Stan Trollip has taken us on a marvelous tour of the big five animals of the African wilderness. We have a Big Five in the United States, too. The term here refers to trade book publishers.
I put a lot of effort into trying to write a better lead sentence for this blog, but it was impossible to do so without a play on words like “beastly,” “wild,” “dangerous,” “jungle,” “extinction,” and “soul-chilling,” all of which Stan used in describing actual animals. See what I mean?
So here they are, the American BIG FIVE, almost none of which are American, by the way. I’ll start with my own publisher:
When people ask me, “Who is your publisher?” I answer in different ways, depending on who is asking, and yet all the answers I give are the absolute truth. My mystery novels are published by Thomas Dunne Books, a subsidiary of St. Martin’s Press, but the spines all carry the logo of the Minotaur imprint. My author page is found on the Macmillan website.
This is a result mergers and acquisitions. A Germany company—Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck owns Macmillan. It has other subsidiaries in the US, namely Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Henry Holt and Company, Picador, and Tor/Forge . To say nothing of their other media and entertainment efforts.
Unlike the Big Five of the animal world (no pun intended), the other publishing big five companies are all pretty much like Macmillan:
Hachette Book Group
This is the elephant in the room, at least as far as size is concerned. Based in France, it is part of Lagardere—a media company. Hachette owns Little, Brown and Company, founded in the US in 1837, which minnow was eaten by the big fish Time Warner, which was subsequently gobbled up by the leviathan Hachette. (I know, Jeff and Everett, I am mixing marine life into a terrestrial metaphor here. Have it me for that.)
Part of Rupert Murdoch’s empire, the American Harper publishing house was founded in New York 1817. NewsCorp (Murdoch) bought its descendant Harper and Row in 1987, and then expanded its name to HarperCollins when they acquired The British Publisher William Collins and sons. Nowadays, in the States, they also encompass William Morrow, Avon books, and a bunch of other less famous imprints.
Penguin Random House
This critter is a recent amalgam of what used to be five and six of the big six. Another German media company owns it (them?). The newly wed company already has 250 “children”—imprints that span all of the categories of book publishing.
Simon and Schuster
This company began in 1924 as a publisher of a wildly popular crossword puzzle book. It is now owned by CBS and comprises several imprints, most famously Scribner, Pocket Books, and Touchstone.
The conglomeration of what used to be scores of companies into these five has had a great impact on the publishing business in general and on writers in particular. Contentious relationships between publishers and authors most likely started with the Gutenberg brothers. I have heard many friends complain bitterly about the lack of respect authors get from their publishers. They love their editors, but not the huge corporations they work for. Having spent a lot of my professional life working with large corporations and having run a small business, I am well aware of the realities that motivate business decisions—including mergers and acquisitions. I have always said that the worst thing my publisher could do to be would be to go out of business. I can recite the lines on their budget. There is no point in my loving my editor if the company she works for can’t pay her a decent wage, pay for benefits, her computer, the electric bill.
It is also easy to see how the tsunami of recent change has made the futures of even these giants hard to predict, much less ensure. Some are clinging to old wisdoms. Some are grasping at each new social media straw as the best way to sell books in an environment of biblical clutter and deafening roar. We want them to make our books successful. But does anyone really know how to make that happen these days?
One upshot of the merger mania has been the appearance of new, smaller companies that seem to benefit from knowing exactly who they are and what they want to do. Some of my buddies on this blog are published and well-served by such stalwart, small companies. Then there are rafts of new-born tiny indie companies getting into the act, but writers never know how much they can be trusted., even to stay alive
Consolidation costs writers. Not just because there are fewer places to take a manuscript, but also because companies that used to compete for books are now folded into a one family and are not about to compete with people under the same corporate roof.
Homogenization of product is another outcome. You can hear the top executives. “Another beast just made a bundle publishing Fifty Shades of Grey. We need to jump on that bandwagon. Find me the next book like that.” And so forth. Medium-sized companies that used to take a chance on a quirky book by an unknown author are now answerable to the top brass in another country and afraid of getting a pink slip the next time the corporate stock dips and costs need to be cut.
Cookie cutter mentalities are not likely to foster imaginative risk taking. Without risk there is no art.
Mostly, I see being in this field right now as a sort of white-water rafting. Someday, we may reach a point where the river becomes calmer and easier to navigate. In the meanwhile, hang on tight to your paddle, keep your eyes open for rocks under the surface, and try not to scream.
Annamaria - Monday