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What Big Publishing Consolidation Means for Authors

20 March 2016

From The Huffington Post:

So, the Hachette Book Group is acquiring the Perseus Books Group again, 18 months after its first failed attempt to do so. This time it looks like the deal will stick, though.

If you read industry news deals or press releases, you’ll see all kinds of positive spin on deals like these. This is the third major publishing merger in the past three-plus years, preceded by the 2013 merger between Penguin and Random House and the acquisition earlier that same year of Harlequin by HarperCollins. The companies like to talk about expanding their global reach and investing in broadening their lists. And while these corporate agendas sound good on paper, the consolidation of publishing is not good for authors.

Legacy book publishing is already an inflexible dinosaur. Big publishers throw ludicrous sums of money at celebrity projects and well-connected authors. The inequity between author advance monies and monies allocated to marketing campaigns can only leave you scratching your head as to why a company would acquire an asset only to underfund it once it becomes a product. And then there’s the flooding of the marketplace with as much inventory as they can get accounts to take despite the mutually understood but unspoken agreement that as much as 50 percent of those books will be returned. In fact, it’s a losing enterprise, and legacy publishers are the only publishers that can afford to keep this kind of business model afloat because of their strong backlists that keep a steady stream of income coming in to enable this crazy cycle.

Publishers having more money and more weight to throw around means that those authors at the top will keep getting their huge (and now maybe huger) advances, and that agents and editors will keep scouting for “big books,” which during my time as an editor for the Perseus Books Group meant “sure bets.” Sure bets come in the form of proven authors, authors with celebrity connections, and authors with huge existing author platforms.

. . . .

Houses breed cultures, of course. What workplace doesn’t? But within book publishing, consolidation means fewer decision-makers and fewer personalities. It means a mandate from the top to acquire only the most commercial works. Editors in New York are taught to look for a certain kind of book, and this leads to myopic thinking about what’s good, and even what’s publishable.

. . . .

If you are an aspiring author, every acquisition and merger of this type is another door being shut along your publishing journey. The barriers were already high, and with every consolidation, that barrier gets a little higher.

Link to the rest at The Huffington Post and thanks to Mark for the tip.

Big Publishing

29 Comments to “What Big Publishing Consolidation Means for Authors”

  1. “And while these corporate agendas sound good on paper, the consolidation of publishing is not good for authors.”

    And neither is legacy publishing itself. 🙂

    Dan

  2. It is interesting to me how many times hugely successful books / authors are turned away and the number of times they are turned away.

    When will big 5 admit that they have NO idea of what will sell? I have a strategy that could fix their problems but I’m not sharing….

  3. They almost have to consolidate.

    I mean, there’s less room to sell books at B&N every day as books make way for tea towels and whatnot, airport bookstores have only room for a hand-full of best sellers, and the ‘Evil’ Amazon is placing trad-pub books right next to often cheaper indie/self-pub e/books.

    Plus, they can’t get caught making deals in the background if they’re all one big happy company!

    If they haven’t started already, the new job of agents will be to see what indie/self-pub e/books are selling well and try to con them into signing a contract with one of the qig5(soon to be qig4,3,2,1, blastoff!) Of course if they are selling well, most of the writers that can do basic math will be telling them ‘no’ …

    The next couple years should be interesting on the writing front; for the writers, readers and whatever middlemen come between them.

  4. It strikes me that all these publishing takeovers (including mergers between publishers and bigger-media companies buying publishers) are really not about authors or even going forward, but about buying copyrights to catalogs of past works.

    Since these copyrights look to be owned in perpetuity, they make for a good investment.

  5. Naturally, they’re asking the wrong question.

    The issue isn’t why tradpubs pay “so much” to acquire titles they don’t promote but rather why are authors selling 100-plus years of copyright control so cheaply the publishers don’t have to promote the books to make the deal worth the effort.

    The publishers are acquiring valuable assets at deeply discounted rates so they can afford to sit on them and build up their dragon’s hoard of IP. The “technical” term is rights squatting and it is far from new.

    • … or over.

    • But are author’s really selling “100-plus years of copyright”?

      Contracts used to include a clause allowing the rights to be reclaimed if the book went out of print though print on demand and e-books muddied these waters.

      However, don’t authors – at least in the USA and subject to giving the proper notice – have a legal reversion right after 35 years (works for hire excluded)?

  6. Despite Steve Jobs, there are enough “dots” to connect in this context to suggest the future demise of legacy publishing, which since about 1950 has run as a copyright-collecting scam against authors. Here are people who have made serious money self-publishing Ebooks. The list is not up to date but it says loud and clear that legacy publishing may indeed be a dinosaur struggling for survival.

    Rachel Abbott
    Hugh Howey
    Amanda Hocking
    Kerry Wilkinson
    Stephen Leather
    Dick Babpenis
    H.P. Mallory
    J.A. Konrath
    Karen McQuestion
    Robert Bindinotto
    (The above authors have sold millions of copies.)
    Barbara Freethy – over 2 million ebooks sold (April 2012)
    John Locke- more than 1,100,000 eBooks sold in five months
    Gemma Halliday – over 1 million ebooks sold (March 2012)
    Michael Prescott – more than 800,000 ebooks sold (Dec 2011)
    Bella Andre – more than 700,000 books sold (May 2012)
    Darcie Chan – 641,000 ebooks sold (May 2012)
    Chris Culver – over 550,000 (Dec 2011)
    Heather Killough-Walden – over 500,000 books sold (Dec 2011)

    • Was doing a category review for some stuff I have up when I stumbled on Bella Forrest. Her bio says she’s sold more than 3 million copies, and I believe it. She’s the #1 author on Amazon right now, and has had the #1 title on Paranormal/Urban for at least the last week. Right now, her books occupy numbers 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 12, 15, and 19 on the top 20 of that list. The first (of 25 books) was published in 2012.

      I know you said your list wasn’t up to date, and that isn’t my point. I’m just astonished at the potential for success that’s available to indies today; this is a pretty clear picture of it, for me.

      • I discovered Bella Forrest recently too. Her e-books are exclusive to Amazon but her paper books and audio are available everywhere. And an interesting thing is, Createspace is listed on her paper books as publisher and some Barnes & Noble stores in the states are carrying them and apparently even some Targets and Walmarts according to fans. They certainly didn’t snub her for her book coming from Amazon. She has pictures of her books in Barnes & Noble on her Facebook page.
        Certainly a lot of potential for Indies to be successful on their own.

    • It all depends on your definition of “serious” money.

      Amanda Lee is doing very well- there was an article recently that purported she made close to a million dollars last year.

      Pretty serious to me!

      There are others in romance that are in the top ten, but I don’t know $ wise how much they are making.
      -Terry Bolryder
      -Milly Taiden
      -Hannah Ford was in the top a while back. Haven’t checked her stats recently.

  7. I found this gem by reading a little further in the full-length article:

    “We are creating an upper echelon of authorship that’s based on brand and celebrity and packaging. And these choices reverberate across our media and our culture. The consolidation of big publishing is no different than mom-and-pop shops going out of business because they can’t compete with the Walmarts and the Targets of the world.”

    What the author missed, is that… it is different. Because, unlike the Mom and Pop stores that fold, authors are rising up.

    It is the rise of self-publishing which is turning what would otherwise be a disaster into a triumph of market-based democracy.

  8. I attended the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Workshop in 1990. Michael Kube-McDowell spent an afternoon educating us on the mergers and takeovers of publishing imprints back then, and included a flow chart showing that all roads lead to BigPub.

    May I point out that in the 25+ years since then, the consolidation has only gotten thicker.

    The good news, of course, is that indie publishing is alive and well and living in the 21st century.

  9. Firstly, big money to celebs has occurred FOREVER in pub, even when houses were free standing. Take that off the table. The business model of pub has FOREVER, been 20% or 25% of the feeds bring in 80% or so of the moolah. Old, old trope. Pubs have rarely supported the 80%. But too, they never told the great unwashed 80% they pubbed, that they were going to be treated as backstage door Johnnies. In other words, a tiny part of the larger, but not one of the larger parts.

    I find it odd that a person who was an acquiring editor, speaking about so-called changes in this time, did not mention indie publishing. It’s the coyote watching the rabbits who skyline themselves stupidly, as though coyotes do not exist.

    Coyotes are meat eaters and do exist. In far more huge numbers than there are do-nothing, see-nothing, non-responders to peril. Coyotes, more and more are daily eating “publishers’ lunches.”

    The nonsense about consolidation making pub ‘different and worse’ in this time, is bullova sheizah. It is the same as always, the exact same unjust model for decades, only more ‘seeable’ now, by indies. One need not be an agent or editor or vp to see the shell game now. All authors who care to, can see it. In spades.

    The crapinouzula about having the equiv of ‘a pie chart to successful publishing with trad pubs’ taught to/ practically tattooed on an author’s forehead, is absurd. [following a link in said person’s article to how vewy vewy important it is
    –that author is brandable [what a freekin terrible word]
    — that the author has ‘personality’… [great and what about us who were born in a bad mood…]
    –That in order to sell to trad pub, authors must prove they have social media groupettes, [they forget to mention qualityof]
    –that they have ‘contacts’, meaning preferably Popes and Popeyes, and higher [a popeye, an old phrase for someone high up in ‘society’ circles, who was also a looker].
    –that they have pub’d /sold out, before [proof that one is a know-nothing, or studied in auto-blindness]
    — and THAT 15% of the author begging to be pub’d … Must have this: Their Miss Author America or Mr Author America final score by the judges for the ‘swimming in the merde’ competition [judges being certain agents, editors] –only 15%, instead of the 100% it really takes of most everything creative and businesswise in thought and intent] is SCORED on that at least 15% of their overall authorial life be that author can ‘execute’ [another unfortunate choice of word] meaning follow through. [Really, ya think?]

    I’d add in case some here might want to avail themselves. Most anyone can write for Huffington Post. You could pub their all day and night. But for free. I’ve written for them several times, but find their idea of pay, the same idea exactly as many a publisher of books: everything for me and none or little for thee.

    Ironic.

    • “I find it odd that a person who was an acquiring editor, speaking about so-called changes in this time, did not mention indie publishing.”

      Brooke Warner mentions it in her comment replying to another commentator. She is also the proprietor of what a small author subsidy publisher and is a proponent of self-publisher.

    • You’re totally right. Nothing has changed but that the curtain is gone and we can see the wizard manipulating the controls to the smoke machine.

      But there’s one other thing that hasn’t changed. For some reason, people are still lining up to see the fake wizard for fake stuff they don’t need. (Brains they already have, hearts they already have, etc.) They know it’s all a lie, but they still want the wizard to stand before them and present them with magical prizes they think will instantly transform their lives, but are actually illusions. They want to believe the old lies and be fooled. But its harder and harder with the curtain gone.

      The author mentions that the business model of flooding bookstores with books that don’t sell only to pulp them later doesn’t make sense. (Which is, fundamentally what traditional publishing is all about.) But then she complains that publishers are undervaluing “quirky, unique and fringe” books in favor of appealing to the masses. Which is it? Are publishers printing too many books, or not enough? Are they only printing books that appeal to the masses, or are they publishing as many books as they can to flood distribution channels and keep competitors of book shelves?

      As you say, it was always thus. The big publishers tried to keep shelves filled with their own product, whether it sold or not, and always favored big names (and their favorite darlings plus a little nepotism and influence peddling). Still tons of quirky, unique and fridge books were published that didn’t sell (often by big names). The big publishers always made most of their money though back catalogues of already proven sellers. And thanks to genre fiction that they treated like bastard stepchildren.

      But, in the past, there was the illusion that publishers were interested in cultivating literary taste. In finding “important” writers and “important” books and magically promoting them to readers who didn’t want to read such stuff. MFA programs and writing conferences told writers that if they worked really hard, really searched deep in their souls, they would eventually be paid off by a traditional publishing deal where the wizard would make sure that their quirky, unique and fringe book would be distributed and lovingly marketed to a skeptical public. That was the lie, it was always a lie. Hundreds of thousands of writers suffered writing such books for false hopes when the truth is the only ones that would get published would be the efforts of a Yale buddy’s spoiled son or a politician’s mistress. Or that if, by a one in a million chance, they did get published to feed the distribution channel, it would be a tiny run of books that would be tossed out and then quickly pulped, as meaningless as the Scarecrow’s fake diploma.

      The curtain went away when self-publishing proved that readers weren’t being served by the old system of big corporations buying self space to tell people what to read. Readers bought tons of quirky, unique and fridge books, just not the “literary” navel gazing stuff they were supposed to be buying. And writers of genre fiction found they didn’t need publishers and could keep the money themselves.

      But what about all the people that used to work for the wizard? And all the people that were lined up to ask him for favors. What do they do now? Do they admit it was all a fraud? Do they give up on their dream of being instantly handed a miracle? Nope. Better to imagine a past that didn’t exist. Gosh, it was so great when the wizard really could do magic. Why doesn’t he do that anymore?

      It seems to me any sensible writer who is willing to work hard can’t help but applaud the changes and be thrilled they can do it all on their own. Just like Dorthy should be thrilled to find out she has all the power she needs to get home by herself.

      But there are still writers who want to believe in the wizard, who don’t want to have to do the work themselves, who don’t want their books to be judged by readers but rather promoted by anointed curators. People who prefer to dream about success than work for it. They don’t want to have to crank out six books a year to make a living. They want to fuss over a book for years and years and have someone else hand them a pile of money and make it popular.

      Whenever you have a dysfunctional system you have to ask yourself who is gaining from it’s dysfunction. In the case of traditional publishing, the dysfunction is all about creating a system where publishing executives can enjoy themselves, publishing what they want, when they want with little care about profitability. And that’s what the system is. The profits are already coming from the back catalogues. So they can spend lots of money paying celebrities they want to hang out with. As for real writers, well, they’re a pain in the a** because if you promote them, they gain power and push you around. So do as much as you can to keep them underpaid, needy and powerless. Steal what copyrights you can to add to the pile, but don’t fully commit to them. Meanwhile, reward your friends and sycophants with better deals. And if you need to grow the company, simply buy up other publishers and take over their back catalogues.

      Thanks to their huge libraries of IP, that dysfunctional model is unlikely to change. The only thing that can change is for new writers to stop dreaming about a mythical era when writers didn’t have to depend on themselves.

      • Dang Mackay, man, your pen is smokin’!! That was some rich reading you wrote there. And true. Too true. There are two concepts in psych that apply I think to those still lined up at the poor old wizard’s door [in the oz-ified film Wizard of oz, the wiz as far as i know did not rob people, and was up aggainst the wicked sister-witch, and had a heart of gold– and seemed freaked out by how he saw the more powerful demeaning and scaring the before-jayzus out of the innocent. ] or The Pretender to the throne, or maybe old King Pschopath… I keep thinking I ought write aboutthem… they occur to/in those taken hostage in reality, and seem somehow to apply to having one’s mind taken hostage by a falsified dream of being pub’d by an ‘all for me, and only scraps for you’ scion.

        Anyway, rave on Mackay, it’s good stuff. You have a way with words for sure. And the force to go with them

  10. People here say it all better than I can, so I have nothing to add except a worry. I’m worried that thousands of ebooks get buried and lost because the authors have no money for publicity. Amazon is now selling something like six or seven million ebooks. The ebook catalogue keeps growing like a renegade monster. Independent authors have distribution via Amazon and other outlets for ebooks, but they have very little publicity except what they pay for themselves–and with 6 or 7 million titles available, every new book by an unknown author is a longshot. Right now it’s a nightmare and I do not know the solution. There needs to be better machinery for publicity of new titles of all kinds.

    • Tradpub has the same issue, really, with the produce/churn model. Books get published every year and sink without a trace with minimal advertising money spent on them. I was browsing my local used bookstore this weekend and there were thousands of paperbacks from the late 90s/early 00s on the shelves that had come and gone from new bookstore shelves.

  11. Begging your indulgence, here is a brief idea of one way to solve the ebook publicity problem.

    1. Amazon ebook authors join a consortium (no membership fee).
    2. Each author in each newly published book, gives one page of front matter to text blurbs and links in the same category to five books by five other authors. No covers. If the links are to Amazon pages, Amazon will allow it.
    3. In return for the page, you get one of your titles advertised in five other ebooks of the same category.
    4. No one pays anything and membership in the consortium is free.
    5. If the consortium can induce some of the big ebook sellers (e.g., Howey, Konrath, etc.) to join, unknown authors will begin to get serious publicity in the category of their title(s)–and the known authors will also get free publicity in return.
    6. One page of front matter is not going to ruin anyone’s ebook. No covers. Text only. Shortened links to Amazon pages. Authors write their own two line blurbs. Title, author, blurb, AZ link. One page of front matter, 5 titles.
    7. I have no organizing skills and I’m up to my eyeballs in work. So I’m posting this here with the hope that one or more people can get busy founding an ebook advertising consortium that will cost no one a dime and help the community.

    There are certainly variations of the above scheme. I think the general idea is clear. I heard a little story years ago that goes as follows: There once was a man or woman, an Inquirer, who knew a Philosopher, and one day the Inquirer asked the Philosopher the difference between Heaven and Hell. So the Philosopher led the Inquirer down a hall to a door and they opened the door and they stepped inside. A banquet in progress. Hundreds of people around long tables. All the people hungry to the point of collapse. Food piled on the tables in front of them. But each person had attached to their arms a spoon and fork so long in extent that it made it impossible for anyone to use the utensils to bring the food to their mouths. “This is Hell,” the Philosopher said. And the Philosopher then led the Inquirer out of the banquet room and down the hall to another door and another banquet room, and inside that banquet room were also hundreds of hungry people with food piled on the tables in front of them, but here the people were gorging themselves on the food in front of them by a simple means: They were feeding each other. “This is Heaven,” the Philosopher said. And the Inquirer nodded and looked and tears came to the Inquirer’s eyes…

    • Correction:

      …and inside that banquet room were also hundreds of hungry people with food piled on the tables in front of them, and long spoons and forks attached to their arms, but here the people were gorging themselves on the food in front of them by a simple means: They were feeding each other. “This is Heaven,” the Philosopher said. And the Inquirer nodded and looked and tears came to the Inquirer’s eyes…

      • I like your idea but your insistence that it be free simply means that you don’t think the administrative and creative work of putting it together should be compensated.

        With that as a fundamental principle, an otherwise good idea is unlikely to happen.

        My suggestion is that someone (not me) play with the idea and see if there’s a way to do it that delivers a reasonable benefit (value) for a modest level of expenditure with some hope of profit (or sustenance for a nonprofit – if you insist).

        • Never mind “profit”, please. Our public and major private universities do not operate for profit. The idea that every human activitiy must involve monetary profit is a fallacy of “free market” hoopla. The New York Public Library, the greatest public library in the country, does not run for profit but it’s private and funded privately. National defense is not run as a profit making enterprise. NASA is not run as a profit making enterprise. Running national health care as a profit making enterprise is a disgrace. We are too obsessed with “profit”–a consequence of a sophomoric understanding of economics and the public interest. With all due respect, I suggest you first establish the consortium and the scheme and worry about administrative expenses later.

    • I like that you put this forth and thanks. I wonder if time and inability to take on one more thing, could be worked around, as many an author selling millions definitelywould seem to have the money to hire help to do such a thing.

      I wonder how many an author would be able to break the barriers that some of the ‘famous’ keep, free with words, but not massive opportunities for others if it doesnt make them money and or publicity or whatever.

      But I like that you are designing away. That’s how good things start. Someone broadcasts a schemata. Then we wait for rain and sun to come from whomsoever might care to give moment to it all…

    • The metaphor is lovely, but I think it is best to simply trust the readers. Genre alone does not provide a fine enough comb, and what reader will enjoy having 5 genre-sharing books that are not to her taste pushed at her in the beginning of every consortium book? Connecting with an audience has always taken time and persistence for most artists. Sorry to be a wet blanket!

      • Readers already receive info about other books inside ebooks. They receive email from Amazon about other ebooks. Some mass market category paperbacks include whole catalogues of back lists at the end of the book. In principle, the best place to advertise a book is an another book–which is already being done by many ebook authors.

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