The British book trade is experiencing change more drastic than anything it has undergone since the 1890s. What is happening - something that can loosely be called deregulation - will undo the controls on free trade that were installed in the 1890s by the then newly-formed publishers' and booksellers' associations. This dismantling appears as three trends, each apparently separate but in fact converging as a single tendency. Most spectacular is the absorption of venerable middle and small-sized publishing houses into conglomerates, often with non-publishing or foreign management at the highest level. Penguin, Hamish Hamilton, Michael Joseph, Frederick Warne and Longman - all once imprints with independent identities - now congregate within the Pearson group (best known for its ownership of the Financial Times). Random House UK (whose American parent was long since swallowed up by RCA) own Hutchinson, Cape, Chatto and Windus, Bodley Head. Below this league, which numbers about ten major players, there have been some marriages of convenience. Weidenfeld holdings, for instance, include the brash Weidenfeld and Nicolson and the staid J.M. Dent and Everyman imprints. There have also been some bloody dismemberings. Methuen (which celebrates its centenary in 1989) was sold in 1987 to International Thomson, who broke it up, selling the general and children's list to Paul Hamlyn's Octopus, itself subsequently acquired by Reed International. Methuen's academic books remained with Thomson, who now bring them out under the Routledge imprint, another victim of conglomeration.
LRB 28 September 1989 | PDF Download