there’s no guaranteeing that state of affairs will continue. It’s currently in their interests (i.e. profit) to allow for a free, democratic-style internet – but what if there is some political reason to suppress certain ideas? 

What if there was a political backlash in the US against free-market capitalism? It has been unbounded for 40-odd years, but it wasn’t always that way, and with ongoing economic pressures and the enduring 99% movement, it’s possible things could change… And we know what happens in the Murdoch media whenever a left-wing policy appears on the horizon.

With the development of these mega-conglomerates of publishing, will the industry, and with it, the variety of content we have access to (ie our culture) start to narrow?

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