Penguin Random House Withdraws Union Recognition
20th December 2016As an indie there's freedom to choose to do business with who I like and in the manner I please, to an extent. But it's undeniable that large businesses have much more marketplace power for a whole host of reasons. At the end of December and the beginning of January my Kaddon novels will come out of Amazon's Select and I'll be able to distribute them widely once more, and that comes as a relief: no more reliance on one distributor for that series' success.
However, as an individual author my choices are limited to accepting Amazon's terms, or those of any other company, or rejecting them.
The employees of Penguin Random House, who have recently learned that their careers in publishing are dependent on the whims of a management that has just decided to de-recognise both Unite and the NUJ as the result of unresolved disputes about severance pay, might be having similar thoughts about the power of large organisations. Penguin and Random House merged to form the largest publisher in the world in 2013. Since then a lot of major publishers have suffered from falling profits, in part due to the growth of independent authors, Amazon imprints, and the ebook revolution. Yet PRH isn't one of these suffering companies. It reported record profits for 2015, up over 23%.
That's what makes PRH's conflict with the unions so worrying. It clearly has nothing to do with a need to keep the publisher solvent.
It's something PRH have done because they think they can get away with it. PRH "will suffer enormous reputational damage if they plough ahead with these misguided plans", according to Unite officer Louisa Bull.
The trouble is, PRH has become too powerful and they are throwing their corporate weight around to the detriment of their staff. It's a bad sign. Yet the ultimate power in publishing lies with paying customers, especially when there are nowhere near enough hours in a lifetime to read all of the great books, never mind those that are merely good, that are available in most genres. Okay, perhaps the genre of popular science books written by hamsters might be a bit sparse, but in speculative fiction? Forget it.
Unfortunately there are a lot of publishers who don't recognise unions for collective bargaining, so it's harder to single one of them out as a bad apple. But that doesn't make PRH's move in any way reasonable. It will make me reconsider which books I buy unless the company does something in the near future to prove it is a decent employer willing to listen to unions.
In 2017 I believe we will see more of this sort of thing, if the trend of consolidation continues both in publishing houses and in the reduction in the number of outlets for selling books. In such circumstances unions become more relevant, not less.
UpdatePRH, the NUJ and Unite issued a joint statement on 21st December stating that talks continue after a meeting they describe as "positive".
© Ros Jackson