A very small pond

A few weeks ago I wrote a post that admitted I "dont find [the Penguin – Random House] merger very interesting." Within publishing, that seems like a minority position.

A few days after I tackled the topic, Jennifer Rankin wrote "Plot thickens for authors as Penguin and Random House merger creates Ł2.6 billion powerhouse" for The Guardian's Observer column. In it, Rankin wonders out loud about the impact of this merger on mid-list and less well-known authors. She writes:

But insiders worry the tie-up will be bad for authors, depressing their advances and reducing the care and attention they get from their publisher.

In all likelihood, advances will decline, but not because of the merger. They'll decline because publishers now operate with relatively narrow margins, and an unearned advance is the equivalent of a higher royalty rate. Publishers looking to maintain or improve margins – pretty much all of them – have been working to manage down advances for some time.

As for care and attention, I'll ask for a show of hands. Who among us thinks that a $4 billion company treats authors substantially differently from a $2 billion company?

Penguin Random House is "big" only in a very small pond. Rankin claims that the company "will control 25% of the world book business", but that's simply not true.

In 2013, its books are likely to account for a quarter of the U.S. trade publishing market, but it represents 14% of the overall U.S. market and perhaps 7% of the world book market. Outside the U.S. and the U.K., the powerhouse looks a lot less powerful.

Rankin also lives in a world apparently devoid of self-publishing options. Fascinated by the merged company's 15,000 new titles each year, she ignores the two million or more other titles that somehow find their way to market without the backing of a $4 billion company.

It may well be the case that there has never been a better time for mid-list and lesser-known authors. We have entered an era characterized by low-cost options for layout and design, inventory-less publishing and direct access to markets.

Scale provides an exclusive advantage in one area: getting books onto physical bookshelves. That may matter to the judges who award the Man Booker prize, but it is becoming less relevant for almost everyone else.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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