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.
Creative Commons Photo Credit: Images Money