April 1, 2021

Merger mania marches on: Harper hatches Houghton-Harcourt heist


A chart showing the interconnections of British monarchs. A similar if somewhat more complex and sinister chart could be constructed to display publishing company mergers.

Where will it all end? The incessant roundelay of mergers and acquisitions (“M&A,” in the parlance of our finance-bro pals—but, we digress) continues apace.

According to Monday’s Wall Street Journal, behemoth publishing company HarperCollins is in talks to acquire the book division of Harcourt Houghton Mifflin Houghton Harcourt Mifflin Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, itself already the product of a previous unwieldy marriage of Harcourt, Brace, and Co. (formerly Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich) and Houghton Mifflin Company. That merger had itself followed hard on the marriage of Margaret of Anjou to Henry VI, which—hold on, being told that this last is actually something to do with 15th-century English monarchs. Sorry! Wrong set of tangled and unnatural alliances!

Where were we? Ah, yes. Late last year, Bertelsmann, the owner of Penguin Random House—itself another ungodly pairing—announced its plan to buy Simon and Schuster, which would make the fabled Big Six Five publishing companies into the Big Four. HMHHMH is apparently too small itself to be counted as part of a Big Anything, but the trend remains clear, and disturbing. We are reminded of the dystopia portrayed in the animated feature film Wall-E (2008), in which all consumer choices have narrowed, due to corporate conglomeration, to two. Beverages, for example, are either BLUE or RED.

Hyperbolic? Perhaps … but this narrowing of venues for the publication of serious fiction and nonfiction represents an unhappy thinning of the publishing ecosystem, which at its best thrives on diversity and range. As Melville House’s own publisher and co-founder Dennis Johnson wrote in The Atlantic earlier this year, such mergers are “a threat to all the stuff about the book business that most of us in it champion but are often too shy to shout about—free speech, art making, and perfecting and preserving democracy.”

What is to be done?! Well, er … you can write a letter to the Department of Justice via their Citizen Complaint Center (“CCC”), as I just did! That was satisfying! You could also, I don’t know … support actual independent un-corporate non-Big Six Five Four publishing companies? thereby giving a hand, however tiny, to these folks? Just a thought!



Michael Lindgren is the Managing Editor at Melville House.