Last Publisher Left Standing: Why Books Are Facing a Bleak Future

Winner-take-all mergers spell bad news for authors and readers alike

A penguin wearing a crown
The Walrus/iStock/Flickr

On November 25, 2020, America’s biggest book publisher, Penguin Random House, announced plans to buy its third-largest, Simon and Schuster, for somewhere north of $2 billion (US). By what appears to be near universal agreement among reporters, the only word suitable to describe the resulting corporate beast, owned by German conglomerate Bertelsmann, has been behemoth. Estimates are that this “behemoth of books,” to use Prospect magazine’s moniker, will be responsible for a third of all titles published in the United States and 70 percent of general and literary fiction. This has led some to believe that the merger may fall afoul of American anti-trust legislation, designed to fight the creation of a monopoly: a single company with control of an entire market. Indeed, concern that the deal would bring “a substantial lessening of competition” is why, in March of this year, the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority launched an investigation into the sale.

Megamergers are a familiar crisis for Canadian publishing. Voices were raised in protest when Random House took over Doubleday, back in 1999. By absorbing a rival, industry watchers at the time warned, Random House would not only eliminate a Canadian publisher from the marketplace, leaving local authors with one less place to submit projects, but its dominance would squeeze out smaller presses. A similar panic set in when Random House swallowed up McClelland and Stewart, in 2012. The following year, when Random House joined with Penguin, becoming Penguin Random House—thus shrinking the pool of publishers in Canada yet again—the same worries were aired. And, along with complaints about the harm caused by ongoing consolidation, there has been anger about what many see as Canada’s toothless enforcement of its own official policy on foreign investment in the book business. The policy’s goal is to strengthen Canadian publishing by forcing the government to approve only deals of “net benefit” to the country. But critics say it hasn’t worked out that way. In his 2017 report for the Association of Canadian Publishers (ACP), novelist and cultural policy consultant Roy MacSkimming called the legislation “a hollow sham that does a disservice to the industry, the government and the nation itself.”

If it approves the merger of Penguin Random House and Simon and Schuster, Canada will be down to two big publishers: HarperCollins and, dwarfing it, the newly formed behemoth. In an open letter released upon the news of the deal in November, the ACP refocused our attention on the price Canadian writing will pay. “Canadian authors will have fewer houses to present their manuscripts to,” explained executive director Kate Edwards. “A culture of ‘blockbuster’ publishing will become more entrenched. All of this will increase pressure on independent presses who already struggle to compete in a concentrated market dominated by large global companies.”

We see similar concerns south of the border. In the US, the Authors Guild and the National Writers Union, along with other writers’ groups, demanded that the Department of Justice block the merger. Franklin Foer called the deal “deplorable” in The Atlantic. “Publishers will grow hesitant to take risks on new authors and new ideas,” he writes. “Like the movie industry, they will prefer sequels and established stars.” Melville House publisher Dennis Johnson was even more apocalyptic, calling “the monstrously big PRH-S&S” a threat to “free speech, art making, and perfecting and preserving democracy.”

How much of this constitutes a fair assessment of the merger? And what, if anything, is to be done?

It seems a safe bet that neither the US nor Canadian governments will intervene despite the laws and policies on the books and letters from authors’ guilds and publishers’ associations urging some kind of action. There doesn’t seem to be any argument for there being a net benefit to Canada from the merger, nor really any benefit at all. But there is no political payoff to taking a stand on this hill.

Then there are the claims being made about the impact from the whole decades-long process of consolidation. Some of these, like the perceived threat of a monoculture born of the unwillingness to publish high-risk books, may be overstated. “In the future that Bertelsmann celebrates, we can all read anything we want so long as it’s a bestseller by John Grisham,” warns Ron Charles in the Washington Post. But Philip Jones in The Bookseller calls this “clearly a nonsense,” and Canadian author and publisher Ken Whyte dismisses similar arguments as “mostly tripe.” Aside from the most determinedly uncommercial literary prospects, which may have to rely on small presses (where, like Lucy Ellman’s experimental novel Ducks, Newburyport, they may go on to become surprise hits), it seems almost anything can get published. The range of political opinion the last few years has shown a remarkable flourishing, the number of different Penguin Random House imprints has actually grown, and fiction has seen new efforts to showcase different racial and gender identities across genres.

Critics are not, however, crying wolf. As with any such corporate restructuring, some in-house jobs will undoubtedly be lost. Meanwhile, the plight of so-called midlist authors, already desperate, will likely get worse. Midlist books comprise the vast majority of what big publishers put out. They are titles that publishers believe in but that often fail to achieve commercial success. Over the last decade, industry watchers began noticing a pair of linked trends. Seven-figure advances were booming for books expected to be megasellers while, at the other end of the food chain, midlist authors were reportedly seeing advances shrink. (An advance refers to the amount writers receive upfront after signing with a publisher. It’s paid out against the royalties expected from the book’s sales, and it’s an important way authors finance the writing of a book. Usually, the more established or celebrated an author, or the better their track record, the higher an advance they can demand.)

Corporate consolidation is, in part, a response to runaway advances. It nips in the bud any bidding wars for A-list writers. But, as we move down the ladder, the S&S/PRH merger will likely drive down advances offered to midlist proposals. The new conglomerate, Whyte believes, “will be the only show in Canada if you’re looking to sell a book for a sizeable advance.” What a “sizeable advance” means varies depending on the nature of the book and how well the author is known. But even a six-figure advance may not qualify as sizable considering the work that goes into writing a book. When Charles Foran received an advance “in the low six figures,” in 2006, for his biography of Mordecai Richler, he calculated this as working out to an income of around $20,000 per year. How many people would be able, much less want, to work for that? And that was fifteen years ago—what happens if that “low six figure” sinks even lower? Authors can look elsewhere, but most Canadian small presses now pay very small advances ($5,000 would, for them, be a significant investment).

To be sure, few writers have ever gotten rich from their labours. But they could, and not so long ago did, make a living by writing other things. For all but a lucky few, this is no longer the case. Contract work (newspaper and magazine writing, for example) has suffered a precipitous decline—putting the “free” back in freelance. Surveys have shown that writers’ incomes have plummeted in the US (42 percent since 2009) and the UK (42 percent since 2005). According to a 2018 Writers’ Union of Canada income survey, that trend was “by far the worst” in Canada, with writing-related incomes over the previous twenty years dropping a whopping 78 percent—nearly a third of that decline happening in the three years leading up to the survey. To be frank, the only thing stopping this systemic collapse from being any more dramatic is the fact that writers’ fortunes don’t have that much further to fall. When you’re working for free, or for well below poverty wages, things can’t get a lot worse.

That said, I wouldn’t ascribe this ongoing disaster solely or even primarily to merger mania among publishers. It is happening everywhere. Indeed, the short but sharp slide in fortunes of the artistic class has been the subject of a lot of discussion recently, summarized in such alarming and important books as Scott Timberg’s Culture Crash and William Deresiewicz’s The Death of the Artist. Filmmakers, visual artists, and musicians are all facing the same bleak prospects. Deresiewicz sees “extreme and growing inequality” as the single greatest threat facing the arts. “What’s changed,” Timberg sums up, “is the ability for people who didn’t have the foresight to be born into wealthy families to earn a middle-class living in creative fields.” As political scientists debate just how much income inequality is healthy or sustainable for a society, we may be in the process of putting this question to the test in the arts economy. With the hollowing out of the middle class (or the midlist), that economy has become divided to a degree it’s hard to overstate.

In effect, there are now two economies, one for the handful of megasellers and another for everyone else. They are almost entirely separate, and while every year sees a few breakout stars, it’s a frozen class structure. As always, however, there are some willing to argue that this is a good thing, or at least that there’s a silver lining. Instead of upward mobility, we are told that it’s precisely the megasellers that allow publishers to take on riskier and less profitable titles. The hits make up for the losers. This is the literary version of trickle-down economics—the idea that cutting taxes for the rich helps those savings trickle down to everyone else. In John Kenneth Galbraith’s favourite metaphor, it’s the belief that, if one feeds the horse enough oats, some will pass through to the road for the sparrows.

Trickle-down has never worked in the broader economy: studies consistently show it ends up being a windfall for the wealthy but generates no jobs or economic growth. And it’s hard to see it working in publishing, where the rich keep getting richer and the poor poorer. This dynamic is amplified by another fact of the arts economy: hits, in any medium, are notoriously difficult to predict. Basically, it’s a lottery. There’s no way of knowing what bit of ear candy, YouTube video, or self-published work of fan fiction is going to suddenly go viral. Most novelists who are big hitters are, no surprise, blue-chip names. Scroll through a week-by-week roundup of the New York Times Best Sellers and you’ll mostly see brands: among them Grisham, Baldacci, Steel, Robb, Patterson, Roberts, and Child. These authors haven’t gone anywhere in years—in some cases, decades. And they’re not going to. The freak successes? They don’t encourage risk-taking as much as they spawn sequels and imitations. A master list of the bestselling US books of the past decade revealed top place dominated by E. L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey—a self-published hit before being picked up by a publisher. The number two and three spots were occupied by the two other books in the Fifty Shades trilogy. The list also included The Hunger Games, the wildly successful dystopian YA novel by Suzanne Collins. It was followed by Veronica Roth’s Divergent, an uncannily similar dystopian YA novel. Franchise fiction, in other words, dominates the list.

Penguin Random House, in making its latest move, is signalling that it is all-in for this blockbuster business. With deeper pockets and bigger promotional budgets, it can take over publishing’s heights, which will in turn reinforce that same topography by investing in established brands. And that’s nothing that big publishing can be faulted for. If you want to make a lot of money—or, really, any money—publishing books, that’s the only way to do it. Bestsellers today sell more than ever. Small and midlist books sell a lot less.

There are, of course, exceptions to the hegemony of big publishers, even on the bestseller lists, but these tend to only prove the rule. A well-received new book of Canadian poetry might sell a couple hundred copies. A big publisher likely isn’t interested in being part of that. Indeed, few publishers are. That’s one reason why Milk and Honey, the debut of Canadian poet Rupi Kaur, was self-published. But Kaur went viral with a photo on Instagram and ended up selling over 3 million copies of Milk and Honey worldwide. Putting those numbers in relative terms, Milk and Honey sold ten times as many copies as the next bestselling book of poetry in the US that year, Homer’s venerable Odyssey, and, according to the Guardian, more than the next ten bestselling poets combined.

Now, while a big publisher may not be interested in the business of new poetry, it does want to be in the Rupi Kaur business. So Kaur’s later books have been brought out by Simon and Schuster in Canada. Big publishers, like big Hollywood studios, want identifiable markets that they can target. Kaur gave them that. And it all leads back to the broader question of whether success at the top trickles down. Has the megasuccess of Rupi Kaur been good for poetry? Many would argue yes: poetry sales in Canada have been increasing since 2016. But a January BookNet Canada report found that the Instapoets—a category of poet modelled after Kaur’s success—make up a vast swath of those sales. Indeed, 80 percent of all poetry books sold in Canada in 2017 were by Instapoets. Three years later, poets with large Instagram followings still make up about half of all poetry sales. The growing gap between haves and have nots suggests the lottery model works only for a lucky few while warping the industry a particular way.

The stark divide within the arts economy isn’t a problem that government created, and it’s not one it can do much to solve. You can’t legislate taste. The best you can do is educate and influence it, at least to some extent. The challenge is a tough one. There are powerful countervailing forces, and any voices that might have provided guidance have been brought to heel, tamed by the market. Along with the collapse of the midlist, we’ve seen the disappearance of book reviews and book pages from newspapers and the steady decline of the humanities in higher education. It’s hard to give anyone who hasn’t worked in these fields a sense of just how demoralized they’ve become. Adopting the role of an intellectual “service class”—to borrow historian Tony Judt’s phrase—has become necessary for survival, but it’s nothing anyone feels good about.

The expression of some independent, alternative set of standards is a good place to start. These need not be adversarial to market values, but they will ignore the blockbuster mentality and the celebrity cults. Things are likely to get worse. As industry consolidation continues, lots of great writing in this country will go not only unheralded but unpublished. Good books won’t just slip through the cracks. They will disappear into the chasm of shifting tectonic plates that are as much cultural as economic. Closing that gap will require not charity but the difficult work of opening minds.

Alex Good
Alex Good reviews regularly for various newspapers and journals and runs an independent book-reviews site at goodreports.net. He lives in Guelph, Ontario.

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