We live in a world of mergers and acquisitions. Even if you work for an ancient university press you will find change going on around you as companies, imprints, and subject lists are traded back and forth. Are you working for Howell Book House, Macmillan·USA, Simon & Schuster, Viacom? Any of the above could have been the correct answer in 1999. So how to refer to a publishing company with any historical accuracy? Nicholas Weir-Williams answers a SHARP query about how to figure beginning and end dates for publishing companies thus:

“My view — and I speak as a publisher, not as a book historian, is to think of this all as a family tree. Houghton Mifflin, for example, seems to me an extant publisher, one that married/merged in with what was left of Harcourt Brace (Jovanovich) — but both companies persist in the new generation. Macmillan still exist — though they are part of the Holtzbrinck empire, they are clearly still a recognizable entity within that conglomerate, and could yet be sold off, bought back, and continue to publish as Macmillan.

Whereas Cassell is much trickier – I worked there at what I would consider its demise. After many foolish purchases and bankruptcy in the late 90s, it emerged more or less intact and merged with the New York publisher Continuum: but sold off the Cassell name itself to Sterling as a trade imprint. The corporate entity that was Cassell remained under the Continuum name, now absorbed into Bloomsbury. The famous Cassell dictionaries had remained with the (US) Macmillan group (which traded internationally as Cassell Collier Macmillan), and had long since ceased to have anything to do with the legal entity of Cassell. Does the company still exist? Does the use of a tradename by another company constitute continued life for a publisher? I would probably argue that Houghton Mifflin and Macmillan live, and that Cassell died, as a publisher.

So you could take the view that if you can still buy a new book with the imprint Cassell on it, it lives; or that if the contract the author has for that book does not bear the publishing name of Cassell, it is dead. I don’t know if there is a scholarly answer to that. Or even take the view that while a book remains in copyright, royalties remain due to the author/estate from whichever legal entity owns that contract (which in the Cassell case could, to my knowledge, be one of at least three completely different companies) and you would have to chart each of those three ‘children’ to tell the proper story of Cassell. And good luck with that, by the way.”

Publishing folk think the imprint names are much more significant than do members of the public. Say “Knopf” to a publishing person and they’ll instantly conjure up in their mind’s eye an image of the sorts of books we are talking about, as well as an implicit nod to the fact that we are now discussing Penguin Random House. But for most people this entanglement of imprints isn’t really much of a problem. Whatever is printed on the book is the right answer — if indeed for them the question ever arises. Does it make any difference that a Knopf book, a Viking book and a Ballantine book now come from the same stable? Not to the reader. To anyone who talks about publishing though it is significant. You make an assertion about publisher X and it instantly becomes false when X is bought by Y. Publishers generally opt to submerge acquired imprints into their own marque, though there are obviously lots of exceptions. If Webster’s New World Dictionaries are helped by their reputation out there, Macmillan·USA would have been crazy to have started publishing them as Macmillan Dictionaries. So the imprint name survives. The dictionaries have moved on to Pearson, IDG, Hungry Minds, Wiley, and now Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Of course Webster’s New World Dictionaries need to be distinguished from Merriam-Webster’s Webster’s Dictionaries and PRH’s Webster’s Abridged Dictionaries.

In an acquisition when inventory is acquired there will generally be a transition period. You just acquired a bunch of books with Publisher X’s logo on the spine, title page etc. Much cheaper to continue selling these books as they are, and make the imprint change-over when the book comes up for reprint. Is the customer buying an Oceana book because it says so on the title page; or really and Oxford University Press book, because it was they who sold it? Of course the new bosses will probably stop publishing new books under that old imprint name unless, as above, they see some commercial value in preserving the imprint name.

Macmillan·USA is in itself an example of this movement of imprint/company names. Macmillan was founded in Britain by two Scottish brothers in 1843. It set up an American division in 1869, which it sold off in 1896, allowing the new company to trade as Macmillan Company: I guess they assumed they were washing their hands of the American market for ever. The US company prospered and grew, and when UK Macmillan decided to re-enter the US market in 1954, it did so as St Martin’s Press. In 1989 the US Macmillan Company was acquired by Robert Maxwell (born Ján Ludvík Hyman Binyamin Hoch and nicknamed by Private Eye, the bouncing Czech, though Harold Wilson is credited with the original invention). Maxwell notoriously took the company into bankruptcy, apparently falling off his yacht in mid-ocean “with the pension fund in his back pocket” — though he was actually naked at the time. Remnants of the company were acquired by Simon & Schuster in 1994, trading as Macmillan·USA, and they sold it on to Pearson in 1998. Pearson dismembered the remnant further, sending bits of it to IDG/Hungry Minds and Wiley, and retaining some of it in their Gale reference imprint. Gone with the Wind, Macmillan’s most successful trade title, remains with Scribner which had been acquired by Macmillan in 1984 — the trade portion of Scribner was not sold on by Simon & Schuster, though the reference list did end up at Gale.

In 2001 Pearson ended a century’s confusion by selling the Macmillan name to the Holtzbrinck Publishing Group who by then owned Macmillan UK. (One grandfathered-in exception is the Macmillan/McGraw-Hill schoolbook list.) Holtzbrink/Macmillan’s US imprints now include Farrar Straus and Giroux, Henry Holt & Company, W.H. Freeman and Worth Publishers, Palgrave Macmillan, Bedford/St. Martin’s, Picador, Roaring Brook Press, St. Martin’s Press, Tor Books, and Bedford Freeman & Worth Publishing Group. If you are looking to do academic research into publishing, don’t touch Macmillan if you want to retain your sanity.

See also Imprints from last year.