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…
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Copyright © by Umberto Eco 2015