Penguin Random House-Simon and Schuster merger plan poses a real threat to literature as an art form – Laura Waddell

Across the pond, the United States Department of Justice is challenging a proposed merger between publishing behemoths Penguin Random House and Simon and Schuster.

Author Stephen King is among those to express concern about the merger of two publishing giants (Picture: Scott Eisen/Getty Images for Warner Bros)
Author Stephen King is among those to express concern about the merger of two publishing giants (Picture: Scott Eisen/Getty Images for Warner Bros)

The $2.8 billion deal would turn what is known in publishing as the ‘big five’ into the ‘big four,’ with control of up to 90 per cent of the market.

Authors have voiced concerns about what the deal might mean for the industry – including, notably, Stephen King, who in a moment of levity identified himself as a freelance writer on the witness stand (accurate, but a job title more associated with hustling to pay the bills than King’s success). “I came because I think that consolidation is bad for competition,” he said.

An argument against the merger is that opportunities for writers could decline, and advances (the upfront payment made on book deals, which generally funds the author while they write the remainder of the manuscript) less competitive.

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As King continued, "when I started in this business, there were literally hundreds of imprints… Those businesses were either subsumed, one by one, or they were run out of business”.

From the publishers themselves have come some eyebrow-raising statements. According to Penguin Random House chief executive Markus Dohle, “everything is random in publishing. Success is random. Bestsellers are random. So that is why we are the Random House!”

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Is this true? Not quite. I’ve worked for both very small publishers and very big publishers – independents with fewer than five full-time staff to a giant with thousands of employees across editorial, production, sales, marketing and warehousing departments worldwide.

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What was true at both ends of the scale is that some books do take off beyond expectation, capturing the public’s attention and imagination – just as the opposite can also be true: some never truly get the success they deserve.

Boosts like big prize nominations or surprise recommendations from celebrities can turbocharge a book’s visibility and prompt hurried reprint orders. In this environment, bestsellers can feel a gift from fate. But in reality, when sales are propelled beyond a publisher’s anticipation, it is by a combination of ‘randomness’ or luck – and a lot of deliberate effort.

Generally speaking, the mightier the boat, and the bigger the sails, the better chance a book has of catching the winds of public attention.

A publisher does many things to maximise the chance of success of a book, all of which incrementally nudge it forward. This is when scale comes into play.

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Going up against much heftier budgets for marketing and sales, the expenditure necessary to get a book into the hands of retail buyers and on the media’s radar is one challenge that smaller, independent publishers already struggle with.

But what also concerns me strongly is that, as anyone who has worked in a corporate environment might know, priming a product for mass-market consumption to better appease stakeholders can have the effect of rubbing off all its edges and anything that makes it unique.

A more consolidated, less diverse industry would warp an already unbalanced playing field. Publishing is a business that holds a lot of responsibility for the literary arts; a complex ethical mix at any time. What’s at stake isn’t just money, but the health of the art form.

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