Pub Rants

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As a demographic, veteran literary agents are partial to opening sentences that begin with “back in the day.” Nothing signals “old” more effectively than that phrase. It implies that the good ol’ days were somehow better. The reality is that we veterans probably just have selective memory and there is no such thing as good ol’ days. However, in the case of the great publishing-house contraction that is unfolding, I might be in danger of embracing the notion that “back in the day” truly was better. 

News just hit that Newscorp is buying Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. For those not super familiar with the various corporate umbrellas of publishing, Newscorp owns HarperCollins/Harlequin so buying HMH will significantly expand the HarperCollins footprint. In November 2020, news dropped that Penguin Random House (already the biggest publisher) is buying Simon & Schuster—which makes the biggest publisher even bigger. 

Well, back in the day (tongue firmly in cheek) when I first started agenting, I distinctly remember having conversations with then-twenty-year veteran agents who had fond memories of the early 1990s, when more than 300 separate and individual publishing outlets were available for client submission. That number kind of blew my mind. Many of the imprints we now associate with, say, Random House used to be private companies that have since been acquired and folded into the parent company. Macmillan is another excellent example. After all, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, St. Martin’s Press, Henry Holt & Co, and even Tor used to be individual companies before they were bought up to become part of what we now know of as Macmillan. 

By 2022, we will be down to The Big 4 (Penguin Random House, Hachette, Macmillan, and Harpercollins) plus a smattering of some mid-size but growing independents. And that’s it. 

This contraction significantly impacts writers an authors, and here’s why:

  • Merging companies always declare that the houses will be run separately. This was certainly the case when Random House bought Penguin more than five years ago. Now these “separate publishers” exist under the same roof, use the same publishing contract, and operate under merged accounting and royalty systems. It is, in essence, almost like one house even though agents can still submit separately.
  • When publishers merge, there are often new mandates regarding how those houses will participate in auctions and submit bids. Some houses stipulate that imprints can no longer bid against each other. So if several imprints are interested in acquiring a project, they communicate and form a “house bid” (which is where all imprints propose one bid to submit in the auction, and if it is the winning bid, then the author can choose which editor/imprint to work with). This removes competition from the auction and lowers advances, which translates to less money for the author.
  • The merging of publishers results in the must-acquire-blockbusters-only mentality. Tighter budgets means fewer books will be acquired, which makes editors less likely to take chances on unique, creative voices—authors with talent who might not break out until their fourth or fifth novel. In other words, there is less focus on building an author and more focus on acquiring the obvious “big” book—which limits the diversity of unique stories in the world.
  • Contraction squeezes out the mid-list author—the author who’s not a blockbuster but whose sales might be humming along nicely. How? Because it makes the publisher less likely to pick up their option material. This precludes the possibility that a mid-list author’s third or fourth book might have been the one to break out. Not to mention, if the agent must shop the author anew, the current house (and all those imprints) are off the submit list. That equals fewer outlets where an agent can place that author and relaunch that author’s career.
  • Contraction eliminates editorial positions. Smaller staff equals fewer editors equals less diversity and narrower taste in what gets acquired. Also, smaller staff equals fewer editors equals those editors getting way more submissions from agents. Editors are already strapped for reading time and inundated with submitted manuscripts. The sheer volume makes it hard for any debut project to stand out in the crush—reducing a new writer’s chances of getting a foot in the door.
  • Contraction equals less-author-friendly publishing contracts. Fewer houses at which to place a client means publishers have the upper hand when it comes to dictating the terms, and agents have less negotiation leverage. 

This list could go on and on, so these are just a few reasons why I’m not excited by the currently unfolding mergers. Publishing is a tough business. Publishers feel pressured to grow so as to create greater profits and stronger bottom lines and to compete against other behemoths such as Amazon. I get it, but I don’t love it. 

Back in the day, there were dozens of terrific outlets at which to place a new client, to reinvent and reignite a mid-list author, or even to move a big client if needed. I am waxing nostalgic for those good ol’ days. 

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13 Responses

  1. V said:

    Thank you for all this insight. Though it is pretty depressing. I was thinking of sharing with my writing group but I think I’ll keep it to myself. No sense in spreading the sad 😭

    1. Michael Benzehabe said:

      Back in the day, IBM was the proverbial black hole of high tech. The takeaway from that is: the bigger the battleship the harder it is to change course. Outflanking those monsters will get easier and easier. Target a market and go in for the kill.

      1. Lauren said:

        Michael, I like your attitude! The behemoths can go their way and we independents will go ours. Good riddance!

  2. P.I. Barrington said:

    I saw this coming. How? Back in the Pleistocene Era, I used to work in the music industry. This exact thing happened there until there were only five big record companies. Luckily, technology saved the industry Now, artists put out their own music online. Sad to see the mergers are/have happened to publishers. Patti

  3. The Answer Is said:

    Now that there are not as many trees which need chopping and pulping and inking, more and more lumberjacks must resort to twiddling their missing thumbs, which are impotent on handheld devices, which are poor substitutes for books, which are what used to be in the hands of those who read, leading to the demise of publishers willing to pay for words which are better seen only temporarily on screens, and not wasted on trees.

  4. Katherine M. Lawrence said:

    Peter Drucker tells us there are three aspects of a product: 1. the product itself, 2. the market, and 3, the channels of distribution, the latter where the Big Four come in. Clayton Christensen tells us that disruptive technologies often outflank entrenched competitors. I sincerely believe when we look back at the Good Old Days of Kindle, and the like, they will seem as quaint as BetaMax and Blockbuster video. I suggests we’re only at the end of the first act.

  5. George Logan said:

    Back in the day I worked as an IT consultant helping one of the big houses with mergers and acquisitions. Everything Kristin says resonates with me but in addition when the big house acquired a smaller one and tried to homogenize it into its culture it stifled the creativity there.

  6. Kathleen R. Parrish said:

    Thanks for the article. It helps clarify my thinking, and the need to take more ownership of the marketing process. My first novel project is coming out in July, courtesy of Touchpoint Press, a regional publisher based in Arkansas and known for their southern fiction. I’d like to see a good informational piece on the opportunities to be found with regional and niche publishers!

  7. John (Jack) de Yonge said:

    It sounds as if someday only two major publishers will survive for print books and during that time anti-trust laws may apply and in the next century supply some relief. It also may be that publishing on the net only will burgeon.

    I am a long retired newspaper writer and editor and have experienced what happens when one newspaper acquires another: The buyer profits its owners more, maybe. It certainly means one less newspaper and unless you are Jeff Bezos what remains become sink holes for dollars. I expect to see Bezos or some other super rich to buy the last publishers. Bezos afterall has been one of the highwaymen stopping and knifing writers, editors, booksellers and books in all regards. A few others struggle to stay alive breathing fewer dollars. But I wander. The news you supply makes me weep.

  8. Doree Anderson said:

    Just sent out a Query and Synopsis and wondering why. My name isn’t King, Childs, Reichs, or Roberts but 2022 isn’t here yet. I cry but then I wipe my eyes. I remember Western Airlines and Western Auto, Dalton Books and Waldons. My kids don’t. I guess I need to be the all I could be in 2021. While there is still more to go around. Choking idea.

  9. Sue Montgomery said:

    I’ve been a bit stuck, undecided about whether I should go indie or trad with my debut novel that’s finished, polished, and waiting for me to make up my mind. This excellent article certainly adds to my praying and pondering dynamics. Thank you!

  10. C. C. Harrison said:

    You said, “In other words, there is less focus on building an author and more focus on acquiring the obvious “big” book—which limits the diversity of unique stories in the world.” I completely agree!! I am a reviewer for New York Journal of Books and find that some of the best, most creative, compelling books are coming out of the smaller publishers these days. I am able to choose which books I review, and 99.99% of the time I choose a book from a small/indie publisher.

  11. judith lavezzi said:

    One more blow, but writers will write, agents will work to sell, and maybe this will be the augur of multiple splendorous new small publishing companies that fill in the creative gap. Every time I think we’ve gone down some cone, someone picks up a banner of independent small business that the large corporations neglected to crush, reminding me to have faith in human ingenuity.