Tuesday, April 21, 2015

How Merger-Happy Publishing Harmed Education

How sad is it that one can be "the largest education company and largest book publisher in the world" and still not crack the Fortune 1000? Yes, the corporatization of education is a sorry-looking thing, and publishing of any kind is still a bad bet for your portfolio.

I worked in educational publishing in NYC at a time when you honestly needed a scorecard to keep track of who was buying whom. I got a job at Harper & Row Educational one day, moved to Harcourt Brace Jovanovich the next, and saw the ed division at Harper dissolve before Harper & Row itself was bought up by Murdoch, who later merged it with William Collins, another acquisition, and formed HarperCollins, now Harper. Then HBJ (formerly Harcourt Brace & World, before which it was Harcourt Brace & Company, once Harcourt Brace & Howe) left NYC for Orlando and San Diego, where it was purchased by General Cinema Corporation, which soon divested itself of anything having to do with cinema and started calling the publishing division Harcourt Brace & Company. It is now Harcourt, Inc. and is owned by Reed Elsevier, which sold the educational publishing group to Houghton Mifflin, forming Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

The story of the 1990s, by which time I had left NYC and moved upstate, was all about foreign companies (Murdoch's News Corp.; Reed Elsevier, which is British and Dutch) buying up American publishers. Bertelsmann (German) bought Doubleday, Bantam, and Random House. Maxwell (British) bought Macmillan. Viacom, which is American, and which does appear on the Fortune 1000 at rank 210, tried its hand at publishing but couldn't find the profit in it, so it sold many of its holdings to a British company called Pearson. That's how Pearson acquired Scribner, Simon & Schuster, and Prentice Hall. Along with Simon & Schuster, Pearson got several education-related subsidiaries, including Allyn & Bacon and Silver Burdett Ginn.

So over the course of a few decades, foreign companies gobbled up dozens of American publishers that dated back to the 1800s. (Macmillan was 1843, A&B 1868, Silver Burdett 1888. Prentice Hall and Simon & Schuster were relative newcomers at 1913 and 1924 respectively.) These companies simply were not profitable enough for American corporations to take a chance on them.

When fast food companies conglomerate, you run the risk of all the food tasting the same. When educational publishing companies conglomerate, you run a higher risk. When I started in ed publishing in 1980, there were twenty or so companies right in NYC who were trying to capture some part of that market, and other companies (Dick Jane and Sally's Scott Foresman, for example) were scattered across the U.S. That competition gave genuine choices to school districts who were looking for new textbooks or other educational materials. By the time I left in 1991, the market had already shrunk by more than half. And today we are stuck with a small handful of niche publishers and then gigantic megacorps (though not gigantic enough by Forbes's standards) like Pearson, the company everybody loves to hate. As a source of income, publishing just stinks, so, as the author of this Fortune article states, "Testing has helped Pearson reduce its dependence on old-fashioned publishing."

A lot had to go wrong to get us to this point: American publishers had to wear blinders and ignore the movement toward digital publishing; American corporations had to hold their noses when offered a chance at purchasing a publisher; successful European companies (Pearson does rank in the top 100 on the British Stock Exchange, which shows what a sad state British industry is in) had to see the possibilities in cornering the education market worldwide rather than sticking to their own tiny market shares; and everyone involved had to worship at the fire of the global free market. It's not at all clear to me where we go from here.

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