When it comes to mergers and acquisitions in publishing, most buyers come from within the industry. But that’s not always the case.
In 2015, a handful of venture-capital and private-equity firms bought, sold, or funded companies that are part of the book-industry supply chain. Though each case is unique, the overall most useful signal coming out of 2015 M and A activity may be this: content may not yet be a commodity, but private equity is placing its bets on access and scalability.
One example comes from the education market, already notable for its significant M and A in 2015. (See “The Big 5 Sat Out Deal Making in 2015,” from last week’s issue.) Pearson sold its Family Education Network, a suite of online and mobile resources that encourage learning, growth, and exploration, to Sandbox Partners, which, according to its website, specializes in investments in companies “at the intersection of digital, learning, and media industries.”
Founded in 2014, Sandbox has also made investments in SuperAwesome Limited, described on its website as “a kids’ Web-services platform that provides a set of tools that allows publishers and brands to focus on creating kids’ content internationally.” It has also invested in Hopster, an online couponing platform that is part of e-commerce network provider Inmar.
These three investments could suggest an interest in using content to drive the development and use of global e-commerce platforms. If so, Sandbox is smart to focus on the children’s market, as the e-commerce platform segment is a crowded one. It’s also a strategy pursued by Rakuten, which owns Kobo and in 2015 acquired a majority share of OverDrive from Insight Venture Partners.
The increasingly competitive market for e-commerce platforms may have motivated Insight to sell its stake in OverDrive. On its portfolio site, Insight categorized OverDrive’s services into four groups: e-commerce, education, Internet, and “software as a service.” Trying to serve all of those segments at once is a drain on capital, particularly for a company that is bootstrapping a global platform.
Insight retains investments in Udemy, an online education marketplace, and Chegg, an online education and training platform. Focusing its portfolio on these segments gives Insight an opportunity to dominate the education/training niche without having to spend as broadly on platform development.
Bibliotheca’s October 2015 acquisition of 3M’s North American Library Services division offers an interesting example of a technology vendor buying access to the North American market. Based in Amsterdam, Bibliotheca provides libraries with systems to help automate collection management. It is backed by One Equity Partners (OEP), a private-equity firm spun out of JP Morgan Chase.
OEP’s website categorizes Bibliotheca as a technology investment. Other firms in OEP’s technology portfolio include a mix of managed security, IT services, business-process outsourcing, and e-commerce vendors. Expanding its presence in the library market signals that it is preparing to offer library management solutions outside of its home market.
In 2015, Centre Lane Partners acquired Perseus LLC, which includes the Perseus Books Group, though CLP is expected to sell Perseus in 2016.
Generally, Centre Lane invests in companies in North America, typically working with middle-market firms whose revenues range from $20 million to $500 million. Its current investments are mostly outside publishing, with companies that include Saladworks, Haggar Clothing, Easy Gardener, and the Candle-Lite Company.
According to its website, Centre Lane invests in companies that offer “leading market positions and sustainable competitive advantages in their respective niches.” Given the relatively low barriers to entry in publishing, Centre Lane may have invested in Perseus with the expectation that its distribution companies would later provide a significant advantage to a strategic investor interested in buying it.
The investments made by private-equity firms continue to emphasize the importance of access—to audiences and platforms—and scalability. The past year saw significant transactions in e-commerce, library management, and distribution, potentially reshaping the landscape for publishing physical and digital books. Expect to see more in 2016.