In Italy on February 21, about fifty authors who work with Bompiani (and other publishing houses) publicly protested Mondadori’s proposed acquisition of the RCS Group. Let’s try to see clearly here. Mondadori is certainly the largest Italian publishing group (it includes, for example, such prestigious houses as Einaudi) and it belongs to the Berlusconi family. RCS, that is, Rizzoli–Corriere della Sera, is the second-largest Italian group and it includes a major daily, various other publications, and most important a series of book publishers such as Bompiani, Adelphi, Fabbri, Rizzoli, Archinto, BUR, Lizard, Marsilio, and Sonzogno.

This is the assortment of publishing houses that the RCS board, faced with steep debt, wants to sell to Mondadori. At first there was talk of a new group, assembled through a merger of the Mondadori book group with its RCS counterpart, but at this point things are moving down a different path: what’s now being discussed is the acquisition of RCS by Mondadori.

Now let’s try to forget for a minute that Mondadori belongs to the Berlusconi family—which certainly adds an unsettling touch to the whole affair, because the Berlusconi family would thus come to dominate not only the television industry but the publishing sector, too. The problem would remain the same even if the owner of Mondadori was just some ordinary Mr. Smith. Whether Smith or Berlusconi, Mondadori plus RCS would form a publishing colossus dominating 40 percent of the Italian market (there is no equivalent in the European landscape). Why are the writers who signed the appeal I mentioned above so worried?

There’s no mistaking the power that this concentration would wield in Italy. Since it would be competing against two mid-sized groups and a plethora of small publishing houses (that are occasionally indispensable in discovering new authors), this new colossus would acquire an unsettling bargaining power over authors. It could tell them “either work with us, on the terms that we offer, or go fall into the hands of a smaller publisher.” But a group with a 40 percent market share would also have decisive influence over bookstores and would be capable of punishing smaller publishers. So the author who chooses not to give in to the group’s offer will see reduced opportunities in terms of distribution.

Moreover it has been noted that the merger would turn literary awards into a farce. The most important Italian literary prize—the Strega—does have a jury of hundreds of voters but, noble-sounding pieties aside, everyone knows that publishing houses control substantial “bundles” of votes. A monster group like the one being proposed could dictate every year which author gets the Strega. At that point we might as well get rid of literary prizes entirely, as they would have the credibility, to all but the most naive readers, of hair rejuvenation commercials.

We have to admit that the Mondadori group, even though it belongs to Berlusconi, has shown itself to be pretty liberal toward the publishing houses it controls, allowing Einaudi, for example, to pursue its own literary vocation. But even if Berlusconi were the most virtuous of tycoons, nothing could keep him from someday selling out to another less virtuous owner (if that idea doesn’t sound improbable), and the monster group could develop a strong inclination for censorship. Concerning the free market, it is true that industry concentrations are often economically inevitable, but the system remains healthy when there is still competition between rival concentrations. If, however, one group is more powerful than all the others, there is a crisis in free competition. And again, in free market terms, reducing competition always threatens to undermine quality.

In short, the authors (who as a group constitute the hens that lay the golden eggs of the publishing world) are not happy with this looming threat. Of course, the right-wing press immediately began talking about a “Communist” plot and an attempt to drive RCS into bankruptcy. It’s true that the merger with Mondadori looks right now like the easiest one to implement, but there is no reason a consortium of entrepreneurs, possibly foreign ones, couldn’t be put together, big enough to purchase the RCS intellectual treasure chest and thus creating an independent group.

The future is in the lap of Allah, or God, or the Higgs boson, but there is no doubt that the authors who signed this appeal (including such non-Italians as Tahar Ben Jelloun, Hanif Kureishi, and Thomas Piketty, as well as a great American editor, Drenka Willen) are uneasy, and they ask their readers to feel uneasy with them.

—Translated from the Italian by Antony Shugaar

Copyright © by Umberto Eco 2015