Bigger Isn’t Always Better In The Book Biz

September 4, 2013

Publishing giants Random House and Penguin crossed the t’s and dotted the i’s on a long-anticipated merger two months ago, effectively catapulting them to Top Dog status in the industry.

In light of this, Boris Kachka (author of the recent publishing house biography “Hothouse”) penned a New York Times article that took a broad look at the publishing world’s trend toward consolidation, arguing that this Russian nesting doll system, in which smaller presses are gobbled up by bigger ones, causes both the imprints and their parent companies to lose brand consciousness.

Kachka observes that lean presses, however, like “Graywolf, Milkweed and McSweeney’s (none of them in New York [two of them in Minneapolis]) . . . have what new owners often lack: personality, mission and focus.”

Milkweed Editions, one of the nonprofit presses Kachka refers to, prides itself on publishing “transformative literature,” shies away from genre fiction, and boasts a nonfiction list with a heavy emphasis on books that expose and posit solutions to some of the most pressing environmental challenges of the day. Their niche is their strength: it allows them to confer a reputation on their authors and meet consumers’ expectations more precisely.

Their mission statement — to publish transformative literature — confers a burden of proof: each manuscript that they put their stamp on must use language artfully and compellingly to portray or advocate for some sort of metamorphosis. That metamorphosis might be a spectator sport—like watching a protagonist evolve, or it could be a call to action—trying to change the way the reader perceives their relationship with nature, for example.

When a consumer plucks a Milkweed title off the shelf, this is the content they can expect to find inside; just as the McSweeney’s fan will anticipate wit and agile wordsmithery when they visit the Internet Tendency; and just as the Regnery reader can depend on the brand to deliver the latest from leading conservative voices.

Goliaths like Penguin Random House lack this artistic or ideological commitment and, Kachka argues, are cowed by bottom lines to forego risky manuscripts in favor of more commercially palatable options. The result? E.L. James makes its way to the same backlist as James Joyce.

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So who cares? Well, maybe the publishing industry should. As the competitor pool shrinks and publishing kingpins assume a jack-of-all-trades model, emerging writers with little or no name recognition may lose one more incentive to take the conventional publishing route.

If Random House Penguin’s only brand message is that it’s old and it’s big, that doesn’t help a reader anticipate what the content (or even the quality) of their books are, which can be a hindrance to unknown or even mid-level authors whose names don’t automatically spark connotations in the consumer’s mind.

If you’re David Sedaris or Junot Diaz, this won’t much matter because hese authors have a personal brand that precedes the reputation of their publisher. But for those authors with less famous monikers, being part of a publishing brand that has its own distinct identity can be a helpful marketing tool. Sure, you’ve never heard of essayist So-and-So, but McSweeney’s picked them up, so they must be good, right?

Of course, in contrast to the emerging self-publishing industry, having a manuscript adopted by any third-party press still conveys some pretty weighty prestige. But that may not always be the case—self-published ebooks are steadily infiltrating the The New York Times Best Sellers List and increasingly, self-published authors are developing a name for themselves in lieu of riding on the coattails of a conventional publisher’s reputation.

What an author loses in that extra attention to their manuscript and the marketing apparatus that kicks in once books hit the shelves, they may make up for in their cut of the royalty check. Amazon’s ebook publishers can receive up to 70% of the royalties from their book sales compared with the conventional 10-30% they receive from a brick-and-mortar publisher.

So if publishers lose the added-value of their brand, and what their name means to the people milling listlessly through Barnes & Noble, they place themselves in a similar boat as Amazon: a huge, faceless, churner-outer of all kinds of books. And as more people replace listless milling with listless finger-scrolling through ebook catalogs and online vendors, it makes you wonder, will a Penguin Random House pub cred be any more noteworthy than an indie ebook with four out of five stars?