Two Major Publishers go Bust as Recession Bites into Historical Book World

The recession isnt being kind to the ancient world. Two leading publishers of history titles have just gone bust, and there are fears that more will follow. Italian publishers White Star have become the latest victim, following British publisher Thalamus into receivership last month.

White Star, which opened in 1984, was one of Italys leading publishing house and one of Italian publishings star exporters. Its extensive multi-lingual catalogue features more than 600 titles ranging from archaeology, art and nature to technology, photography, ethnology, mountaineering and marine biology. Its impressive archaeology and civilisations collections alone carry something from every corner of the ancient world, including Cambodia, China, Greece and Egypt. The Incas, the Aztecs and ancient Islam also feature. HK Heritage Experts Kent Weeks and Zahi Hawass are just two distinguished names featuring on White Star authors list.

White Star enjoyed prestigious partnerships the world over, including exclusive contracts with the National Geographic Society and collaborations with publishing giants such as Rizzoli International and Random House.

Hope for White Star Revival

A cloud now hangs over it all, with a creditors meeting on October 22 set to discuss the future of the company and its catalogue. Heritage Key understands media and publishing group De Agostini has teamed up with a private investment fund to bid for White Stars assets, a move that if successful could see the retention of the White Star brand and the survival of its catalogue.

There is also hope that the Thalamus titles or at least their content will survive, with managing director Roger Michael Kean in ongoing discussions with other publishing houses to find a home for some (or all) of his wonderfully researched and illustrated books. Its catalogue covers everything from Egypt, the Ottomans and Rome through to Byzantium, pirates and modern interpretations of ancient cities.

Thalamus went into receivership just a few months shy of its 10th anniversary. The company formed in December 1999 after Prima Creative Media, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Prima Publishing Group in California, cut back on its European operations. Kean then working for Prima and several colleagues took Prima titles and continued them at a new company, Thalamus.

A Different Publishing Environment

At the time, the co-edition publishing business was still in a healthy condition, says Kean now. For years, American publishers had looked to Britain for high-quality packagers of hard-back books, and we found a ready market with publishers such as Facts On File, Inc. (Chelsea House), Barons Educational Series, The Lyons Press, Stackpole Publishing and Barnes & Noble. We sold regularly to Weltbild in Germany, Tosa in Austria, ICOB-Atrium in Holland and generally to about 17 countries, printing their foreign-language editions at the same time.

With so many publishing partners, it was easy to generate a lot of new material, keeping more than 10 authors, specialists in their subjects, busy. Until a few years ago, Thalamus did not publish in the UK under its own imprint many titles were sold to the Caxton Press under their Mercury label, but recently we did print for ourselves to sell into the UK trade.

Kean blames the companys demise on a number of factors, including changing publishing industry trends, cuts to education and cultural budgets in the US and the growth of internet resources such as Wikipedia. The recession, he says, was the final straw.

Its difficult usually impossible to discover who wrote the chunk of history youre reading on Wikipedia

A growing awareness in the USA that American creatives could also package other publishers books for themselves led to a slow decline in American contracts, he says. The Second Gulf War also had a terrible effect on publishers who relied heavily on the schools and library markets, with President Bush effectively robbing schools of a great part of their book purchase subsidies. This as in Britain pushed schools and colleges towards eBooks and online teaching.

The popular belief that everything required for supporting students particularly in history can be found on the internet has hit reference publishers hard in both the USA and Europe.

Seeing the Future

Kean gave a talk at Ludlow Library in the UK last year, touching on this very subject. Here are selected extracts from that speech:

As long ago as 2000, we heard people glancing quickly through our books say, but surely all this info is available online?

“Well, no, not really was and still is the answer. What you get from the web is undigested. Its not organised in a way that makes understanding easy and quick links between pages and different sites dont stand in for scholarly editing and cross-referencing.

“Im not referring here to dedicated history sites, those which tend to concentrate on specific periods or regions, which usually provide a sound basis for learning and general interest. The problem lies with the likes of Wikipedia and the plethora of Wiki-copyists, which basically claim to offer the lot: thats whats undigested and certainly unedited.

“When you pick up an academic tome or a general reference book, you know who the author is, which gives important indications such as their attitude to the subject, quality of knowledge and depth of research. By contrast, its difficult usually impossible to discover who wrote the chunk of history youre reading on Wikipedia.

“Is Thalamus Publishing worried about our future prospects as publisher of illustrated history reference books? The answer to that has to be Yes theres always risk in periods of cultural and technical change. It may be reasonable of us to argue that content of a Thalamus book is not available on the web, but if people believe it is, theyre likely to say to themselves, I dont need to buy that book. That attitude is certainly a problem we face as a publisher of traditionally printed media.

Reality Bites

Kean was right to be worried. The internet certainly has had a negative effect on book sales, especially in the UK, where they were never as good as in the USA or Europe, he told Heritage Key this week. I recall a publisher at Hamlyn telling me that in the 1980s they confidently expected to sell between 20,000 and 30,00 copies of, say, The Hamlyn Guide to Ancient Egypt, but by the mid-1990s, that figure had dropped to below 10,000. By 2002, a sales figure of 3,000 would have been a smash hit.

So it was only the sales to international publishers that made Thalamus viable. When the economic crisis bit, sales crashed everywhere. In 1999, Prima sold five titles to German publisher Weltbild, with a total of 135,000 copies. In 2009, when Weltbild reluctantly pulled out of the only two deals intended for the year, they were ordering 8,000 copies of each.

Roger Michael Kean says he is proud of what Thalamus achieved: a solid back list of well researched, attractively illustrated books, with mapping that aroused sighs of admiration. Our remit was to produce books which would be read by teenagers as well as adults young and old, he says. Little of it was aimed at the academic; we saw ourselves as providing a solid introduction to a subject that would arouse a greater interest in the subject, perhaps even to the point of concentrating on narrower fields of study, and I think we succeeded.

“And in spite of the company’s collapse, we leave hardly any debts except for the printer in China, who in any case just managed to deliver over a thousand copies of the New History of the Roman Emperors to our partner in Australia with two sections of the German version bound in”

Kean, who has clearly managed to retain his sense of humour, is now working on a series of rewrites of the novels of Victorian author GA Henty. He is also reviewing books for us here at Heritage Key.