Publishers spend a lot of time talking about the impact of used books online, but nobody pays any attention to the used publishers. Since I first wrote about small press websites taken over by spammers last week, I've spent fifteen or twenty hours looking into old publisher directories and checking what happened with their businesses. I'd estimate that after about five years, a quarter of the small publishers who once had a website have gone out of business and the site has been taken over by spammers, and another quarter will probably end up there when their registrations expire. Very few appear to have sold their backlist to another publisher, and I've come across no signs that any of the owners ever offered their publishing business for sale.
I think there should be a marketplace for used publishers. A used publisher is a funny sort of a commodity because the usual reason it's been consigned to the stacks is that it wasn't commercially viable. But a publisher that wasn't commercially viable as a stand-alone may well have failed due to poor economies of scale or a simple lack of gross sales. If the only thing wrong with a publishing business is that it never reached a critical mass of titles to survive on the backlist, the obvious solution is to combine it with enough other small publishers to create a livelihood for at least one of them and keep the books in print.
I've tried shopping for a used publishing business on a couple occasions, and I've yet to kind a reasonable source for listings. Those publishers that I have found listed for sale have been both over sized and overpriced. I keep thinking that there would at least be a clearing house for publishers run as sole proprietorships that have run out of future with the proprietor's demise, but I've yet to find anything of the sort. An unsuccessful publishing business should always have some assets if the publisher put in a serious effort. It's hard to imagine a backlist that wouldn't be worth the cataloging fees to keep the books available with Lightning Source POD, and the website may have a real value for launching a new publishing business.
The corporate world has long utilized shelf registration as a method of quickly launching a new company if the right funding or market conditions materialize. A used publisher would make an excellent launching pad for a new publishing business, especially if the older entity brings with it a large block of ISBN numbers and a website that's been broken-in. And if the backlist only contributes a hundred dollars a month to the bottom line, it still fills out the catalog and adds a little bona fide to the new publisher. I'll bet there even a business model for somebody to acquire assets from failed publishers and bundle them into viable publishing businesses that could be run or sold-off. In fact, now that I write about it, I realize that I'm partially repeating a post I wrote about buying a publisher last year:-)
If anybody does know of a good resource listing publishing businesses for sale, please let me know, I'd like to be wrong in this case.