December 8, 2020
Mega-press Penguin Random House Simon & Schuster is not great
by Alyea Canada
A couple of weeks ago Bertelsmann announced that it was buying Simon & Schuster, combining the largest and third largest publishers in the United States. The news was not well received with people on all sides of the industry predicting the inevitable loss of diversity heralded by a Big 4. Chad W. Post, founder and publisher of Open Letter, published an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times that does an excellent job breaking down the consequences PRHS&S will have on your friendly neighborhood indie publishers (*waves*).
When discussing the effect this merger has on diversity, it is important to keep in mind that we mean diversity in every way. In a year where publishing has been wrangling with it’s truly abysmal record on racial diversity, a merger which reduces competition for manuscripts, shutters imprints, and further concentrates publishing power in NYC, PRHS&S is not a good look. But it also hurts the diversity of who is given space on bookstore shelves and who is selling. As Post points out, “In 2019, PRH had 215 books on PW’s hardcover bestseller list and 93 on its paperback list. That accounts for 39.7% and 27.8% of the bestsellers respectively. Add in S&S titles, and you’ve got just under half of 2019’s bestselling hardcovers and more than a third of paperbacks.”
As we learned in the wake of a certain controversial novel earlier this year, the massive difference in marketing and publicity budgets between Big 4 and indie publishers results in some books being almost inescapable in terms of pre-publication coverage, while other books never reach a wider audience because they can’t garner the same ubiquity. Publishers will be less inclined to take risks on unique voices and smaller projects because the industry recently has been relying on bestsellers and backlist titles to stay afloat. The result can already be seen with publishers paying huge advances to sure things like memoirs from former government officials. A buzzy book auction can do a lot to build anticipation for debuts or books by “riskier” authors, but because imprints only bid against each other so much, that buzz will be harder and harder to generate, resulting in fewer and fewer big houses taking risks on books that aren’t sure things.
For decades newer, more diverse voices have often found their home at indie publishers before taking off and being signed by PRHS&S and the like. “Here’s the modern career trajectory for a literary author in any language: get a few pieces into literary magazines, make a deal with a small independent press, sell a more than respectable number of copies, get snatched up by one of the Big Four.” Some authors who fall into this category are Valeria Luiselli and Hanif Abdurraqib, but it also works for trends such as Nordic crime after the success of Stieg Larsson. However, this all falls apart if indies can’t sell their books.
For all of the high-minded waxing poetic about the value and importance of books, this is ultimately a business and indies need to make money to survive. The industry is facing a lot of challenges between Amazon and Covid-19, but perhaps the greatest threat right now is a snake eating its own tail.
Alyea Canada is an editor at Melville House.