The Impact of Merging Publishers
The Big Five publishers may soon become The Big Four. What might this mean for authors, readers, employees, and the entire bookish community?
Back in 2020, Penguin Random House (PRH), the world’s largest trade publishing company, started the process of buying and merging with Simon & Schuster for over 2 billion dollars. The move would make the publisher even larger, consolidating “The Big Five” (PRH, Hachette, Harper Collins, Macmillan, and Simon & Schuster) into The Big Four. The 2013 merger between Penguin and Random House created the monster publishing house, largely in the attempt to challenge Amazon’s rising dominance over the industry.
After PRH/Simon & Schuster announced the merger, the Department of Justice (DOJ) blocked the acquisition. Their reasoning lies in the belief that the number of publishers willing to pay authors significantly for manuscripts will shrink (a “monopsony” vs. a monopoly—the former being when a company becomes the dominant buyer for services). PRH and Simon & Schuster argue the opposite—that the company’s various imprints would still compete against each other for manuscripts. In the time since the merger was blocked, the DOJ and PRH have been issuing subpoenas, both eager to prove their sides.
Now, with the court date kicking off August 1st, we want to dive into what exactly this merger could mean for everyone in the book community—authors, readers, publishing employees, and indie presses.
How could a merger lead to lower advances for authors?
Let’s say you’re an acquisitions editor at one of The Big Five imprints (an individual who has a say over which titles the imprint will publish). There’s a manuscript being circulated to you and other editors at competing houses who publish such stories, and many—if not all—of you are eager for your press to publish the book. So the manuscript goes to auction and a bidding war begins. Because other publishers want the title too, the bids increase. Publishers outline their terms and the author decides who they want to publish with. While largely financial, these terms are not just about money—they’re about rights, author involvement in the design process, publicity and marketing promises, and much more.
The DOJ is worried that because there will be one less large player in the game, authors won’t receive as much money for manuscripts because there will be fewer publishing houses driving up the bid (in other words, the compensation for labor will be less). Therefore, fewer authors will be able to make a living as writers. A flaw in this, of course, is that very few authors already make a living as writers and that the DOJ is focusing primarily on authors (such as politicians, celebrities, etc.) whose manuscripts fetch rare six-figure advances.
How might this impact employees? And can it impact booksellers?
It’s hard to view this merger as anything other than a power-grab. Employees have voiced their fear for the merger—will it lead to layoffs? How will it disproportionately increase the salary gap between those at the top and those not? The subpoenas themselves have already created an imbalance in power, opening up private conversations between employees and editors. Not to mention the fact that we know how larger-than-life companies historically have respected (or, rather, not respected) employees.
A lot of it also has to do with the desire to take away Amazon’s strength. Amazon (disappointingly) dominates the book distribution field—more people turn to Amazon to purchase books than they do to their indie bookstores or sites like Bookshop.org and Libro.fm. PRH and other publishers want to compete with that—but the DOJ doesn’t think it’s likely to make an impact. Regardless of the merger, Amazon will wield distribution power (so it’s critical that we all continue to shop at our favorite indies).
Could this also impact us readers?
An opinion piece published in Bloomberg challenged us to think about this aspect in a critical way:
“The variety and richness of the literary experience could be under threat. Might dust jackets eventually become uniform instead of being tailored to individual regions? Will books sold in the U.S. and U.K. continue to respect each other’s peculiarities in spelling? Could the industry gradually pivot to lower-risk, celebrity-backed titles at the expense of nurturing titles that may not hit the commercial jackpot until novel number three?”
Essentially, if publishers continue to consolidate, who's to say that the elements of books we love won’t disappear? Why would they put money into promotional events and assets if they know there’s no competition? Why feel the need to take on new authors anymore? Who's to say that they will uphold commitments to DEI and that there won’t be a forced homogenization of culture? And what happens if the powerful houses are swayed by critics or politicians that champion the banning of books by and about BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, and disabled individuals?
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It’s not a problem if you’re supporting indie bookstores, right?
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We’ll be sure to share updates from the merger as they come out, but in the meantime, it’s up to all of us readers to continue disrupting the industry. Yes, we love so many books from The Big Five—we’re in no way denying that—and continuing to support our favorite authors, especially those from historically underrepresented communities, is critical. But we can also continue to pressure these large houses, making it clear to those in power that we hold a significant amount of sway as well.
Here are some ways to do so:
Support indie publishers. As The Big Five seek out ways to grow, they often turn to indie presses, hoping to acquire them and turn them into imprints. And indie presses might have a hard time saying no if financially pressed—as The Big Five increase, middle- and small-sized presses become more and more unmatched. Often unable to compete for larger titles due to lower budgets, their revenue takes a hit. This means lower budgets for their own list, potentially leading to less sales, and starting the cycle over again. But indie presses drive innovation across the industry and are in need of our support.
And if you’re looking for new indie publishers to support, check out this round-up of our favorites.
Amplify authors that are too often not given the advances or marketing budgets their books deserve. Check out this roundup of books on Indigenous feminism, and purchase your reads from Quiet Quail Books.
June is Disability Pride Month, a great time to further amplify the disabled-owned bookstores and bookish organizations we love to support all-year long.
Finally, where do you consume your book reviews? If you mainly stay on social media, are you following a diverse range of creators that amplify books you might not otherwise have come across? Do you have them favorited to ensure they appear in your feed? And if you’re turning to blogs and other outlets, which ones are you consuming? Here’s a quick round-up of five review outlets that are changing the game by not upholding white supremacist values.
As always, thank you so much for taking the time to read our newsletter. We’ll be back in a few weeks to dive into Louise Erdrich’s latest masterpiece The Sentence. If you’ve enjoyed this issue, we encourage you to share it with a friend, colleague, and/or family member. If you have any feedback, you can share that via email or direct message.
Until next time.
Olivia and Fiona