On October 29th, 2012, Marcus Dohle sent an email to all of the authors published by Random House. The subject line, a modestly worded “Our news today,” may very well have gone unnoticed by most of its recipients (if not simply deleted), because Random House authors have no idea who Marcus Dohle is. I, for one, immediately suspected him of being a virus.
Much to my surprise, Marcus Dohle turned out to be a German industrial engineer – and CEO of Random House. “Our news,” also to my surprise, was an announcement that Random House, the largest trade publisher in the English-speaking world, was merging with Penguin, the second of the “six sisters.” The tone of Dohle’s email was reassuring. In spite of this momentous change, it would be “business as usual” at Random House.
In order to get the full picture of what this merger means, one has to imagine an analogous scenario. For example, imagine what would happen if two of the world’s largest oil companies, Exxon and Mobil, were to merge. Prices of oil would go up, because output by refineries would decrease due to lack of competition. The nation’s… no, the world’s energy needs would be held hostage to the bottom line of a self-serving oligopoly more interested in maintaining its position at the top of the hierarchy of multinational corporations than the needs of a dependent populace. And, while average families would shell out increasing proportions of their income for gasoline, the oil monopoly would have little incentive to develop new ideas and new ways of increasing supply to fit demand. The very size of immense corporate structures does not allow for innovation.
Wait a minute… it’s already happened.
And now it’s happening again, only this time it is not an oil trust that has us in a stranglehold, it is the monopolistic control of ideas.
For those of you who may not be familiar with the ins and outs of the publishing world, Random House is owned by a private, family-owned German company, Bertelsmann. For the last 30 years, Bertelsmann has been quietly gobbling up the world’s media outlets. One of its corporate divisions, RTL, is Europe’s largest broadcasting and production company. With programming rights in 150 countries, it is currently the largest independent TV distribution company outside the United States.
Another of its divisions, Gruner + Jahr, is the largest publisher of newspapers and magazines in Europe, with more than 285 print titles in over 20 countries. Gruner + Jahr also owns Brown Printing, the third largest magazine printer in the United States. Bertelsmann’s control over news media is a source of civic pride. According to their website, “Newspapers and magazines contribute the facts and background information that let readers form their own perceptions of the world.”
(At this point, it might be a good idea to mention that Bertelsmann takes its role as a “former of perceptions” quite seriously. During WWII, Bertelsmann was the primary disseminator of Nazi propaganda.)
I could go on and on, because Bertelsmann literally has it all. But the importance of Bertelsmann is not just its monopolistic hold on the world’s avenues of communication (or the fact that it used Jewish slave labor to acquire them), but that 77% of the company is owned by a political “think tank.” This is where I get off my keyboard and climb onto a soapbox.
“Political think tank” is newspeak for “organization that pressures governments to implement its political agenda while masquerading as an unbiased educational foundation.” Thinking is not usually involved. In this case, the Bertelsmann Foundation, a “non-profit think tank,” promotes a neo-liberal agenda remarkably similar to the Republican Party’s platform – deregulation, the elimination of price controls, privatization, reducing state regulations in favor of “laissez-faire” economics, and “small” government – all of which are very useful for monopolists. (And, may I point out, have produced the largest recession in our history.) Even more useful to monopolists is limiting access to education, and consequently, impeding the development of critical thinking. The Bertelsmann Foundation, which does not provide educational grants or scholarships, has been criticized for promoting “reforms” such as the elimination of free access to higher education in Germany and the reduction academic autonomy.
The Author’s Guild, due to Hurricane Sandy, was slow to respond to Random House/Bertelsmann’s announcement, in every sense. The Guild, in a tepid statement, called for “close scrutiny” of the merger by the Justice Department. In the meantime, Bertelsmann announced its acquisition of Random House Mondadori, one of the most important publishing groups in the Spanish language
In the end, what does this merger mean for writers (and readers)? Will the Bertelsmann Foundation’s sink-or-swim economic stance bleed over into the realm of literature? Will Random House/Penguin, now in control of more than a quarter of the entire book market, stick to a bottom line that reduces the supply of ideas while increasing its intellectual price? Will Random House/Penguin, increasingly free from serious competition, no longer feel a need to invest in writers with new ideas, new concepts, new ways of interpreting the world?
The answer to all of these questions is: Yes.
Pearson/Penguin imprints include Ace Books, Avery, Alpha Books, Author Solutions, Berkley Books, Blue Rider Press, Dutton, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, Grosset and Dunlap, Hudson Street Press, New American Library, Prentice Hall, Puffin Books, Jeremy P. Tarcher, and Viking Press. Random House owns Crown Publishing Group, Knopf Doubleday, Crown, Harmony Books, Ten Speed Press, Tricycle Press, Celestial Arts, Three Rivers Press, Broadway Books, Clarkson Potter, Watson-Gupthill, Back Stage Books, Anchor Books, Doubleday, Vintage, Pantheon Books, Delacorte, Fodor’s, Bantam Dell, Del Rey, The Dial Press, The Modern Library, and… (wait for it) …One World.