What the sale of a major American book publisher means for authors, the industry — and you

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From The Los Angeles Times:

It seemed to many in book publishing like good news last October when the Department of Justice successfully sued to block Penguin Random House (PRH) from acquiring Simon & Schuster. PRH is the largest publisher in the United States and S & S is third. Together they might have controlled more than half the industry. Only three other publishers — HarperCollins, Hachette and Macmillan — control the bulk of the rest. Such consolidation has long worried literary types who fear it leads to the privileging of profit over culture. But the alternative in this case might prove worse. On Monday, Paramount sold Simon & Schuster to KKR, a private equity firm.

Simon & Schuster’s role in the book world

Simon & Schuster is a 99-year-old house. Founded by two Jewish bookmen, Richard Simon and Max Schuster, it was among a wave of new firms established in the first half of the 20th century by Jewish bookmen, including Knopf, Random House and Viking. But whereas these other houses were literary ventures, S & S was more commercial from the start. While Random House profited from the scandal of James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” S & S grew on the back of crossword puzzle books.

Paramount acquired Simon & Schuster in 1975, leading to vast growth through acquisitions, with a focus on educational and professional publishing. By the 21st century, Simon & Schuster had become a behemoth, one of the Big Five, inevitably containing multitudes. Today its imprints include commercial lines such as Atria (Vince Flynn, Colleen Hoover, Jodi Picoult, Brad Thor) and the venerable Scribner (Stephen King, Kiese Laymon, Jesmyn Ward) whose backlist features F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.

What is KKR?

Kohlberg Kravis Roberts is an investment company founded in 1976. Henry Kravis and George R. Roberts continue to hold positions as executive co-chairmen. They pioneered leveraged buyouts in the 1980s, culminating in one of the largest in history when they bought out RJR Nabisco in 1989. As first documented in the investigative blockbuster “Barbarians at the Gate,” the firm established an early record of buying companies, loading them up with debt, then squeezing them for profit — maybe most famously with the slow death of Toys R Us. More recently, KKR acquired hundreds of facilities for people with disabilities, which, under the new ownership, led to conditions in which residents were “consigned to live in squalor, denied basic medical care, or all but abandoned,” according to Polk-winning reportage from Buzzfeed.

Its reputation has grown more complicated over time, even as it’s made some incursions into publishing. KKR is enormous, with more than $500 billion in assets. Simon & Schuster, purchased for $1.62 billion, will account for less than one half of 1%. Still, KKR co-CEO Scott Nuttall told the the Wall Street Journal that “the firm puts new growth opportunities through a screen. ‘Can we do it in a way that is special? Can we get to the top three in the world?’”

KKR has some publishing connections. Co-CEO Joseph Bae is married to the respected novelist Janice Y.K. Lee — though she publishes with PRH. More notably, Richard Sarnoff, chair of KKR’s media group, worked in publishing from the 1980s until 2011. He helped the German conglomerate Bertelsmann acquire Random House in 1998, after which he became an increasingly influential figure in the industry, an early advocate of audio and new media who also pushed publishing toward increasing financialization through further acquisitions and investments in venture capital.

One benefit touted by Simon & Schuster as well as KKR on Monday is its habit of offering equity to employees of its companies. Such a program will now be established at S & S. This worked out well for the company’s recent publishing asset, RBMedia, the world’s largest audiobook publisher. Acquired in 2018, RBMedia was sold last month in a deal that, according to KKR’s statements to the New York Times, earned employees payouts of up to two times their annual salaries.

What does the sale mean for the industry?

It is, in one sense, the continuation of an old story. The corporatization of publishing began in the 1960s. Times Mirror acquired the esteemed mass-market paperback house New American Library in 1960 and hired McKinsey consultants to rationalize its operations, leading to increasing control for the business office and an exodus of editorial talent that included luminaries such as E. L. Doctorow and André Schiffrin. Few acquisitions or mergers have been as dramatic since, though all nudged publishing toward prioritizing financial growth. The big difference this week is that for decades media companies have tended to acquire publishing houses: Bertelsmann, CBS, Hachette, Holtzbrinck, News Corp, Paramount. Not so much private equity.

The consequences for the industry have been complex: One could write an entire book just covering fiction. Writers and editors have developed creative strategies for meeting the needs of growth-oriented parent companies while doing good work. The question is whether a private equity firm runs things differently.

Initial commentary from top figures at KKR and Simon & Schuster have focused on growth. “I believe that they are committed to helping us grow and become even greater than we already are,” S & S CEO Jonathan Karp told the L.A. Times in an interview Monday, calling the purchase “very good news for readers and publishers everywhere.” He touted KKR’s track record of audiobook production — one avenue of planned growth — as well its proposal to offer employees equity that could result in “a life-impacting amount of wealth.” In the short term, both sides say business at Simon & Schuster will carry on as usual. Of course, they have motivations for saying so.

What does this mean for books and readers?

What happens next is unpredictable. Will Simon & Schuster end up like Toys R Us or RBMedia? We know that KKR will aggressively pursue growth. It is likely less concerned with accommodating the niceties and vagaries of publishing than the other parent companies of the Big Five. One the one hand, this might mean Simon & Schuster becomes flush with cash, enabling its staff to explore compelling new projects (so long as they facilitate growth). On the other, it could mean radical transitions at the publisher, including layoffs and changing terms for contracts with authors. Colleen Hoover, a mega-bestseller, is probably safer than Kiese Laymon, a beloved critical darling whose books have little impact on S & S’s bottom line.

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Times

12 thoughts on “What the sale of a major American book publisher means for authors, the industry — and you”

  1. When it comes to ToysRUs, while KKR did cut costs and let the business decay, they also got in at just the wrong time. Kids today don’t play with toys the same way, or as much as they did 10 or 20 years ago. Once they are able to read they are migrating wholesale to computerized options. This was brought home to me the last time I went into the store, walked the aisles and realized that there was nothing there my kids would play with, at all. You can also see this because even many years after Toys closed down, no other similar store has taken off – toy stores, stores that sell physical toys – struggle now.

    There is a lot being made of the metaverse and what it means to adults, but the metaverse is already real to kids. They play on all sorts of shared game servers and environments and communicate with each other over Discord and such-like. The future is already here, it’s just that your kids haven’t told you yet.

    • Computer game/edutainment software for kids 3+ have been with us since the 80’s.
      I have cousins that grew up on that with kids in high school.

      The digital native thing is particularly true for single kid families, which is where comes the stereotype of “zoomers’ dream job is a closet, locked from the inside, where they can code all day with no human contact”.
      Doesn’t bode well for a further generation but at least we’ll get great software for another decade or two. 😀

  2. I expect KKR to do what KKR does:

    Figure out how it can break up companies by selling the prestige portions to suckers early, holding on to the profitable parts (under the original name) and using them as security for leveraging, then selling the debt-ridden formerly profitable shell to… well, a different variety of suckers.

    Adult trade publishing will be spun off, maybe keeping media properties, maybe not. Nonfiction may be spun off separately from fiction, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see some very interesting packaging tranches cutting across existing imprints. In particular, I doubt that either Saga or Atria stays for five quarters after the deal finally closes.

    Scientific/professional/educational will be held onto until the last possible moment, children’s almost as long.

    Data to evaluate the audiobook division has been kept so closely held, and unreliable when it is released, that I suspect it’ll be in the second round of sales — after the prestige-is-for-suckers-but-some-suckers-have-money dumps of the adult trade books but well before giving up the more-profitable (not to mention ordinarily lower capital investment/royalty expense) SPE lines.

    It will not surprise me to see attempts to get some of the acquired imprints sold “back” to their originators/designated successors (Adams Media, for example).

    And KKR will, of course, get… additional compensation… for the financing. But that’s for another time.

  3. I would expect KKR to make a major effort to push the backlist into eBooks. Perhaps package it up and spin it off. Or maybe just sell off all the backlist titles to someone else. That seems to be an under-valued and under-exploited asset.

    • Magic 8 ball says: “Outlook not so good”
      KKR is about squeezing blood from a stone.

      Odds are they’ll milk the backlist and the top sellers for all they’re worth and cut staff and newcomer books to the minimum.
      Politicians will love the new regime because one thing they won’t cut back on is the influence peddling books. If anything, they’ll up their advances. But they *will* expect the pols to stay bought.

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