With the recent consolidation of Penguin Random House fresh in everyone’s minds, and the dominance of Amazon always a contentious topic, this year’s London Book Fair Great Debate debated the proposition: "It’s all about size, bigger is always better."
Once again ably moderated and co-hosted by the Copyright Clearance Center's Michael Healy, and Susan Danziger, organizer of The Publishing Point and founder of Ziggeo, the debate featured blogger and Idea Logical consultant Mike Shatzkin, and McGraw-Hill’s Ken Brooks arguing for the proposition, and Faber & Faber CEO Stephen Page and agent and founder of Diversion Books Scott Waxman arguing against.
In defense of “big” publishing, Shatzkin opened by focusing on the obvious need for scale. Size is “a huge competitive advantage,” for publishers, which is why small publishers engage the services of large distributors, Shatzkin argued. “You’d think digital might change that, but it hasn’t," he added,” noting that a handful of large firms dominate the digital realm: Amazon, Apple, Kobo, Google, and Barnes & Noble. And despite the much noted successes of self-published and indie authors like Hugh Howey and Bella Andre, would they have had that success without Amazon? In the end, Shatzkin argued, being big means you can hire, or buy, whatever smaller services you need.
Brooks also seized on the idea of scale. “If a small publisher makes an author, that author moves on,” he noted, because larger companies can take larger risks and make larger investments, where small companies would go bankrupt. But Brooks also asserted that innovation is often erroneously credited to small companies. Who tracks all the failed innovations? he asked. He referenced the large number of e-book innovators that aren’t around anymore, and noted that the e-book market didn’t work until Amazon came along. In the end, all big companies started small, and being big is simply “a byproduct of sustained success.”
Arguing against the proposition, Page opened by noting two words that did not appear in his opponents’ argument: readers, and writers. “Any digital novice will tell you that [size] doesn’t matter at all any more,” Page argued. The things that do matter, are taste, the relationship with the reader, the ability to communicate with a writer, and to connect with an audience or a community. “Taste is the heart of publishing,” Page argued, and on that score “big companies try really hard to imitate small,” he went on, noting that the newly merged Penguin Random House is “rammed with imprints." But striking a Star Wars theme, Page noted that the "galaxy" of publishers and services had expanded. "There are a few Death Stars," he conceded. "But there are plenty of Millennium Falcons."
Scott Waxman used a sailing analogy, noting that smaller boats can change course swiftly. “Bigger is always slower,” he noted, and in the changing digital world, that gives a distinct advantage to upstart digital companies, who operate without “the curse” of a large bureaucracy, or of sustaining a “legacy model” based on “print and hope.” Smaller publishers are also better situated to compete for writers in the emerging digital economy, by offering them higher royalties. They can also move faster to market, better collaborate with other innovators, and outsource for their needs. “The old world,” Waxman argued, “is gone.”
Perhaps weary of consolidation, the audience at the start of the debate voted in support of smaller is better by a nearly 2-1 margin, 54-28. At the end, only a few minds were changed, with 52 casting votes for smaller, and 32 for bigger. In his summation, Page offered the audience a Star Wars theme, noting that the various publishers, retailers and Internet-based businesses represent different "galaxies" in which "there are a few Death Stars," he conceded, "but plenty of Millennium Falcons."