The Week in Books: Will the BRICS make our books? Slowly, global publishing turns a new page

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Maybe it's a remnant from an encyclopaedia-browsing childhood (or just early exposure to the Guinness Book of Records), but I still love chunky illustrated reference books – a taste for bulky blocks of print incompatible with the price per square foot of property anywhere in southern England. Earlier this year, I bought Dorling Kindersley's wonderful History Year by Year – nugget after shiny nugget of the human past over the millennia, all the way from the Great Rift Valley in Kenya to Silicon Valley in California. Checking the credits page, I found that the smart design work on this multi-handed monument of editing came from India, where publishers now often outsource not just routine office functions but almost every skilled task. DK began to operate in India even before the reference giant was swallowed by Penguin in 2000.

In other industries, the flow of investment definitely runs both ways. Most famously, India's Tata Group conglomerate – which has worked in Europe since 1907 – now owns ultra-British brands, from Tetley tea to Land Rover and Jaguar. In English-language publishing, however, India – for all its world-class skills base - lives with the Victorian legacy of British giants who dominate the home market via long-established subsidiaries. This is one of the illuminating sidelights to emerge from the latest "Global Ranking of the Publishing Industry", released under the auspices of LivresHebdo magazine in France but compiled by the Vienna-based maestro of international bookbiz research, Rudiger Wischenbart. He comments that India's knowledge "is still governed from abroad, mostly from market leaders in the UK", whereas home-grown distribution channels – notably Flipkart, the Indian rival to Amazon – are racing ahead.

How far has the rise of the BRICS nations dented the European-North American stranglehold on global publishing? In the Wischenbart "chart", Pearson-Penguin heads the field again, with 2011 revenues of 6.4 billion euros, followed by Reed Elsevier, ThomsonReuters and another titan of scientific and educational publishing. That's where the big money still resides, as the table shows. Among the general houses, Hachette comes in at five, with Spain's Grupo Planeta at six and Random House at eight. Asia first begins to make an impression with the three biggest Japanese combines ranked at 14,15 and 16 (the annual revenues of each still easily exceed a billion euros).

China makes an entrance at 38, in the guise of the China Education and Media Group. This leviathan owes its existence to a "government sponsored merger of several Chinese publishers into a new global actor". It still lags one place south of Finland's biggest player, Sanoma, and considerably behind Korea's Woongjin ThinkBig (at 29).

We catch another whiff of the future with the arrival of Abril Educacao and Saraiva from Brazil (at 40 and 50). And, at 45, the newly integrated AST-EKSMO group flies the Russian flag. But no Tata of the book has yet appeared in India. Given the advantages conferred by an Anglophone professional workforce, it seems likely that the residue of the Raj may have inhibited the emergence of "national champions" in publishing.

Even in booming Brazil, the bookish north still buys up the south. Penguin has acquired a 45 per cent holding in São Paulo's literary heavyweight, Companhia das Letras. At least this means, so Penguin promises, that the best Brazilian authors might find an easier passage into the English-speaking world. And in August, Penguin Classics has two works scheduled to mark the centenary of the birth of Jorge Amado: the greatest fictional chronicler of modern Brazil. Whichever way the money runs, the import-export trade in imagination can enrich us all.

Crime before love: the wealthy show their class tastes

Like any properly sceptical journalist, I never believe those eye-catching statistical "surveys" designed to raise the profile of a company or a cause – until they happen to hit a sweet spot. Volunteer Reading Help, a very good cause, trains volunteers to help children to read. It surveyed the literary preferences of 500 top earners – CEOs, entrepreneurs and the like. The favourite genre of the rich turned out to be crime fiction; the least enjoyed, memoirs and romance. Draw your own conclusions. Me? I'm taking it as gospel.

Mandela's Shakespearean motif

When you live in an unfree state, access to the culture and history of other times can illuminate the world around you in ways that no censor can control. Next week the London Literature Festival opens on the South Bank (3-12 July). Among its highlights will be a staged reading inspired by Ashwin Desai's book Reading Revolution: Shakespeare on Robben Island. It tells the story of Sonny Venkatrathnam, a jailed activist and Shakespeare lover who smuggled a Complete Works into his prison cell by disguising it as Hindu scriptures (only "Bibles" were allowed). Fellow-inmates devoured and debated the plays, and before his release Venkatrathnam invited them to sign passages with special significance for them. So what did Nelson Mandela choose? This, from Julius Caesar: "Cowards die many times before their deaths/ The valiant never taste of death but once".