The merger between Penguin Books and Random House was announced on July 1st, sending shock waves throughout the literary world.
Opponents of the merger worried about layoffs in the face of inevitable redundancy that the merger will cause, leading to less talented workers in the publishing industry. They worried about smaller advances and less access to other resources for writers such as certain editors belonging to the major publishing houses’ smaller imprints, resources that help to make books truly great. A greater homogenization of books being published: “Among the imprints that survive, the tendency is to homogenize and focus on a few general fields like ambitious nonfiction, accessible literary fiction or thrillers,” Boris Kachka explains in an NYT op-ed.
At The Atlantic Wire, Alexander Abad-Santos sees all this as a negative trend that can be reversed, and, like Kachka, urges us to oppose the merger, or at least encourage Penguin Random House to re-develop strong, distinctive brands. Kachka looks to the practices of independent publishers “Graywolf, Milkweed and McSweeney’s (none of them in New York)” who “may not have the resources of their spiritual predecessors, but they have what new owners often lack: personality, mission and focus… Maybe it’s time for publishers to revive the value of their brands by making them more distinctive and connecting them more closely to consumers.”
This seems naive or, at least, incredibly optimistic. Why do we expect huge corporations with their backing of shareholders to care about making distinctive brands? To bring us painstakingly-produced experimental literature?
Business-wise, Penguin Random House are neither stupid nor spiteful. They are making the decisions necessary to accumulate as much profit as possible as quickly as they can. They are existentially required to do this. But despite being opposed to the optimism, I also see the situation as perhaps less dire. Why is it a bad thing if interesting but less financially viable writers move to smaller presses? Yes, there are fewer access to resources, but the practices of the “big six” (now “big five”) point to the availability of resources not necessarily leading to better books.
Let’s focus on supporting smaller presses and the works they produce instead of pointlessly wringing our hands over the big five.
(Photo: Digital Book World)