Monday, February 24, 2014

The Big Five: Of Publishing This Time

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:

Macmillan Publishers

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


  1. Jeff is a (mostly) land animal, and I have it on good authority (pun intended) that he eats more than his fair share of seafood, so I had no trouble at all in swallowing your string of metaphors.

    I feel that the biggest problem (for authors) with "traditional publishing" (the Big Five) is that the publishers consider books to be "fresh produce." If it doesn't sell immediately (within a few months, and better within a few weeks), it's "off the shelf" and new produce is brought in. It's rarely intended to stick around (stay in print) for more than a handful of months (as long as it's selling in LARGE quantities).

    Authors, on the other hand, want their books to have extremely long lives (longer than their own), to be in print forever, and indeed, will continue to earn money forever, building a larger and larger audience with each book they write (as new readers go back and read earlier books).

    But today, with traditional publishing, that rarely happens, because it's all about the next quarterly report, and if today's books don't sell in large quantities, cut bait and move on, because there's an infinite supply of bait.

    Two conflicting models. But, for authors willing to go the indie, self-published route (which takes more work, time that could be spent writing), today's technology (e-books, print-on-demand, etc) allows authors to be in bookstores as well as Amazon, B&N, etc, keep ALL of their books in print continuously, and earn a larger cut of their royalties, bypassing the Big Five and their produce model.

    It's not the end of publishing, but it IS the end of publishing "as we knew it," which really has ALWAYS been in a process of changing. It's just changing MUCH faster today than ever before.

    1. Everett, I believe that everything you say here about publishers treating books like produce is true. And, undoubtedly, for authors with a following, self-publishing can increase their share of the selling price. But I still think there is value for me in being published in the traditional sense of that word. This may be ego on my part, but it means to me--and I hope to the book-buying public, that my book has had to measure up to a standard and that it has been through a process that increases the chances of it being worthy of their time and lucre. Certainly there are MANY worthy books whose writers have given up on running the gauntlet to publication by a traditional publisher: getting an agent, waiting for word from publishers, etc. etc. I understand why they go to self-publishing rather than let their work molder in a trunk in the attic. But self-publishing has also given the market a tidal wave of dreck. I recently saw a chart that said that hybrid--self and traditionally published--authors do a bit better than just the traditionally published when it comes to income, but that those who are only self-publisehed make even less money.

      I do think this white-water period will pass. I just hope it does before I do.

    2. I should have included the disclaimer that indie self-publishing certainly isn't for EVERY author, by any means. Merely that it is opening up the playing field and providing alternatives to what has become a tightly controlled monoculture. And I agree with you on the hybrid front. The (or both? :-) author will take advantage of every opportunity, not just the traditional and not just the new.

      Sounds to me like we are, once again, of a like mind. Better thee than Jeff...

  2. Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaargh!

  3. This was great, Annamaria. Interesting, too, how your top five share similar predatory instincts with Stan's.

  4. Jeff, At first, every lead sentence I wrote came out making that point in a way that would have set you and Everett groaning.

  5. This is excellent material, Annamaria, and I would urge you to reprint most of it on your other blog at Crime Writer's Chronicle. There are many American writers who would love to know a lot of what you tell here. Thelma Straw in Manhattan

  6. It sounds like every writer is treading in shark-infested waters. I sympathize.

    Friends have turned to self-publishing, and barely earn back enough money to pay for the printing of their books. And then they have trouble promoting their books, while authors signed with publishers would see much more promotion. Even so, some authors complain that publishers are not promoting their books as they should, and their books may sit in boxes somewhere, not moving.

    And then there's the 50 Shades ... issue. A friend who actually read the first to, as she said, "have an opinion," said it was "drek," and badly-written "drek" at that. I trust her opinion.

    And the darn books stayed on the best-seller lists. What is the world coming to with this phenomenon? I shudder to think. If this is what millions of people are reading, the mind boggles.

    And then there are the territoriality issues, which are unfathomable. How is it that a reader in the U.S. could not purchase a book from the Book Depository that was published by Random House Canada? (I saw the formal notice from Book Depository about this banning these sales.)

    Yet, the office of that company is an eight-hour drive from my city!

    I think the tendency for the tentacles of each publishing octopus to reach out and grab more companies to get even bigger will continue. And then what will they publish? Will there be any good books left?

    1. Kathy, Every writer I know shares all the concerns that you raise here. Some write best sellers, but not mega hits. Only one has successfully quit his day job before he qualified for social security. In publishing as in other sectors of our economy, there is the 1% and the 99%. The median annual income of traditionally published authors is $9K. Most of my friends who write full-time are living on money they earned at previous day jobs or have spouses with lucrative professions. They write wonderful books--not drek or dreck, as autocorrect would have it in English. My only optimism comes from the fact that you could not stop us from writing with a howitzer pointed at our heads. For us, it's the story that counts. Human beings will ALWAYS want and need stories. That is why the novel will never die.