The Fallacy, and the Truth, of “Big Publishing”

Editor’s note: this post is effectively part 2 of Matt Blind’s guest post on publishing and Amazon. You can find the first part over here.

In the last 20 years, two multi-billion-dollar bookstore chains rose — and one fell. A hell of a lot has changed in 20 years.

In 1994, Viacom owned Simon & Schuster and was buying Macmillan USA; now in 2014 Macmillan (via the original UK root) is back in the US book business – but under the imprimatur of privately-held German firm Holzbrinck. Viacom spun off S&S, as the publishing arm of CBS. Hachette Book Group USA (Hachette Livre being the bookish face of French multimedia conglomerate Lagardère) was born in 2006 with the French purchase of Time Warner Books — and more recently Hachette has also added on Disney’s Hyperion. (Hyperion, I’ll remind you, was built by Disney from scratch in 1990.)

Rounding out “The [old] Big Six” – HarperCollins is only 25 years old, assembled from parts by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation over the course of the 1990s. And everyone is shadowed by the Randy Penguin merger: the imprints of Random House already read like a directory of 1947 New York publishing houses; added to Penguin’s haul the new Penguin Random House is set to publish half of all adult trade books (or more). That merger isn’t even a year old yet.

- Forbes: Please Hire Someone Who Understands Books, or Math, or Both.

Up until last year, we used to talk about The Big Six – the six largest US publishers: Random House, Penguin, Hachette, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, and Macmillan — In 2013 The Big Six became The Big Five (or alternately, Randy Penguin and the Following Four) after Bertelsmann and Pearson came to an agreement to merge their subsidiaries (incidentally, the two biggest US publishers), Random House and Penguin Putnam.

OK, first: Randy Penguin and the Following Four is a great band name. But more importantly: what [now] gets referred to as The Big Five are just the publishing arms of major international multimedia conglomerates — so far in this post I’ve name-checked Viacom, CBS, Holzbrinck, Lagardère, Time Warner, Disney, News Corp, Bertelsmann, and Pearson — the publishing houses get handed around like poker chips by media giants who [editorializing here] just don’t give a shit about print anymore, but hey, it’s still a multi-billion-dollar industry and everybody else has one “so I guess we need a publishing arm, too”

Publishing is worth (rough numbers) $27 Billion, but that’s only in the very-low-two-digit-billions, so to a Viacom or 21st Century Fox or Time Warner, the whole book thing just isn’t worth futzing with. Each of those entities has—when given half a chance—sold, spun-off, or otherwise dumped a “Big Six” publisher and retained the ‘real’ media assets … in 2013 Disney bought Marvel (technically a publisher) but the $4 Billion price tag was for characters and “IP” and what is now a blockbuster movie studio, not the floundering funny-book business. The year after Disney bought Marvel, you might have noticed they sold off their actual book division, Hyperion, in favor of concentrating solely on ABC/Disney (and soon-to-be Marvel and Lucas) tie-in product. Fox has similarly shed its News Corp skin, taking the TV and Movie studios and leaving the publishing behind. CBS is stuck with S&S only because they were cast aside with them back when Viacom split. Time Warner (which has been Time Warner since 1990) (and which sold off Little, Brown and Time Warner Books in 2006) even has plans to spin-off the Time Inc. magazine distaff branch and soon (mid- to late-2014) the last vestige of dirty, dirty print will be purged from Warner Brothers’ balance sheet — except for Batman and the other ‘DC Entertainment’ characters.

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From 1989 to 1998, if you mentioned “the Big Six” to someone working in publishing in New York, they’d assume you were talking about accounting (or maybe poetry). The Big *whatever*, as a term, is too recent — and definitions are fluid.

[source: Google Ngram]

“New York Publisher” was (and occasionally still is) the disparagement of choice when talking about corporate inflexibility, but more and more we were actually talking about media giants and corporations, not about publishers per se. The Big Six emerged in the late 90s (note, not a historic and ever-present phenomenon) and were part of the larger media consolidation then taking place between movies, TV, cable… and yes, the internet and video games, too: AOL Time Warner and Vivendi Universal, anyone? Man, the aughts were weird. Book publishing, as ‘ur-content’, got swept up into the whole mess. The fit was often bad.

Books, newspapers, comics and magazines—what we call publishing—are the red-headed stepchildren of media, of note only in context. HBO gets all credit for Game of Thrones, Harry Potter is a Warner Brothers property, Lord of the Rings is New Line Cinema, Walking Dead is an AMC TV show. Marvel Studios had an immaculate conception in 1996, springing forth from nothing, whole and wholly-formed, into a super-hero movie desert and eventually becoming so popular that there were even popular comic book adaptations of the movies.

On the TV side, we also have Justified, Bones, Orange Is the New Black, and House of Cards — and hell: Roots, Shogun, this is nothing new. Masterpiece Theater has the occasional original story (nod to Downton) but for decades its bread-and-butter was literary adaptation.

This is a looooong aside (and trivial, or trivia, or both – you can skip it), but having done the research I had to include it: Two-thirds of all books that hit #1 on the bestseller list for the past century were made into movies — another 10% made the jump to TV, so three-quarters have been adapted.

The exceptions are kind of fun to note:

  • Mr. Britling Sees It Through by H. G. Wells, 1917
  • Strange Fruit by Lillian Smith, 1944 (eventually, an Oscar® nominated short in 1978, but not a feature-length adaptation)
  • The King’s General by Daphne du Maurier, 1946
  • The Source by James A. Michener, 1965
  • Trinity by Leon Uris, 1976
  • Chesapeake by James A. Michener, 1978
  • The Covenant by James A. Michener, 1980
  • The Matarese Circle by Robert Ludlum, 1979 (…is in development hell – though at one time both Tom Cruise and Denzel Washington were attached)
  • The Partner by John Grisham, 1997 (optioned)
  • The Testament by John Grisham, 1999 (optioned)
  • The Litigators by John Grisham 2011 (optioned)

There’s a batch that haven’t been adapted, but we could argue that doesn’t matter because others in the series* have been:

  • The Silmarillion by J. R. R. Tolkien, 1977
  • The Mammoth Hunters by Jean M. Auel, 1985
  • The Cardinal of the Kremlin by Tom Clancy, 1988
  • The Plains of Passage by Jean M. Auel, 1990
  • Desecration by Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye, 2001

And the TV movies and mini-series:

  • Wheels by Arthur Hailey (Book 1971, on TV in 1978)
  • Centennial by James A. Michener (1974, TV 1978)
  • Noble House by James Clavell (1981, TV 1988)
  • It by Stephen King (1986, TV 1990)
  • The Tommyknockers by Stephen King (1987, TV 1993)
  • Scarlett by Alexandra Ripley (1991, TV 1994)
  • The Street Lawyer by John Grisham (1998, TV movie 2003)
  • For One More Day by Mitch Albom, (2006, TV movie 2007)

The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub (1984) was being developed as a mini by TNT but never made it to air

Out of the whole list (and for more info on that, I’d direct you to Matt Kahn and his site, where he not only lists the Publisher’s Weekly #1 Bestsellers for each year, he’s also slowly reviewing each and every one) there are only four I couldn’t find more information on:

  • The Brethren by John Grisham 2000
  • The Summons by John Grisham 2002
  • The Broker by John Grisham 2005
  • The Appeal by John Grisham 2008
    …but it’s Grisham, so I’m sure these have been optioned even if it wasn’t internet-link-generating-news at the time.

And of course, there are the pair of bestsellers from the early 1980s: the bestselling book in each of these years were novelizations of movie scripts: E.T., The Extraterrestrial in ’82 (by William Kotzwinkle) and Return of the Jedi in ’83 (by James Kahn). If pressed for a date when publishing died, I’m picking 1982.

My point — yes, I had one — is that books and publishing are, in the corporate view, just the minor leagues. Even big names like Stephen King, John Grisham, and J.K. Rowling are just the ‘farm team’ for the real business, which is making movies and TV. Books are a static property to be strip-mined, not a resource to be conserved — or hell, a vibrant product that can be nurtured and will multiply if given even the slightest bit of care and feeding. The major media companies, and the publishers they’ve hobbled, can’t be bothered.

Amazon gets some credit here. But…

Well, Amazon gets credit for throwing Miracle-Gro® on a field of weeds and wildflowers — the seeds were there already, there was even some minuscule growth — indeed, this was a field that used to be tended by the pulp magazines and rack paperbacks.

[And honestly, I’d feel better about e-books and the new self-publishing Revolution if it were like the pulps of decades past and not a wholly-owned subsidiary of Conglom-o. But that’s my bias…]

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We talk about Traditional Publishing like it’s a single thing, a single model, or a single company. It’s not. To claim that all publishers are the same is to equate The Big Five with Osprey, Harlequin, Regnery, and Soft Skull. The big “New York” publishers are actually run out of Gütersloh, London, Paris, and Stuttgart — of the two remaining “New York” publishers, one is more concerned with their (Hollywood-based) TV programming and the other’s major asset is financial information firm Dow Jones.

If anything, Amazon has managed to flourish because first, consolidation squeezed the publishing industry practically dry, and then the new corporate owners criminally neglected it.

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For perspective, check out Publishers Weekly’s list of The World’s 60 Largest Book Publishers, 2013 – which not only is a global list but also incorporates the huge educational/textbook and financial reporting sectors (Reed Elsevier, ThomsonReuters, and Wolters Kluwer are the major players you’ve never heard of, each with about ~$5 Billion in revenue — not gross sales, revenue) — and we really should be talking about Scholastic as one of the [new] Big Six — and Europe and Japan are massive book markets, and the eventual digital book solutions in both might impact the digital book market in the US. Of Course Amazon is a player, but not the only one. (The side battle in Brazil is also of note)

I’d love if some of the “new book” self-publishing evangelists addressed the Fall of Publishing (1982-2006) in their arguments, and perhaps would explain why their new corporate overlord is in any way better than the old ones. It would be one thing if we were advocating for a creators’ collective to advocate rights for all designers/producers/writers against the many companies and web sites who seek to exploit authorship – but instead I only see efforts to pit the new model against the old one for internet ‘points’.

Who owns a kindle ebook? More importantly: what happens to a kindle ebook if Amazon stops hosting it? Prodigy and CompuServe were the shit in 2000, and in practical terms, were also ‘the internet’ for their user base. Amazon seems different (but awfully similar) but once again we’re looking at a walled garden and 2015 in practice isn’t all that different from 1985.

Dollars are great, I need more myself. But if the discussion is about business models and propagation of books, I need more than hagiographies of KDP and some by-the-way statistics based on web-scraping. Let’s talk about the future of publishing, not the panning-for-gold in the effluvia of a commerce-site-cum-social-network. Talk to me about how this all works in 2024, or 2034. Amazon is Fantastic, but can’t be the only player: tell me what’s next, and how to participate.

If your imagination fails at KDP, then your imagination fails. If “big publishing” is what you’re against, then tell me what you are for. Howey, what’s next?

reposted under a CC license from Rocket Bomber

4 thoughts on “The Fallacy, and the Truth, of “Big Publishing”

  1. “would explain why their new corporate overlord is in any way better than the old ones”

    Amazon isn’t that much better, no. I see them as the lesser of 2 evils. Right now authors might benefit from siding with Amazon over traditional publishers, but that’s probably going to change in the next 3 or 4 years as the global ebook market expands.

    Luckily for authors I don’t expect Amazon to continue to dominate the ebook market; most of that global expansion will probably happen outside the Kindle Store in markets where Amazon has only a token presence. This should result in Amazon staying nice to authors in order to discourage defections.

  2. Interesting stuff. Thanks for the discussion prompt.

    I think, in fact, it highlights something I’ve long argued–”traditional publishing” and “self-publishing” are total misnomers as terms, and imprecise to boot. “Traditional” means, approximately, “handed down through generations,” but you demonstrate quite nicely how relatively new everything here is, starting in the 1990s-ish. I think, really, there was a time when the paradigm shifted, and it probably started in the late 1970s when the retail conglomeration seemed to take hold; I’m thinking of the B. Daltons and Waldenbooks I knew as a child–though that was a time of malls like I don’t think today is.

    I feel the terms corporate publishing and independent publishing are more accurate and reflective of the fundamental model shift taking place. You could look at independent publishing as akin to the independent movie distribution that can occur; those “indie” movies are made outside the Hollywood studio (corporate) system. If you consider, say, 20th Century Fox and Universal and Paramount et al. as the studio system, and independent movies as movies that are made outside that system, I think it makes for a good analogy. The corporate publishing distribution model has a very specific procedure from conception to distribution: a manuscript is submitted to agents –> agents accept and submit to corporate acquisition editors –> corporate publishers package books and sell to booksellers’ sales reps –> bookstores shelve stock –> readers purchase product. I know there are a lot of people who say that “self-publishing” can’t be called independent publishing because that was already a thing and whatever, but the thing is that small presses, independent presses, even, usually follow the same model. I saw Grove Atlantic called independent the other day, and it struck me as off; they don’t accept unagented manuscripts, so far as I know. They have no real direct contact with readers, for the most part. They have a president (Morgan Entrekin–and yes, it’s likely all us Entrekins are related if you go back far enough) who’s one owner of six, and they have a bunch of imprints and were created when Grove Press and Atlantic Monthly Press merged. How “independent” is that, really? Especially when their distribution model is pretty much what I mentioned above (even if I did, by necessity, simplify it)–that’s, I think, why one might talk about the corporate model like it’s one thing even if there’s Osprey and Harlequin and Soft Skull. Some few accepted unagented manuscripts, which is nice, but in the end, the way manuscripts go from the desk to the shelves (both those of the bookstore and those of the reader) is pretty much the same.

    The Amazon difference is, simply, one of access. Why is Amazon different from that model? Because it’s facilitated a way for authors to sell books almost directly to readers. Almost is a big word, but the key thing to remember is that now, in publishing, any entity that comes between a writer and a reader must add value, and not friction. Let’s set aside the twin ideas of gatekeepers and curation for a moment to note that literary agents and corporate publishers are, in a way, obstacles between writers and readers, at least when it comes to digital publishing (be that publishing a blog or a book). When paper was the only medium for the widespread distribution of text-based information, that wasn’t the case; they did add value, then, because there was no other way to distribute text-based information.

    If you indulge me for a moment and imagine a book as a ball bearing, digital publishing is a tube between writers and readers. That’s not vastly oversimplifying–it is a more narrow method of getting the bearing from one to the other, and honestly, a lot of digital publishing is about that direct connection from writers to readers, whereas corporate publishing is more like hiring someone to build a table piled high with ball bearings of multilpe sizes and then standing to one side while grabbing a megaphone to encourage people to browse the bearings and choose one.

    Okay, maybe, maybe not.

    So far as that usual gatekeeping/curation argument, nearly every rejection letter every literary agent has ever sent has included a note that taste is subjective. Me, I don’t argue that there’s no such thing as quality, but neither can it be argued that the corporate model has encouraged or begat a meritocracy, where there is an objective standard of quality that, once achieved by a manuscript, guarantees its publication. Sturgeon’s law holds that 90% of everything is crap; Entrekin’s corollary is that no one can agree what’s in the ten percent that isn’t. Some terribly written books do well; some well written books do badly.

    I don’t know how it’s going to look in ten or twenty years, but I don’t think that ten or twenty years ago anyone really predicted how it was going to look today. What I know is that in the end, the refinements that make processes better bear out over time. Processors get faster because engineers figure out how to make them work more efficiently. Battery life gets better as software designers figure out how to ensure more efficient use of hardware. The functions of components change over time to make the user experience better.

    I think that’s the key difference between corporate publishing and Amazon. Say what you will about Amazon, but they’re famous for listening to customers (consider the famous empty chair at every meeting). Amazon wants to make the user experience better. It wants to basically disappear between consumer and content. Everything it’s done via Kindle has been about making it easier for consumers to get content, from its algorithms to its alsobots to its continual refinement of hardware (again, say what you will, but the Paperwhite is a thing of genius. The device itself basically disappears between the reader and the words. Everything it is makes the delivery of words to reader more efficient).

    What do I think? I think a more direct connection with readers will be great. Selling books directly to readers, for one. If I were, for example, CEO of Penguin Random House, I’d make dead sure that PenguinRandomHouse.com were as useful and valuable a digital destination for readers as Amazon.com, and I’d make sure that readers who used it could get an experience somehow better than what they could find anywhere else.

  3. This suffers from the same problem as almost all other commentary about publishing. It assumes books are a product category. A physical book is a packaging mechanism. If you write romance novels, should you give a flip about Reed Elsevier? I think not.

    I don’t want to talk about the future of publishing because there is no such thing. Not because publishing is doomed, but because “publishing” is a social construct that gets in the way of seeing the present clearly. If you want to understand the significance of the (really important) stuff in this post, you have to reject its frame of reference. Ask yourself which of these developments were positive for which type of reader. In the long term, the shape of the market for stories will be determined, not by corporate structures, but by the desires of the paying customer.

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