It's a Small Publishing World After All
It's a Small Publishing World After All:Media Monopolization of the Children's
James L. McQuivey
Megan K. McQuivey
S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications
215 University Place
Syracuse, NY 13244
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PLEASE CONSIDER THIS FOR YOUR GRADUATE STUDENT PAPER COMPETITION
It's a Small Publishing World After All
It's a Small Publishing World After All:Media Monopolization of the Children's
This study considers how the current environment of media
conglomeratization is affecting the little-studied industry that provides books
to millions of children each year. Two hypotheses are proposed that test
different aspects of competitive market theory. Hypothesis two is supported:
children's books that have ties with other media products sell more copies than
books that have no such ties. The implications of the theoretical discussion
and the supported hypothesis are discussed.
It's a Small Publishing World After All:Media Monopolization of the Children's
The question of media monopolization is not unique to the 1990s. Ben
Bagdikian's now famous treatise on the topic is in its fifth edition (1997).
For nearly two decades Bagdikian has documented trends towards monopolization
across all the media industries. He and others have also consistently provided
warnings of what might happen should the wide diversity of media outlets become
dominated by only a handful of conglomerates (Gomery, 1993b; Murdock, 1982).
As critics gather evidence to counter monopoly control of the media,
governments around the world are loosening regulatory controls across the board.
The list of western nations that have enacted sweeping deregulatory reform of
their telecommunications systems reads like a who's who of western democracy:
Great Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and with
the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the United States
The primary concern for researchers throughout this long and evolving
debate has been the monopoly control of news gathering and reporting (Hicks &
Featherstone, 1978; Thrift, 1977). Because the press is regarded as the fourth
estate, a necessary check against government's own system of checks and
balances, the news function of the media is watched most carefully. As an
example of this, perhaps the most studied medium with respect to monopolization
is the newspaper. In the United States, since GE acquired NBC, Disney acquired
Capital Cities/ABC, Westinghouse acquired CBS, and Time Warner acquired Turner's
powerful CNN news organization, there has been serious discussion of the
influence of monopolies on broadcast news as well (McQuivey & Wigand, 1997).
Even within the news organizations themselves there is an awareness of the
situation they face. On ABC's Nightline program, correspondent Cokie Roberts
spoke with former Paramount pictures executive Barry Diller about this
increasing trend towards monopoly control of the media, where she laughingly
remarked, "I think we might look cute in mouse ears!" (ABC News, 1995).
Amid the concern over the news function of the media, other critics are
equally disturbed by the potential impact of monopoly control on the
entertainment function of the media. These critics are motivated by a belief
that a culture is in part constructed by the narratives shared among members of
a society. In modern society, the entertainment media are a major source of
cultural narratives. This is the belief that originally motivated George
Gerbner to pursue the cultivation effect of television (Gerbner & Gross, 1976).
Other researchers attribute similar cultural significance to feature films
As the complaints against television and film pile up, little attention, if
any, has been paid to a mass medium often neglected in our body of research:
books. When mentioned in mass media research, books generally take the role of
the noble medium that once was (Postman, 1985) There are several reasons why
books are still relevant today and why they should be examined in light of the
modern pressure towards monopolization. First, the book publishing industry
remains very large and influential. In the United States, book buying is a $20
billion a year business (Publisher's Weekly, 1997). Second--a concern that is
especially relevant to this research--the creation and publication of a book
does not require the massive amounts of capital that film or video production
do; therefore, the publishing industry should be capable of avoiding the
economic pressure towards monopolization that is so often described as
unavoidable in the film and television industries.
As a place to begin studying consolidation of the publishing industry, this
research will consider the specific role of children's books. This is done for
several reasons. First, children have always been a topic of concern for mass
media researchers. Second, the potential impact of monopoly control over
cultural narratives is greatest at the level of the young child, who is in the
most impressionable stages of socialization. Third, not only are children
busily learning the values of the culture, they are also shaping expectations
about specific behaviors, including commercial behavior. If children become
accustomed to the presence of only a few large players in their media
environment, they will be more likely to accept media monopolization as adults,
and thus perpetuate the trend towards consolidation and conglomeratization.
Thus, the purpose of this research is to examine to what extent monopoly
consolidation is occurring in the children's book market.
Assumptions of a Competitive Market
Adam Smith outlined the basic ideas of free market competition in his now
famous treatise, On the Wealth of Nations. His work, later modified and
expanded by subsequent economists, has formed the basis for our entire
capitalist system (Heilbroner, 1980). The primary assumption of this body of
theory is that through competition, a market is compelled to efficiently produce
the best goods and services at the lowest price. The ultimate beneficiary is
the consumer, who is able to choose among vendors for the goods and services
that satisfy his or her desires.
This theoretical world is founded on a handful of core assumptions without
which true competition can not occur. Chief among them are: low switching costs
for consumers who wish to choose among substitutable goods from competing firms,
the availability of perfect information, and low barriers to entry and exit for
firms wishing to enter or leave the marketplace (Samuelson & Marks, 1992). To
understand the role these assumptions play in sustaining a competitive market,
we will consider each one as it relates to the children's book market.
Low switching costs. Switching costs are costs borne by a consumer who
wishes to change from one vendor to another in search of better goods or lower
prices. If switching costs are high, the consumer will have a disincentive to
choose another vendor, even if the other vendor provides a better good at a
lower price. An example of this is a bank's practice of offering direct deposit
for customers--if the consumer decides to try another bank, the customer must
fill out multiple forms authorizing the transfer of direct deposit from one
institution to another, a hassle that is often not worth the consumer's effort.
In the publishing industry, because books are generally sold retail in single
units, there is little reason for a consumer not to consider among different
publishers when buying a children's book. Thus, significant switching costs
will not influence the competitiveness of the children's book market.
The availability of perfect information. The presence of perfect
information in a competitive market means that consumers are able to find all
the information they need to judge among competing products or services. There
are two sources of information in any marketplace: public (the media or the
government), or private (advertising). For certain children's products such as
walkers or car-seats, public sources of information are likely to provide
crucial information about the safety and reliability of the products, but
because children's books are less crucial to a child's physical safety and are
relatively inexpensive, there is little objective information provided from
these sources. Instead, the market is entirely reliant on advertising to
receive information about new books.
This provides highly-capitalized, well-established firms with something of
an advantage in this market. Those firms with the largest advertising budgets
are able to provide a surplus of information about their products. They will be
able to develop a more powerful brand image with consumers. In the minds of
parents and grandparents eager to please today's media-aware children, these
powerful brand names will carry more weight when a purchase decision is made.
Thus, there is a pressure in the market that favors large firms, making industry
consolidation a sensible economic alternative for smaller players trying to
compete against larger players.
Low barriers to entry/exit. This assumption has the most significant
implications for the children's book market. Entry and exit barriers refer to
the costs (in labor or capital) of entering a competitive market. In short, if
it costs inordinate amounts of money to enter a market, the market will tend
towards low competitiveness. The film industry is an excellent example of this
situation, since the costs of producing a film now average over $30 million.
At first glance, the children's book market appears to be different. Most
books require a single author and illustrator. At most, this is a handful of
people who generally work freelance without payment until the finished product
is accepted. Publishing advances in this market are not very large, either,
ensuring that publishers can turn out a large quantity of titles a year with
little initial cost.
Physical production of a book is another matter, however. Depending on the
type of artwork involved and any special features of the book, a children's book
can be expensive to produce, some costing as much as $7 per unit to produce when
printed by the thousands. Note, that in order to keep the per unit cost down,
publishers are encouraged to do large print runs, achieving some economy of
scale. Printing more books means they need wider distribution and escalated
promotion in order to sell out a print run.
This distribution is a notoriously difficult thing to achieve in the
current retail world dominated by national chain stores such as Borders or
Barnes & Noble. These large, chain retail establishments rate the success of a
book by its turnover in inventory. The less time it spends on the shelves, the
better. Thus, retailers are less willing to pick up books from small publishers
who can't demonstrate the financial capacity to promote a book nationwide.
Large, conglomerate publishers are again provided an advantage. Smaller
publishers either turn to larger ones for investment, or are pressured out of
the market. Thus, consolidation becomes very likely due to the high cost of
maintaining a high advertising and distribution profile in this market.
Another result of this kind of pressure is the trend towards
cross-promotion as a means of recouping an investment in one medium by extending
its play in other media. This kind of cross-promotional merchandising is very
common in today's media environment, where the latest Disney movie spins off
books, dolls, candies, and audio tapes, all of which can earn more at retail
than the film itself does in theaters. With this trend firmly in place, small
publishers have no leverage in the market because they are not sufficiently
capitalized to achieve such broad media distribution, or to acquire book rights
to other media properties.
Potential Social Effects of Monopoly Control
Having established that economic pressures do tend towards consolidation in
the children's book market, we should now consider why this matters. So what if
the children's book market should become dominated by a few players? Our answer
to that question will address three specific points: the inefficient allocation
of market resources, hegemony control of ideas, and the unique role of children
in a culture.
Inefficient allocation of market resources. Interestingly, the economic
theories which provides the justification for the free market optimism so
rampant in recent years also provide its most immediate tool for criticism. A
free market is supposed to provide the most efficient allocation of resources to
a society. Thus, when pressures act to inhibit a free, competitive market,
resources will not be allocated efficiently. For the children's book market,
this does not only refer to the paper and ink used to print the books, but to
the ideas offered by authors. By definition, if there is not robust competition
among publishers, there will be ideas from writers that are desired by the
reading public which will not receive sufficiently wide distribution, or may not
even be published at all. From within this perspective, the solution is not to
artificially choose which ideas need to be supported, but to insist on market
controls that increase pressure towards greater competition.
Hegemony control of ideas. Hegemony theory is a perspective advanced by
critical studied theorists who analyze today's media. The general assumption
behind this theory is that the mass media support the dominant culture's
hegemonic position over alternative elements in the culture (Gitlin, 1980).
This occurs because the controllers of the mass media are heavily invested in
and benefit from the status quo. Thus, they have very little incentive to
provide wide distribution for ideas which may threaten the dominant culture's
status. A general rule of hegemony theory which applies to the children's book
market is that the more capital the firm has, the more likely it is to support
the dominant ideology. Hegemony provides a natural basis for later content
analysis of children's books if we are able to establish that there is a
tendency for monopoly control in this market.
Unique role of children. As mentioned above, the growth and social
development of children has long been a topic of interest to mass media
researchers concerned about the effects of the media (Comstock, 1991). The
present research is not concerned with the psychological or emotional welfare of
the children, but rather their socialized perceptions of their role as
consumers. A similar concern has motivated research into the effects of
advertisements targeted to children (Young, 1990). The contention of this paper
is that children who are socialized in a media environment that contains only a
few players might be more accepting of a less competitive media environment as
adults. At the very least, these children swim in a deluge of brand images
perpetuated by the dominant players (Disney or Barney, for example), and are
likely to perpetuate the dominance of those few brands, further creating
pressures towards consolidation.
Given the theoretical discussion above, this research will consider the
following two hypotheses:
H1: The larger the children's book publisher (or ultimate parent
company) is, the more retail unit sales the publisher's books will
H2: Books with tie-ins to other media will sell more units in retail
than those without media tie-ins.
Hypothesis one is designed to measure the leverage that large firms have in
the children's book market. Theoretically, larger publishers are able to
achieve wider distribution of their books and have more funds to aggressively
promote their books than do smaller publishers. This should result in increased
sales relative to their competition. The independent variable, size of
publisher, is operationally defined as the gross income of the publisher's
ultimate parent company from the most recent listing in The Directory of
Corporate Affiliations or ABI/Inform when data was not available from the former
source. Ultimate parent companies are included because the strength of the
parent is directly related to the funding available to the subsidiary. The
dependent variable, retail unit sales of children's books, is operationally
defined as the number of copies sold in retail within a given year as reported
by publishers to the Publisher's Weekly trade magazine. The linkage between the
variables is such that the higher the gross income of the parent companies in a
given year, the more units the book should be able to sell in that year. This
relationship will be tested with pearson's correlation coefficient.
Hypothesis two is designed to test the strength of the cross-promotional
nature of the children's book market as discussed above. In other words, is the
book market being used as a springboard from or to other media, further
consolidating the power held by global media brands? The independent variable,
tie-ins with other media, is operationalized as books with content that is
derivative of broadcast television programs or feature films in release during
the four-year time span of the sample (1992-1995). The dependent variable,
retail units sold, is operationally defined as the number of copies sold in
retail within a given year as reported by publishers to the Publisher's Weekly
trade magazine. The linkage between the two variables is such that those books
with tie-ins to other media should achieve greater consumer awareness and will
have more promotional funding and therefore, will sell more copies than those
with no tie-ins. This relationship will be tested with an independent t-test.
An arbitrary time-horizon was chosen that included the four most recent
years of complete data reported in Publisher's Weekly, meaning all sales that
occurred from 1992 through 1995, for a total of 476 books tracked during that
time period. Publisher's Weekly only gathers data for the frontlist books that
sell more than 75,000 copies and backlist books that sell more than 100,000
copies. Frontlist titles (published for the first time that year) and backlist
titles (published previously, but still selling enough copies to merit tracking)
were both included in this study because the sales of each are directly affected
by the marketing clout and strength of their publishers. For the purposes of
this study, only hardcover books were included, because paperback books tend to
be dominated by genre titles that have niche appeal and therefore could pose a
threat to validly testing the mass audience theoretical purposes of this paper.
The four-year time horizon was chosen to allow for a wide array of titles
and sales figures that might overcome the peculiarities of any particular year's
performance. The span was not extended beyond that time, however, to avoid
threats to internal validity from long-term industry trends. Though any
possible trends are not theorized here, there is ample opportunity for a trend
analysis over a larger time horizon, should future researchers wish to pursue
the long-term changes in this particular market.
Means and standard deviations for the sales of children's books and income
of ultimate parent companies are shown in Table 1. It can be seen in this table
that data for ultimate parent company income was only available for 445 of the
476 books studied. All 31 of the books not included in this figure were
published by the Lyons Group, a private holding company that does not release
financial information nor are industry estimates available. Because of this,
its titles were not included in the testing of hypothesis one. Frequencies for
media tie-ins are shown in Table 2. Note that over 40% of books from these
lists are tied to some television or movie property.
Hypothesis one, that larger ultimate parent companies will have more retail
sales than smaller parent companies was tested by a pearson correlation
coefficient, which is shown in Table 3. According to this test, the correlation
was close to nonexistent, and the result was not statistically significant.
Hypothesis one was not supported. This will be discussed in more detail below.
Hypothesis two, that books with media tie-ins will perform better in retail
sales than will books without media tie-ins, was tested using an independent
t-test shown in Table 4. Considering that the mean sales figure for books
without media tie-ins was 164,290 units compared to the mean sales figure for
books with media tie-ins which was 279,856 units, it is no surprise that the
t-value (-5.21) achieved significance at the .001 level. Based on these means,
it is apparent that books with media tie-ins sell about 1.7 times as many copies
as books without media tie-ins. This support for hypothesis two is discussed in
more detail below.
The purpose of this study was to consider how the current environment of
media conglomeratization and monopolization is affecting the little-studied
industry that provides books to millions of children each year. Two hypotheses
were proposed that tested two aspects of competitive market theory, namely:
availability of perfect information, and low barriers to entry/exit in the
market. It was theorized that if these elements of a free market are not
present in the children's book market, there will be inefficient allocation of
market resources, a concentration and homogenization of ideas, and the
development of powerful media brands in the minds of young media consumers.
The first hypothesis tested the idea that large parent companies could
financially support a children's book publisher and thereby give the publisher
an advantage in the market over smaller firms with fewer economic resources. An
attempt was made to correlate ultimate parent company gross income figures with
units sales of children's books. The test resulted in no significant
correlation. Hypothesis one was not supported.
To better understand what is happening in this market, the researchers went
back to the data to see how ultimate parent companies measure up against one
another. Table 5 was created to showcase the ultimate parent companies, sorted
in descending order of influence in the market. These 23 parent companies are
responsible for the great majority of children's books sold in the United States
each year. Note that the largest publisher, Golden Book, has 27% of total
market sales. Yet, Golden Book "only" earned $402 million in net sales in the
last available fiscal year. Compare Golden Book to third-ranked Disney, which
controls just over 16% of the market but earns over $18 billion a year from its
total holdings. A reading from the top of the list appears at first blush to be
a who's who of entertainment media. Disney is joined by News Corp., Seagrams
(owner of MCA & Universal Studios), Time Warner, and National Amusement (holding
company parent of Viacom and Paramount). Indeed, the top six parent companies
control about 80% of the entire market, bringing the market very close to the
textbook definition of an oligopoly. But to only look that far is misleading.
Consider that Farrar, Straus & Giraux, a publisher with only one percent of the
market is owned by Georg von Holtzbruck, a German holding company that earned
nearly $18 billion from all its interests. Or consider Bertelsmann, a colossal
media organization that earned over $13 billion from its holdings, yet has less
than half a percent of the children's book market. In these cases, the strength
of the ultimate parent has not translated directly into market power vis- -vis
This news is little consolation, however, to firms even further down the
list, such as Pfeifer-Hamilton, which recently participated in a formal request
of the U.S. federal government by several companies in the industry that the
government vigorously enforce antitrust law in this market, which they claim is
unfairly structured to benefit companies with more economic clout (Kinsella,
1995). The failure to find support for hypothesis one in this research does not
refute the concern that there may be monopoly (or more accurately, oligopoly)
forces present in the market. Instead, it should encourage future researchers
to consider operationalizing the measure of these forces differently than was
Hypothesis two tested the idea that one advantage large media conglomerates
bring to this market is their ability to tie their books to other significant
media products, such as television series and movies. Consider the Lyons Group,
the fourth largest ultimate parent in this study, controlling just over 9% of
the market, whose publishing division Lyons/Barney only publishes books based on
the famous purple dinosaur, Barney. With books tied to that single media
enterprise, Lyons is able to sell nearly 2.5 million books a year. Another
prime example is Disney, which is able to sell approximately 70% more books than
Lyons with its hot media properties connected to films like The Lion King and
Pocahontas. In fact, Disney is largely responsible for Golden Book's success,
because Golden Book licenses Disney characters for use in its popular line of
Golden Books for Children.
It comes as no surprise, then, that hypothesis two was supported. What
remains to examine, however, is the social impact of this result. Does this
mean that only companies who can afford to either produce expensive blockbuster
films or license characters from such programs can be extremely successful in
the children's book market? The authors suggest this is the case. The next
question that needs to be asked is whether content is influenced in some way as
a result of industry concentration and consolidation. Does this concentration
restrict the marketplace of ideas, homogenizing a market that otherwise has
great potential for diversity? This is one of the directions that future
researchers should consider based on these results.
Though there is support for the theoretical discussion presented in this
research, the study is not without its drawbacks. The primary drawbacks in this
study are methodological in nature. First, there is the fact that this type of
market data is very difficult to come by. The data for this market are only
available for top sellers (roughly 150 titles each year of a total of many
hundreds more). A more complete study would require the use of the entire
market's data. However, this data is not available publicly, nor is it gathered
by any private information source. The authors maintain that for the mass media
implications of this paper, the data available were satisfactory, recognizing
that they represent an elite subsample of popular books. Because we were
interested in those companies which hold the most power in the market, using top
sellers is a sufficient, though not optimal sample.
The second concern of the researchers is the method used to collect data
for the media tie-ins variable. Recognizing that there is no systematic way to
consistently code books for this kind of information, it was decided that the
coding would be performed by an "expert" graduate student studying children's
literature who would draw from her own knowledge of the market in order to
categorize books as having a media tie-in or not. This method is less than
perfect, and future researchers in this area should consider having multiple
expert coders to provide more reliability, or should devise some other
operationalization for this particular measure, perhaps based on notices in
trade magazines or something similar.
Recognizing those methodological limitations, however, the authors assert
the importance of this study as a first step towards assessing the competitive
status of this little-understood, yet significant market. When considering the
relative significance of this market, one should realize that in just one year
the incredibly popular Goosebumps series of children's paperbacks (which were
not included in this study) generated $112 million in retail sales (Roback,
1996). This kind of revenue would even please Hollywood executives. In total,
children's books generate over $800 million a year (Publisher's Weekly, 1996).
There is little wonder, then, that large media conglomerates are eyeing this
market and trying to find ways to increase their footing in it.
In a media environment dominated by a handful of giant conglomerates, the
children's book market has a tendency to be overlooked, but as this study has
shown, this market is also under the pressure caused by media concentration. As
major media brand names like Disney seek to gain access to our children's future
consumer dollars, it is apparent that the children's book market is an excellent
place for them to start raising our children on their corporate milk.
Considering the few conglomerate players who are powerful enough to launch such
an effort, it is true that the children's publishing world is a small world
It's a Small Publishing World After All
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It's a Small Publishing World After All
Table 1. Means and standard deviations for sales of children's books and
income of ultimate parent companies.
Income of ultimate parent company*
Sales of children's books**
* Income of ultimate parent company indicates most recently available net
sales figure available through the Directory of Corporate Affiliations, or
not available, from ABI/Inform.
** Sales indicate unit sales of frontlist and backlist, hardcover children's
books per year in any of the years from 1992-1995.
Table 2. Frequencies for media tie-ins variable.
Tie-ins with other media (Broadcast TV or feature film)*
* Tie-ins with other media is coded as 1=yes if book is derivative of a
feature film in release during the 1992-1995 time period or of a television
broadcast via cable or network television show during the same time period,
determined by an expert coder.
Table 3. Pearson correlation coefficients for ultimate parent income and
sales of children's books.
1. Income of ultimate parent company*