October 30, 2012

Operation Book Deployment: The Penguin Random House Juggernaut

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jarek Steele @ 12:20 am
Tags: , , , , , ,

Tonight I’m watching Sandy stomp her way inland from the East Coast, infiltrating tunnels, flooding subways, soaking parks and attracting Anderson Cooper and his doppelgangers to the flooded streets like dogs to the cat litter box.

It’s hard not to draw the parallel to the other news taking shape relatively quietly under the noise of the election and stormageddon that Penguin and Random House, two of the biggest, most bloated publishers in the world will merge creating a publishing Superstorm of their very own.

The New York Times article about this is a must read. Especially this little gem where they report Penguin Random House will “invest in books and in new ways of deploying them.” (apparently we deploy books like unmanned drones now) “This could include digital platforms for selling books directly to consumers… as well as new digital formats.” [italics and sarcasm mine] Awesome. Now bookstores can compete against publishers AND Amazon. Is there anyone in the world who doesn’t want to destroy bookselling? Anyone?

Let’s just dial it back a tick and take a good look at what’s going on here, shall we?

The United States Department of (in)Justice looked up from their Kindles briefly to side with Amazon on the Agency Model lawsuit – a decision that was as patently ridiculous as the Seahawks/Packers Replacement Ref call – and the heads of virtually every major publisher in the world looked at each other, held up their stock trade orders high above their heads and said in unison “SELL.”

Why?  Because the Agency Model allowed the publishers and bookstores to combat the rape of the the bookselling industry by Amazon.  Now that the assault is legitimized by the government, publishing is trying to find a way to shut that whole thing down.

What do you do when your company has no control over its profit margin and is being willfully undercut by it’s main customer?  If you own an independent bookstore, you call that a normal day.  If you’re a corporate giant like Penguin, you merge with another more powerful giant so that you have bargaining power.

But what does this mean for the other 99%?  The authors, the booksellers, the readers?  It means less competition.  For everything.  And that, my friend, is bad news for everyone.

  1. If more of the big boys merge (MPS, Hachette, HarperCollins, etc.) authors will have even fewer places to shop their books, meaning they’ll get paid less.  Meaning they won’t be able to even make the modest living they do now.
  2. Which leads us to consequence number two – readers won’t enjoy as many new releases.  Not only will authors get squeezed out of the game, the types of books that get published will represent a narrower and narrower range.  If there are only 2 or 3 big publishers, who is going to take a chance on the next Kurt Vonnegut?  Who is going to stick with the next Gillian Flynn through a couple smaller releases before the big “Gone Girl” break?  More importantly, who will represent the infinitely important books to marginalized people (think Stone Butch Blues to an entire generation of working class Butch Lesbians and Gender Queer people.)
  3. How can I put this?  Bookselling isn’t generic retail, folks. It’s specific.  Sure, you can scroll through endless lists for recommendations, but you need a real, live person to tell you if those recommendations (often paid for by the publicist or publisher) are bogus or on the mark.  Really, if you love cats, poetry and humor, an algorithm might not direct you to I Could Pee On This – but I would.    And that sells books.  I mean, I know I’ve talked about a lot here, but isn’t selling books the point?  Readers don’t want to be “deployed” to.  They want to talk to someone they trust.

I haven’t even touched on the cash flow nightmare owing only a few gigantic vendors would cause for hundreds of bookstores, or the jobs that will be lost when this merger deems the additional sales reps, credit reps, editors, publicists and eventually entire imprints “redundant.”

The only (and I do mean only) tiny, infinitesimal scrap of light this trend allows through the gathering clouds is the small hope that Amazon and its unregulated Monopoly could possibly have to actually participate in the economy rather than suck it dry.

But that is a very small consolation prize.  Like getting an ice cream cone after watching your house burn down.  For the record, I’m requesting chocolate.  With sprinkles.  And a waffle cone at the very least.


  1. Is this evolving into a new fandangled form of censorship on the horizon? Publishers will not permit anything unsavory printed. Journalists that write books will have editors editing out the truth. It seems like these latest moves by govt and the new mega merger are putting sealing nails in the coffin in the share of information and literary art. Soon we will all be thinking that comic books are the next Jane Austen classics. This makes me sad. Very very sad.

    Comment by Suzanne Till — October 30, 2012 @ 3:35 pm | Reply

  2. You didn’t mention how you think small independent publishers will fit in this tapestry. I think you may be overlooking the opportunities these publishers offer emerging authors. Independent publishers may be who will keep books available to independent bookstores.

    Comment by Sharon — October 30, 2012 @ 5:39 pm | Reply

  3. Sharon makes a good point, doesn’t she? Doesn’t the merger of giants and *their* limitations open the door for independent publishers, both existing and new, to pick up the potentially great works that Ranguin House no longer wants?

    Comment by Mike O — October 30, 2012 @ 7:15 pm | Reply

  4. Good points, Sharon and Mike. I would love to see a resurgence of independent publishers in the void that will be left after the merging of the Corporate Borg. Here’s what I worry about, though – The absence of more established imprints doesn’t necessarily mean those authors will thrive in an independent publisher’s house. The overwhelming glut of substandard books being published alongside the hidden treasures has grown to scary proportions, and threatens to bury the work of midlist authors and smaller houses like AK Press or City Lights. For indie publishers to not only survive but *thrive* their money absolutely has to be invested in books that are well written, vetted, edited and publicized – and they can’t give away their wares on Amazon in order to “compete” while expecting bricks and mortar stores to pay standard discount. And that is a tall order.

    That said, my bookstore stands behind and supports to the best of our ability smaller publishers. In this current world, we need both big and little guys. It doesn’t have to be a zero sum game.

    Comment by Jarek Steele - Left Bank Books — October 30, 2012 @ 7:47 pm | Reply

    • Jarek, I’m happy to hear that you can and would work with small publishers. It’s tough for them out there too, given the way that most of the distribution is handled. I know several small publishers who have given up using Ingram and Baker & Taylor, et al, because of costs and returns. The distributors take a huge cut of the books’ pricing. Not too much is left for the publishers. They all wish there was some way to work directly with the indie bookstores. They do in their local markets, but don’t have the ability to reach bookstores directly across the country.

      Comment by Sharon — November 2, 2012 @ 5:16 pm | Reply

  5. As I watch all of the moves taking place on the Chess Board of Literature, I see for certain nothing stays the same. There needs to be some tipe of oversight in the industry to ensure that the authors get paid. I have two books out now, and I don’t think anyone has the author who took the time to write the novel in the first place in mind. I See all of the shifting sand in this undustry as I know I’ll never be rich. Twenty years ago there was a chance, but today it is all for naught.
    I’ll publish my books anyway, on the off chance someone will recognize just how good they are, but the days of any type of normal transition into the mainstream frontline of publishing are gone for up and coming authors. As John Wayne’s grandson I thought I would have an edge, I don’t! Self Publishing may be the only means left to an author if he wants to make money, and to hell with putting anything on e-readers, you don’t get paid for them anyway!

    Comment by John T, Wayne — October 31, 2012 @ 8:02 am | Reply

    • John T.,
      I am seeing the same shifting sands in tis industry & I am in total agreement with you on this topic. My book, also released through the same publisher as your books, seems to sit at a stand still as far as marketing & so forth (and you know why, $). I feel that our publishing house is crazy for not making you our “Ambassador” (would that be the right word?). The publicity your character & your name would bring to the publishing house, stands to be enormous & the vote of confidence it would give to up & coming authors such as myself; well, John T., it is magical!
      If our publishing house was not so concerned with “publishing the largest number of authors in the business” & concentrated more on the authors established within its own house, maybe they wouldn’t have so many of their authors, looking to publish their next great novel elsewhere.
      Not, exactly the topic you were speaking on here John T., but it is a “side-effect” of what happens to the authors when their own publisher doesn’t care about them.

      Comment by Kylene Monroe VeraCovarrubias — February 16, 2013 @ 9:13 am | Reply

  6. One thing I noticed at the recent Printer’s Row Book Fair in Chicago this past June was the huge number of small publishing houses at the fair. There was a niche press for just about any taste. The big guys really have packed their tents and gone home as the fair didn’t spill north of 14th. I remember past years when Borders, Waldenbooks, Barnes and Noble had huge tents. Half-Price books used to have a huge tent, too, and I don’t think they were in attendance this year.

    It’s still very hard for the small press to be noticed at something like this. They are usually relegated to a card table and a couple of folding chairs off to the side. But they are well worth stopping by and seeing what they have. I remember when Lake Claremont Press, one of the best indie presses in Chicago, had 3 titles and was at one of those card tables off to the side. Now, they take up a whole side of one of the main squares in the fair.

    I hope the book fair shifts more to giving the small presses better visibility. There’s room for both as well as the huge antiquarian and used book sellers who come.

    Comment by Deb n Cats — October 31, 2012 @ 2:55 pm | Reply

    • This market is scary if you’re big and top heavy, but exciting for a small, boutique publisher. In order to pay their bills the big guys need each author to be a Grisham, Flynn, Gladwell, pick your genre and there’s a king or queen there we all know. But do we love them or do we buy them because that’s what’s on the shelf at the airport? Me, I fell in love with the indie authors a long time ago. Some of the reads are less well edited than I’d like and some aren’t rocking me and that’s okay. The gamble is worth it for the different reads and non-conforming plots. And, thanks to the internet we can get these guys anywhere, anytime as long as we can download it to any number of the devices we lug along with us on our daily travels.
      A few years ago I thought about joining the crush of authors clamoring for the select few slots available with the big houses to see my first book in print. It was a nightmare with tons of gatekeepers and a few swamis in charge of reading the future market. It was disheartening to say the least. Me, I didn’t give up, I had options. My marketing/advertising/editing background merged with writing and my little publishing house was born only 18 months ago. Make our books available in paperback? No problem. How about digital? No problem. Thanks to technology being what it is and the lack of a huge corporate structure makes it easy for little houses like ours to evolve with the market. Are there lesser quality books out there now that it’s easier to publish? Absolutely. Not from our authors of course. We’re picky. You might not like the genre, but the quality story and storytelling are there.
      I say the merger between two more huge publishers is unfortunate because I love hearing about authors making it big and being able to quit their day job and really only the big boys can make that happen. Still, the market is exciting. I can’t deny that. And evidencing that new, changing market would be the book shows. Our first was the Heartland Fall Forum in Minneapolis this month. We had a small table and we were in the shadows of Penguin, Harper Collins, and Simon & Schuster to name a few, but we were there. And people stopped and gobbled up the books we had. “Great covers,” “That’s exactly what’s hot on the YA market right now,” and “You’ve sold HOW many?” were some of the questions booksellers had for us before placing orders. We had as much traffic as the big boys and held our own. Scary market, yes. But so exciting too!

      Comment by Heather Savage — November 1, 2012 @ 10:15 am | Reply

      • Congratulations on your new found success. Your news is great to hear as the parent of two budding youth authors at home. On a completely separate side note (plugging my own 10 yr old kid)–he actually dressed up for Halloween as the main character of a series of stories he has been writing at school. The kids in his class have given him positive feedback on his stories, so when he came dressed as the main character it was a no brainer to them. 🙂

        Comment by Suzanne Till — November 1, 2012 @ 10:33 am

  7. That’s awesome Suzanne! My kid’s school does a dress up like your fave book character day and she likes the fact that she reads some indie authors too and she makes them guess who she is, then she gets to tell them all about the books. Grassroots advertising!

    Comment by Heather Savage — November 1, 2012 @ 10:47 am | Reply

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