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Weekly Writers: The Big Five
Do corporate media giants look down on us?
Here’s the Weekly Writers Monday post. Thanks to my paid subscribers, this post is open to everyone. Note that some of the upcoming posts about how much authors earn in 2023 may be restricted to paying subscribers.
The Big Five
Last time I promised to talk about The Big Five. They are the five largest publishing companies in the world. They are corporate media giants, owned by even bigger companies.
The Big Five consist of:
Penguin Random House. They are owned by the German multinational conglomerate corporation Bertelsmann. (The Big Five used to be the Big Six, but Penguin merged with Random House in 2013: I think a more charming name after the merger would have been Random Penguin House, but hey ho.)
HarperCollins. They are owned by News Corp, an American mass media and publishing company. News Corp grew from the earlier News Corporation that was controlled by Rupert Murdoch; News Corporation was split following scandals and violation of ethical standards by one of their subsidiaries (News of the World). HarperCollins are also known for their support of DRM in ebooks distributed to libraries, which would self-destruct the book after being lent a number of times.
Simon & Schuster. Was owned by Paramount Global, an American mass media and entertainment multinational conglomerate, until August 2023, when it was sold to hedge fund KKR for $1.62bn.
Hachette. They are owned by the French media giant Hachette Livre, which is in turn a subsidiary of Lagardère Group. Hachette used to have an imprint Weinstein Books, shut down in 2017 after Harvey Weinstein was found guilty of sexual assault. According to Wikipedia, “In 2022 the Financial Times reported that the Lagardère Group's Octopus Books had censored references in books to issues seen as sensitive in China, including information about Taiwan. One book had an entire section about Taiwan cut. The censorship was implemented to allow Octopus to continue to use low cost Chinese book printers.”
Macmillan. Originally a British publishing company, but now owned by the German Holtzbrinck Publishing Group. Various library organisations have run campaigns against Macmillan in the past for the publisher’s attempts to implement controversial restrictions on ebook lending.
Each of the Big Five have numerous imprints they created or acquired, and every imprint appears almost like a separate publisher to the public, associated with a certain kind of book. The imprint is a form of branding and differentiation, as much as anything else.
These publishing companies have the resources to give books their best chance of success in the marketplace, though there are some downsides. Firstly, resources are not allocated equally: they usually reserve the big advertising budgets and advances for the authors who are already massively successful. Secondly, the publishers are so big that it’s inevitable they focus on big names that will bring them big profits. Along with their focus on the extrapolation from the past in order to predict future sales (“What sold well last year? Can we replicate it?”) this can make them complacent, risk averse, and more interested in mass-market appeal than in more diverse, surprising, fresh or niche works.
Drinky’s Digressions: What’s in a number?
In 2022 the Big Five almost became the Big Four as Penguin Random House tried to buy Simon & Schuster for 2.2 billion US dollars, but eventually the US Department of Justice blocked the acquisition due to concerns about such large consolidations being bad for authors. During the hearings in August 2022 (as reported by the New York Post) the US government:
“argued that the largest five publishers control 90% of the market, and a combined Penguin and Simon & Schuster would control nearly half of the market for publishing rights to blockbuster books, while its nearest competitors would be less than half its size.”
That gives you an idea of the scale of these big publishers. Also the fact that “With the deal’s dissolution, Penguin will pay a $200 million termination fee to Paramount Global”. These companies are focussed on big numbers.
Limitations of big publishers
Traditional publishers can only publish a limited number of books. They usually have to schedule them well in advance. They can't publish all the good books that get submitted, even if they wanted to. In particular, they are unlikely to publish a book which may be good, but which only has a very limited audience. In the past this often meant good books were never published.
Publishers (especially the biggest ones) want guaranteed successes, which pushes things towards mainstream and commercial fiction. In some ways this can lead to creative stagnation, since publishers can't tell what the next big thing will be, only what sold well in the past, so they tend to try to do more of that. The result is conformity, things resembling each other, and a lack of real choice. The sad outcome is that many big publishers will put more marketing money into a ghost-written celebrity memoir of debatable literary merit, because they know it will sell, rather than an amazingly original book which won’t have mass-market appeal. And this can make it hard for new authors to break in to the industry, especially authors with fresh or diverse voices; and if they are taken on by big publishers then they’re likely to be required to fit into the mould.
Next time I will give some tips on approaching Big Five publishers and their imprints.