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Blackwell and Readers Digest sold

20 November 2006

Mergers and further conglomeratisation are shaking the foundations of the international publishing world, as the book trade continues to become more like other businesses, and is similarly affected by globalisation.

The last week has seen the sale of old-established British educational and academic publisher Blackwell, which dates back to 1897, to the American firm John Wiley. This follows years of family squabbling, as members of the Blackwell family fought for control of the company and its future. Blackwell, in the inter-war years the publisher of Tolkien, Graham Greene, W H Auden and Enid Blyton, is now the publisher of approximately 825 journals, in the STM (science, technical and medical) and social sciences and humanities fields, as well as about 600 new books a year. It was valued at £572 million ($1,084 billion) in a deal which excludes the loss-making bookshop chain.

Takeovers such as this make sense in the educational and academic world, where investment in electronic publishing and other costly new development can be difficult to finance within the framework of a private company. Thomson Learning in the UK is also in the process of being sold and the huge American firm Houghton Mifflin is currently in talks with Riverdeep.

It has also just been announced that Readers Digest, the troubled giant of the direct marketing world, is to be sold to the same Riverdeep Holdings in a deal which values it at $2.4 billion (£1.27 billion), one year's turnover. It remains to be seen whether the new ownership can arrest the decline which has affected the company over the last few years.

Readers Digest is still a very big operator, producing products and content for magazines, books, recorded music collections, home videos and online websites. Its flagship Reader's Digest magazine is still published in 50 editions and 21 languages with a monthly circulation of approximately 18 million and a global readership of 80 million. The company also reaches millions of consumers through more than 20 other magazines and online portals, focusing on food, home and garden, health, and that rapidly growing area, English as a second language.

These giant takeovers may seem unrelated to the individual writer's quest to get published, but it's worth remembering that these huge companies and others like them have largely controlled the marketplace for books and how writers can reach readers through their powerful sales and distribution networks. Fortunately, since these companies are becoming increasingly just another part of big business, self-publishing and the development of the web are now offering other opportunities for writers to control their own destiny.