Everyone wants to shout about the merger;
"You gone about as fer as you should go".
They think that things were better
When publishers didn't grow,
When Random was a cottage
And S&S lay low . . .

The merger/acquisition will of course make a difference. If Random House buys Simon & Schuster they will together make up a huge company. It’ll be different — but that doesn’t have to mean it’ll be worse. Department of Justice’s lawsuit against the merger is based upon competitive harm to authors.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch says that the lawsuit comes twenty years too late. She harks back to a day when there were many big publishers. I think she undersells herself: we’ve been merging and acquisitioning for ever, but especially since the last quarter of the last century. Why claim just twenty years? — make it fifty, make it five hundred, make a real statement! When I started in publishing Longman was (I think) the biggest publisher around. They had a long history and had prospered by a move into educational publishing. Who’s heard of them now? — though they do still exist, as part of Pearson. Back then there were lots of publishers, almost all with less than a dozen editors, and books managed to get published — both good ones and we have to admit, bad ones. There were hundreds of little bookshops — one in every little town, the rear-view mirror suggests — and everyone cared about books. Nonsense — books are much easier to obtain now, literacy rates are much higher today, many more books are available, and while books buyers are still a minority, they are now a much bigger minority than they were back in the nineteenth century.

Now there are of course still lots of publishing houses — it’s just that many of them are actually owned by bigger ones. Penguin Random House has nearly 275 of them, each (in principle) running an independent editorial policy, with their own dedicated staff, all sharing sales, distribution, accounting and the back office services. Publishers don’t acquire other imprints in order to squeeze authors — they seek “efficiencies” in these shared publishing areas. There seem to still be economic arguments in favor of such consolidation — or we wouldn’t keep doing it — whatever the commentariat may think, publishers are not stupid.

Ms Rusch’s main motive for her regret seems to be that “In the 1990s, my books routinely went to auction, and we always got a higher price for the books than the initial offer.” I don’t know when the concept of an auction in the signing of books* took root, but I don’t believe we had dreamt of it in the nineteen-sixties. Of course Britain, back then, was a more reticent society than it is today (and than USA always was) and it would have been considered “bad form” to dicker too publicly about money. But I suspect the system got under way in the late eighties. Unfortunately for Ms Rusch she may have lived through the golden (financial) age of popular literature. Advances will be continuing of a downward track whether there are five or five hundred publishers: you can’t survive as a business if you keep pissing away money needlessly.

Authors and agents ought to want more and more competition between more and more publishers at more and more rights auctions. Thus are advances bid up. Publishers ought to want fewer of these occasions on which their competitive enthusiasm may run a way with them, making them overbid. From the authors’ point of view the great thing about advances is that they are a bird in the hand, and often a rather larger bird than turns up at your bird feeder. As I keep on saying most advances don’t earn out — in other words most book advances are for more money than the book ever makes in royalties. This isn’t a good business plan if you are a publisher — exactly the opposite if you are an author. The DoJ is weighing in on the side of the authors, in what I suspect will end up proving a rather weak case.

Mike Shatzkin is more realistic in his piece Doubts about the Department of Justice’s objection . . . . He suggests that unearned advance payments are in effect a way for publishers to pay higher royalties to favored authors without paying higher royalties to all of them. Without access to the minds of trade publishers, it’s hard to know whether or not this is right — but it does have a look of plausibility. He sees only one or two hundred of the biggest authors as being affected by the change the DoJ seems intent on saving all authors from, and indeed foresees an ultimate reduction in royalty terms to all but the biggest-selling authors. I rather doubt that such an intention (or possibility) exists. Whether your competitors are half your size or nearly the same size as you are, they can still sell books, especially nowadays when the ability to pack every bookstore in the country with your book on publication day has become less and less important as online sales have taken over so much of the retail market. Nobody is suggesting that a combined PRH + S&S would have the power to outsell every less large publisher. A book that can sell a million copies will sell a million copies regardless of who the publisher is — nobody out there, except for other publishers, cares who the publisher of a book might be. What buyers want is the book. Thus I can see no motive for an author to accept a lower royalty from anyone. Trim your offerings too much and self publishing beckons.

The logic of the business does appear to be pushing us towards a single gigantic book distribution system served by a multiplicity of little service companies and freelancers involved in “content creation”.


* There’s no fundamental difference in “selling” your book to a publisher after a quiet discussion or two, or setting up a time-limited auction where you get a few publishers under time constraint to bid competitively. As Karen Dionne tells us at Huffington Post “When a [book] project goes to auction, agents select a convenient date for all involved and establish the rules. Most auctions are conducted as round-robins by the agent. After the initial bids are received from interested editors by phone, fax, or e-mail, the lowest bidder is given the opportunity to outbid the highest. Then it’s the next-lowest bidder’s turn, and the auction proceeds in this manner until one bid stands and the auction ends.” The auction raises the excitement level in the hope that excited publishers will bid more than they would have if they’d had the chance to take their time and calmly think it through.