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Head of Random Penguin Canada Horrifies Publishing Industry, Says He Only Wants to Publish Books That Make Money

brad martinHere’s a mountain being made out of a mole hill. Yesterday Chris Meadows of Teleread picked up a story about Brad Martin, the president and CEO of Penguin Random House Canada.

Martin gave an interview several weeks back to The Globe and Mail’s Mark Medley, talking about how the newly merged company was coming together. What caught Chris’s eye was this seemingly controversial statement:

“I’m not interested in a book that is going to generate less than $100,000 in revenue unless the editor or publisher has a compelling vision for the book and/or the author.” Brad Martin, sitting in one of the small meeting rooms scattered throughout the new office, taps the table with almost every word. “If the person that’s championing that book in the acquisitions meeting doesn’t have a compelling view of it, it’s just trying to fill a slot, then I’m not interested in doing it.

I don’t find it nearly as controversial as others make it sound, and from the lack of shock and outrage I don’t think very many other people were surprised, either. I only just heard about this three-week-old interview, which means it wasn’t interesting enough to catch the attention of Twitter. Furthermore, pundits predicted this belt-tightening move when the merger was first announced several years ago.

Yes, some have expressed concern that PRH will publish fewer titles than its two parts did before the merger, but Martin defended the move by pointing out that there’s less shelf space than before, and more competition, adding that "… if you can’t get merchandising space for your books in the retail stores, you can’t sell them. So I would rather publish two books instead of three, and give both of those books a chance to win, than publish all three of them. Because it’s a numbers game."

So PRH Canada is going to focus on pushing best sellers? Cool. That frees up more of the midlist for indies and smaller (and more nimble) publishers.

According to Martin, the newly merged company claims 32% of the Canadian book market. Given the ease with which Canadians can buy books and ebooks from the US, I’m not sure that’s accurate, but in any case the Canadian book market would be well served if more of those sales shifted to other publishers.

And indie authors.

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Feda July 15, 2015 um 9:59 am

Sounds like common sense to me, there are so many books available out there that it is just crazy to publish poor and even mediocre work.

Jack July 15, 2015 um 11:13 am

It’s not about "poor or even mediocre", it’s about books that are good or great but not particularly profitable. Once upon a time, the big publishers used the profits from their best-sellers to subsidize the publication of important but non-profitable books. Many of today’s classic titles were unprofitable in their day. Moby-Dick was a notably spectacular financial disaster, selling only 2300 copies in its first year and an average of 75 copies a year after that. Even so, the publishers kept it in print for 20 years.

Today, the big publishers have moved away from that business model. Now they aren’t even particularly interested in novels that will sell well unless they’re part of a series. Or are from an author with a huge following, like Stephen King.

I do note that Martin kind-of left the door open on prestige works, though, where "the editor or publisher has a compelling vision for the book and/or the author."

Andrew July 15, 2015 um 9:49 pm

If a book is good or great, it should sell well. It all depends on how you define those adjectives. If only 75 people on earth are willing to by a novel, it is not good or great in my humble opinion. If only 75 know about it, that is something else.

Anne July 15, 2015 um 10:18 am

Why wouldn’t any company come up with an estimated revenue figure where it makes sense to add a product to their inventory line? With their overhead, the figure given probably makes sense for PRH Canada.

I do that every time I look at adding something to our product (not books) list. If I add it, I had better be pretty sure it’s going to be worth it to us.

Here is a sample case for calculating P&L on books-

Maria (BearMountainBooks) July 15, 2015 um 11:16 am

It’s a business. He’s the CEO. That’s his job. Publishers aren’t there to forward society, publish ideas for the sake of ideas, educate or anything OTHER than make money. If any of those things happen in addition to making money, they’re happy to market those ideals.

I’d like all of my books to make money too. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that viewpoint.

Bridget McKenna July 15, 2015 um 11:47 am

"… if you can’t get merchandising space for your books in the retail stores, you can’t sell them."

Very true…on Planet 1995. Too bad they weren’t able to find a CEO from this century.

He has a point about shrinking bookshelf space in B&M stores–particularly space given over to non-book merchandise–but that’s a downward spiral that blockbuster publishing won’t be able to overcome.

Andrew July 15, 2015 um 9:51 pm

The front page of amazon has even less virtual shelf space. The crowded marketplace online is part of the problem.

Bridget McKenna July 16, 2015 um 12:18 am

Amazon’s front page is analogous perhaps to the table nearest the door at Barnes & Noble, but not to the entire store. And somehow despite the million+ books on Amazon’s shelves and those of other retailers, the marketplace is never so crowded that I can’t find more good books than I have time to read.

fjtorres July 15, 2015 um 11:59 am

The only thing that might shock (some) people is the $100k revenue bar. If he’s talking net, rather than gross, it means a book would have to sell 300k copies during the launch window. If it is gross, it would be about 35K copies in those 3 months. The latter would exclude a majority of midlisters but the former would exclude a goid chunk of alleged bestsellers, too.

So, as a bottom line CEO, what is he talking about?
I’m thinking his Bertelsmann bosses only care about how much he puts in their pockets. Which means net…

fjtorres July 15, 2015 um 12:02 pm

Plus, remember, he’s talking Canadian sales alone.
Smaller market.
Even going with gross it’s going to send a lot of their authors to selfpub whether they want to or not.

Nate Hoffelder July 15, 2015 um 12:04 pm

Or to US or UK publishers.

fjtorres July 15, 2015 um 12:36 pm

Meh, I’m not sure any of those will pick them up.
At least not the BPHs.
Also, remember; those boys coordinate. If the Randy Penguin droos all writers selling less than 30K launch copies, odds are so will the rest of the big boys.

anothername July 15, 2015 um 7:36 pm

Re: Rowling’s mystery book published under an unknown pseudonym:

"Before Rowling’s identity as the book’s author was revealed, 1,500 copies of the printed book had been sold since its release in April 2013, plus another 7,000 copies of the ebook, audiobook, and library editions."

So would the publisher have picked up Rowling’s book?

fjtorres July 15, 2015 um 7:43 pm

The publisher knew it was Rowling.
They also knew, it would get out sooner or later.

anothername July 16, 2015 um 8:06 am

That’s not my point. My point is Random House Penguin would not have published her first mystery novel (if they had not known who she was) based on the sales it initially achieved. It was a well-written book in a very commercial genre.

Peter July 15, 2015 um 12:19 pm

I think you’re overstating the ease of buying books from the US for Canadians, at least in the case of e-books. Buying print books from the US is trivial (and, depending on shipping costs and the current exchange rate is often cheaper, since one avoids the Being Canadian Tax), but buying e-books from outside Canada (at least those from cartel publishers and the more dain-bramaged indies) often requires the use of a VPN or proxy. Which, granted, isn’t terribly difficult, and they’re becoming more common as Canadians discover how much better the US media streaming services are than their Canadian equivalents, but it is a barrier.

Sturmund Drang July 15, 2015 um 7:27 pm

It’s what they music industry did in the late 70’s. That’s the reason we’re listening to 70’s and 60’s music still today. Beatles music is freaking 50 years old. If you were listening to 50 year old music in the 60’s you’d have been listening to Scott Joplin. But when the record labels decided they no longer wanted to press anything that wasn’t an immediate Platinum… the Music Died.

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