The Hachette-Perseus Books Group merger is generating more buzz than it might normally—considering the 18-year-old Perseus is not as familiar a household name as Penguin or Random House—because journalists are connecting the merger to Hachette’s contract fight with Amazon. The New York Times article about the deal is titled “Hachette Adds Heft to Battle Amazon,” for instance.
But this deal marks a continued trend in the publishing industry that anyone interested in a publishing or writing career should watch closely, and maybe warily.
The trend I’m speaking of is one of consolidation, the most famous example being the Penguin Random House partnership last summer. Up until that point, most consolidation occurred when big publishers bought smaller pub houses and incorporated them as imprints: examples of this include Hachette buying Little, Brown in 2006 or HarperCollins’s recent purchase of Harlequin. But now the major publishers are reaching the size of giants, with PRH controlling 250 separate imprints and the other Big 4 trying to catch up. For instance, there are long-standing rumors since late 2012 that Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins were considering a similar merger to match PRH, and early this year Forbes reported that the talks may still be ongoing.
Now Hachette has purchased Perseus, which itself is the largest distributor of books in the nation, especially for small and medium-sized publishers. How did it become the largest? Through consolidation. In this interesting piece by the co-founder of indie publisher Melville House, Dennis Johnson describes Perseus’s purchase of Consortium and Publishers Group West, which gave Perseus control over 80% of indie publishers’ book distribution. Johnson describes a period of turmoil where books got lost while transferred between warehouses and many staff and warehouse members were laid off. Some publishers like Melville House ended up taking their business elsewhere, the Johnson claims that those that remained only stayed because they couldn’t afford to leave.
You cannot necessarily trust Johnson’s impartiality on the subject without hearing Perseus’s side of the story, and maybe those who stayed with Perseus would deny any dissatisfaction with their distributor. But you can’t deny that big mergers are a tumultuous time where jobs and livelihoods are put on the line, and things could easily go wrong.
Now Perseus’s warehouses belong to Hachette’s distributor, Ingram. Does this mean another period of turmoil for the indie publishers? Ingram’s CEO denies this—this Publisher’s Weekly article states that Ingram has “no plans to make major changes to the Perseus distribution operations.” It could be that the name on the door is changing, but that the business will remain the same. It could also be that Ingram will bring new policies that will change how these warehouses operate. But I don’t know enough about warehousing to make an informed comment on the likelihood or repercussions of this eventuality.
The small publishers who used Perseus as a client do know, however, and they’re worried. In a Publishing Perspectives article, one publisher at a conference expressed shock at the news, stating, “Well, looks like we just became [a] smaller [priority].” Another worried about having to learn to use a new computer system.
Each of the publishers expressed their concerns about their list and whether or not they would get the attention they deserve within a bigger organization. Some lamented the loss of yet another independent publishing institution to the deep pockets of a conglomerate. Most grieved the likely layoffs.
Doom and gloom from small publishers who simply don’t like their massive counterparts controlling their distribution, or legitimate fears about the compression of the industry and its jobs into a few “too big to fail” entities? It certainly appears from the article that the publishers like both Perseus and Ingram individually, but dislike them as a merged business, simply because it makes it less likely that individual clients will see their needs addressed.
That same principle may apply to the Perseus imprints that Hachette now controls. When a publishing group controls dozens or even hundreds of imprints, it makes any individual imprint more expendable should it become unprofitable. However, this system also allows the most successful imprints to provide financial insurance for the other imprints in the group; thus, arms of a publishing house that are temporarily struggling can have a few years of unprofitability without being forced to close shop. Thus, it is unclear whether the consolidation of major publishers will keep imprints and jobs afloat or make those jobs expendable in a crisis.
What does the consolidation of publishing houses mean for writers? Less traditional publishing options. In a New York Times piece describing the Penguin Random House merger, the author noted that “the persistent gripe of writers and agents” is that “companies either forbid (as at Penguin) or restrict (at Random House) their constituent imprints from bidding against one another for a manuscript.” Literary agents used to have dozens more options to sell their author’s manuscripts, but now have the five (maybe four soon) major publishing houses and some smaller competitors. That means less competition and fewer chances to demand higher advances for manuscripts. Self-publishing and freelance publishing services are becoming highly visible and profitable around the same time that publishers are continuing to grow and coalesce into a few massive entities. Publishers need to make clear that their services will not suffer and that each author matters when they are trying to service thousands of authors at a time, a tough sell to make.
What does this mean for readers? Ostensibly nothing, since Perseus’s imprints should continue to operate as they did before the buyout, which means the same quality of manuscripts and editing. But the above NY Times piece asserts that merged imprints lose their originality and focus and take on the acquisition strategies and mentality of their parent company. That could mean an overall reduction in the breadth and diversity of titles available for readers through traditional publishing avenues. It also means that, for readers, publishing imprints become more interchangeable or indistinguishable from one another. Publishers with 250 imprints may end up diluting their brands, which would hurt readers and publishers alike. With publishers becoming so massive, they need to focus on strengthening their individual imprints’ brands so that they still mean something to readers.
What does this mean for you, the current and future editors, eBook production experts, publicists, etc.? As I stated above, I really can’t be certain if this will lead to greater or fewer jobs in the long run. Nor is it certain if publishers will begin to lose their originality in the face of the overwhelming size and power of the companies they work for. Personally, I believe that the dedicated publishing professionals in these organizations would not let anything happen to sabotage their efforts in creating great books. But these concerns remain valid, and I hope that the publishers who are merging take these concerns seriously, for the sake of their employees, authors, and readers.
Do you think these super-conglomerates are bad for the industry, or just the natural progression in the face of Amazon and self-publishing competition? Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments, and thanks for reading!
As a disclaimer, I have an upcoming fall internship with Perseus(/Hachette, I guess?), but I tried to remain as objective and analytical as possible without prejudice toward my future employer.