Bloomsbury’s latest acquisition: an analysis
This week brought the announcement of Bloomsbury‘s acquisition of Continuum. The move has occasioned a good deal of comment online.* Much of the reception could have been scripted in advance. Continuum is known as an independent publisher. It was, therefore, inevitable that its takeover would be regarded as a ‘shame’ and would arouse alarm (‘There goes another one!’). There is a widespread fear that independent publishing will disappear, swallowed up by over-powerful, faceless conglomerates.
The grounds for this fear merit analysis. A common assumption is that the pool of independent publishing companies is static – so as companies are removed by acquisition from that pool, it may be expected to dry up. The difficulty with that assumption is that it forgets that new publishing companies are being founded every year. In the UK, the long-term trend for the number of publishers has in fact been upwards. Statistics published by the Publishers Association indicate that this trend stalled in 2009 (the number of publishers fell from 3,142 in 2008 to 3,007 in 2009) – but then there was the small matter of the credit crunch recession. Since then the number has grown again, though slowly (to 3,151 in 2010).
In the case of this particular acquisition, the lament for loss of independence is most odd. I’ve never been able to find a satisfactory definition of ‘independence’. Most people I’ve asked say that it means something along the lines of ‘not a conglomerate’. But defining the term like that would make it difficult to describe Continuum as an independent, since the company has itself completed many acquisitions. They include companies such as T&T Clark, Sheffield Academic Press, and Burns & Oates.
Moreover, Bloomsbury is itself commonly described as an independent – that indeed is how it describes itself.
I suspect that in practice ‘independent’ is often used just to mean small (in which case, why not just say ‘small’?). But this definition too would make it difficult to maintain that there has been any loss to independence publishing. Bloomsbury is not HarperCollins or Random House: the Financial Times today quotes Bloomsbury capitalisation as just under £85 million. This places the company, by any commonly accepted standard, as towards the ‘small’ end of the ‘small and medium enterprise’ category. I don’t see why the fact that it is several times bigger than Continuum would make it less of a bulwark against loss of independence – the opposite is more likely to be true.
This is not Bloomsbury’s first acquisition. Previous acquisitions include A&C Black, Methuen Drama, and Berg. Bloomsbury’s handling of the acquisition and integration of those companies should hearten supporters of independent publishing.
I remember visiting A&C Black before Bloomsbury acquired it. The company was based in the kind of characterful, impractical terraced offices that arouses much nostalgia in publishing. I doubt that words like ‘digitalisation’ were uttered much there. (When I wrote a book for them, I supplied it on a disc in Word – but if memory serves me right it was then actually re-keyed.) If ever a takeover should provoke lamentation, this surely was it.
Yet what has happened to the A&C Black imprint since acquisition? It hasn’t been swallowed up, it hasn’t lost its character. Rather, it has been developed – sensitively and intelligently. The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, for example, has retained its distinctive appearance whilst being promoted as a brand – in the process spawning Children’s Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and an online community.
What grounds here, then, are there for lament? None.
*Perhaps I should declare an interest, which is as the author of a Writing Successful Textbooks (A&C Black) I published by the Bloomsbury group. I am also the author of 100 Ideas for Teaching Writing (Continuum) and a couple of other Continuum titles.