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Book Publishing’s Big Gamble

10 July 2013

From The New York Times:

“IT’S official,” Alfred A. Knopf Sr. tweeted last week. “We’re now #PenguinRandomHouse.”

Mr. Knopf — or rather his ghostly avatar, the actual publisher havingsold his namesake firm to Random House in 1960, died in 1984 and rolled over many times since — was celebrating the largest book-publishing merger in history.

The merger, announced last October and completed on July 1 after regulatory approval, shrinks the Big Six, which publish about two-thirds of books in the United States, down to the Big Five.

. . . .

The creation of Penguin Random House (“the world’s first truly global trade book publishing company”) is partly a response to unprecedented pressures on these “legacy” publishers — especially from Amazon, which came out on the winning end of an antitrust lawsuit over the setting of e-book prices. It is also a way to gain leverage and capital in an industry that has been turned upside down. This endgame may be inevitable, but its consequences can’t be ignored.

Consolidation carries costs you won’t find on a price sticker. Dozens of formerly independent firms have been folded into this conglomerate.

. . . .

 Decades of consolidation have cost writers and consumers alike. There is, for one, the persistent gripe of writers and agents: companies either forbid (as at Penguin) or restrict (at Random House) their constituent imprints from bidding against one another for a manuscript. That means not only lower advances, but also fewer options for writers to get the kind of painstaking attention — from editors, marketers and publicists — that it takes to turn their manuscripts into something valuable.

. . . .

 In the more commercial genres — romance, horror, “Fifty Shades” — writers are beginning to find success in self-publishing. That’s a bit of a misnomer, because often it involves an agent who packages a book with any number of freelance editors and marketers, many of them refugees from the ever-shrinking houses. (Amazon’s publishing platform, which runs on more of a packaging model, has made inroads into these genres.)

. . . .

 The Big Five have been so busy reducing old companies to brands that they’ve neglected the notion of what a brand should mean. Can any reader tell a Pantheon from a Riverhead novel? The logo doesn’t do the trick. The value of a publishing house — and now an imprint — has been its function as that dreaded straw man of the self-publishing gurus: a gatekeeper. In the hoary Model T days, gatekeepers weren’t a cabal but a cacophony, competing tooth and nail.

Link to the rest at The New York Times and thanks to Bailey for the tip.

Big Publishing

53 Comments to “Book Publishing’s Big Gamble”

  1. I’m a bit confused here. This article seems to take a few pokes at the publishing industry.

    “The Big Five have been so busy reducing old companies to brands that they’ve neglected the notion of what a brand should mean.”

    “Decades of consolidation have cost writers and consumers alike.”

    “Can any reader tell a Pantheon from a Riverhead novel? The logo doesn’t do the trick.”

    Is the link correct, PG? Is this really from the New York Times? 🙂

  2. In the more commercial genres — romance, horror, “Fifty Shades” — writers are beginning to find success in self-publishing. That’s a bit of a misnomer, because often it involves an agent who packages a book with any number of freelance editors and marketers,

    Self censored because I don’t want the banning stick to come out.

    • If you want to get really worked up, go and read the comments on the Times’ op-ed. 🙂

      • I don’t willingly go to the NYT anymore, but thanks for the tip.

        • Some person going by Judy Allen has a lot of great shots at indies. Here’s just one:

          Judy Allen
          Beaumont, Texas
          It’s conceivable that in the not-too-far-distant-future, a writer will only achieve prestige if his book is really in print, not just an e-book.
          This author is predicting (whether he intends it or not) a shrinking of the volume of real books that will survive over time.
          It’s a travesty for quality.

          • I was just laughing at that!

            I also like the one where she claims you can only read an e-book once before it magically disappears. She them goes on to ask if any self-publishers have made it onto the bestseller list.


            • That one was funny too. I wonder if there is an ebook service, like a video rental service, out there where you can read it through only once?

              Her NYT bestseller comment is funny too.

            • Yeah, that one was here:

              “Not when an e-book isn’t a real book, but rather a license to read text one time only (I’ve found when I went back to a book to look up a passage, I can’t get into it, once I’ve finished it.) At that point, I then call Barnes & Noble for a copy of the real book.”


              I haven’t had that same problem.

              I’m thinking either she doesn’t know how to use her ereader or ereading software, or else she returned or deleted books and then forgot she did so.

              I’m not aware of any single-reading design with ebooks. Unless a library has some kind of killswitch for reading them past a certain date.

              • Eh, I rented an e-book from Amazon because I needed it for research but did not want to own it (cost too much, too specialized). It came to, oh, $8.00 US for 60 days, and I can still access any notes or highlights I made, even though the book is no longer on my e-reader. But I could read it through as often as I wanted while I rented it.

        • And a couple of more:

          New York
          Nice satire as self-promotion!

          There are many difficult issues that the publishing industry faces, but one is the onslaught of individuals who think they “deserve” to make money because they chose to put pen to page (or finger to key).

          New Jersey

          Add to Chris’s reply that writing is not recognised as a skill or talent. It’s just assumed that anyone who can bang a keyboard and thinks he ‘has something to say’, however inane, is a ‘writer’. And now, thanks to Amazon, he can publish his ebook and generate sock-puppet reviews from his friends.

          When I was a child, my best friend could draw a horse that looked like a horse, and was greatly admired for this skill. Oh, how I envied her, not because I wanted to be able to draw nor even because she drew well (she wasn’t great), but because people recognised that drawing was something not everyone could do. But the same people styled their work ‘poetry’ as long as it expressed their ‘feelings’ and, sometimes, if it rhymed, and didn’t see a difference in quality between the Epipsychidion and ‘There Once Was a Hermit Named Dave’.

        • And one last one:

          New Jersey

          Anyone who thinks self-publishing is going to give us great literature should read – well, I wouldn’t recommend trying to read any of the actual publications offered by Xlibris or iUniverse and their ilk, but pick up a copy of the NY Review of Books, TLS, or the NYT Sunday book section and look at the summaries of the titles for some of these self-published books. Self-publishing has always been with us; in the 19th C. it was subscriptions, and in the 20th it was vanity presses. And while the occasional masterpiece did sneak in, generally it’s self-indulgent rubbish.

    • Incredible how ignorant people can be when they open their mouths, right?

  3. “…Amazon, which came out on the winning end of an antitrust lawsuit over the setting of e-book prices.”

    This bugs me! A group of publishing companies broke the law and then were called on it.

    They think that marketplace competition is excuse enough for lawbreaking. I think that laws exist precisely because people are tempted to trample the rights of others when competition gets fierce.

    So the publishers were motivated to break the law, because of their perceptions about Amazon. But this suit was not about anything Amazon did. It was about what the publishers did.

    Why do news entities persist in pretending that the suit is Big Pub vs. Amazon? (Sorry for the rhetorical q. But this spin irritates me!)

    • That irritates me, too.

    • Uh, didn’t the DOJ file this suit? Amazon wasn’t a plaintiff, so how could they “win?” Score another “unfact” for the NYT.

    • On point, J.M!

      I think Big Pubs see this as personal and emotional, and they want to keep it that way.

      I suspect that is part of what is so shocking to them. That they are playing in an arena with a whole infrastructure that will hold them objectively accountable.

    • Yeah, that jumped out at me too. Amazon wasn’t even involved in the case! This wasn’t a civil case of Amazon vs. the Price Fix Six, but a lot of folks have been interpreting it this way.

  4. I don’t get it, for me, this article is scattered all over the place. Can somebody tell me what’s the main point of it, please.

  5. [rant]

    Among much else, this is what really frosts me: the journalist’s use of AP style which really gums up the works, especially for writers who live by CMoS:

    Witness …

    “Among the imprints that survive, the tendency is to homogenize and focus on a few general fields like [should be ‘such as’, but I’m nitpicking here] ambitious nonfiction, accessible literary fiction or thrillers.”

    The lack of a serial comma (after literary fiction) lumps litfic into the thriller category. OK … some literary fiction thrills; some thrillers border on literary (John Le Carre’s books come to mind) but this is where I get my editorial knickers in a twist over articles such as this.


    • I thought there was a “New York Times Manual of Style and Usage,” in addition to AP, Gregg, and CMS.

      (BTW, count me in the “Always Use a Serial Comma” Crowd.)

      • Agreed! I’ve reviewed the arguments on both sides, and the Oxford/serial comma makes the most sense in the largest number of cases. In this case, the AP style was created to reduce the number of characters printed, which I care nothing about.

  6. Even if you hire an agent, editors, etc., you’re still a self-publisher if it’s your imprint, so I don’t understand the dismissive attitude. Is the new meme going to be that writers can’t ciaim to be self-publishers if they seek out professional help? The establishment really gives us no credit at all.

    • Well, people are spouting the beliefs that would have still been true 5-6 years ago. Self-publishing = vanity press in their minds. They haven’t learned about the emerging markets or how people are taking advantage of them without a publisher.

  7. Even NYT saw the light eventually and it has to recognize that the big publishers without a “gate” are no longer gatekeepers. So what are they now? Time will tell, but I wish them luck.

  8. “…writers are beginning to find success in self-publishing. That’s a bit of a misnomer, because often it involves an agent who packages a book with any number of freelance editors and marketers, many of them refugees from the ever-shrinking houses…”

    Self-pubbing “involves an agent?” Looks like the NYT blows a story yet again. Sheesh, clueless…

    • It was deliberate–they’re trying to delegitimize even savvy self-publishers that outsource functions.

      Only books that go through a publisher offering a traditional contract are vetted and legitimate. Everything else is part of the Tsunami of Swill.

      It’s sad to see the Old Grey Lady act this way, but not surprising. They are facing the same threat and getting eaten alive by online news. Anything they can do to reinforce their authority to be the purveyors of news (and publishers the authority on books) is not off-limits.

    • They really just can’t help themselves. It would be funny if it weren’t so pathetic.

  9. It’s really too bad that there is this antagonism between traditionally published authors and self-published ones. This has nothing to do with quality. Traditional publisher have for years published some awful books because they made money. And they have dropped authors who didn’t sell enough even though the critics thought them great. Some of these dropped authors are now self-publishing. It’s probably better to wonder why some awful books sell like hotcakes and some very good ones don’t. The publishers have long since stopped being quality gatekeepers and have instead consulted their adding machines.

  10. NYT? HuffPo? Onion? What’s the diff?

    • Like.

    • Hey, The Onion is readable. Don’t lump it in with those rags.

    • Huffington Post is still occasionally okay. The NYT is sometimes okay. The problem is the self interest is SO obvious at the NYT. At least Huffington Post is pretty obviously left wing, which I don’t have a problem with. Most of its readers know it’s left wing and don’t try to hide it either. But the NYT pretends to be objective.

      The change in public taste and cost pressures have pretty much destroyed journalism in this country. Few are willing to pay for good journalism, even though we all claim it is so important. The advertising-based model for journalism is completely broken.

  11. Mike Shatzkin – industry guru who formerly worked in publishing – said recently that Anybody Press was now one of the Big 6 publishers. More changes to come as this industry sorts itself out.

  12. Reading 3/4 of those comments has made my nose bleed. I think it is because I punched myself in the face repeatedly as I encountered more and more ignorance (or elitism). By the time I got 3/4 of the way down the comments, my wife pushed some smelling salts under my nose and I woke up on the floor in a pile of blood that had crusted to the sides of my face and neck.

    In the future, you people should be kind enough at the top of the comments here to warn some of us that are more susceptible to “Ignorance-Induced Self-Harm) that we should either not read the comments or wear a full-face hockey helmet (the kind with the full metal cage covering the face, which can withstand a 90mph frozen hockey puck).

    Now I must do some googling to find out how to remove blood stains from carpet =(

  13. The new name Penguin Random House is too long. Please call them by their rightful nickname: Randy Penguin. Please use the Hashtag #RandyPenguin in your tags and keywords. I think it suits them and will bring a happy spring-like feeling back to publishing.

  14. I’m finding fewer and fewer reasons to read The New York Times. The dismissive tone they take towards self publishing is very unprofessional.

    I’m bombarded with emails on a daily basis begging me to subscribe to the electronic version of the New York Times. Sometimes, when I think about how difficult it’s been to find quality journalism, I almost give up and subscribe. But then I read articles like this (among many others) and realize that the NYT doesn’t support quality journalism either.

    • Ever wonder, knowing how much they get wrong on a subject you know and care about, how much they’re getting wrong on all the subjects you don’t know a lot about?

      • Gone are the days of researching a subject exhaustively and then publishing an article about it. If you’re too many hours slow on the news, you’re left out.

      • I asked myself this exact same question back when I was in my 20’s (back in the mid-70’s) while reading an article about photography in Time magazine — a subject I know a lot about. That moment is crystal clear in my memory.

        The article had basic facts more or less correct, but the conclusions made from those facts were ignorantly, wildly wrong. It was an epiphany for me: if they’re wrong on stuff I do know about, what’s their accuracy on stuff I don’t know about? Made me much more skeptical about everything than I already was. And that was a Very Good Thing, IMHO. It’s affected my outlook ever since.

  15. Once again, I’m content to let the enemy remain ignorant.

  16. Imho self published writers should take all of this panicking consolidation calmly and with a nice glass of wine. It’s all a matter of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
    Consolidation is an option being grasped at by companies who simply do not know what else to do, and their CEO’s must be seen to do something. It doesn’t help them face the future of eBooks. It doesn’t help them face the future dominated by Amazon. It will cost them millions and the usual harvest of lower costs will not be gained because the old model will not be around long enough.
    The momentum of history is flowing in the direction of eBooks and self publishing, and smaller more adaptable publishing-services agencies, and the hysterical actions of these publishers, their attacks on self published authors, their attacks on eBooks … is all part of the death croaks of an old business model.

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