Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Biggered ... what the Penguin/Random House merger means for writers

Do not go to jail ... collect ALL the books!

Last week I received this announcement from Random House:


"To Our Authors, 

Our most important mission will always be to publish the work you entrust to us for everyone, everywhere, in every format, and on every platform. That mandate is a primary motivation behind Bertelsmann and Pearson, the parent companies of Random House and the Penguin Book group, signing an agreement this week to combine our respective trade book activities.

One of the defining characteristics of the new company I am most excited about is that it will be author- publisher- and editor-centered – just like Random House. When we join together we will be retaining the distinct identities of both companies’ imprints and you will benefit from an extraordinary breadth of publishing choices and editorial talents and experience. Our Random House imprint leadership remains endowed with creative autonomy, and financial resources, to decide which books to publish, and how to publish them. We expect this to continue in our new business, where we will build on the history and heritage of each of our storied brands. Your relationship with your editor and your publishing team will be unaffected by the new company.


A diversified retail and distribution marketplace for print and digital formats remains a key priority for Random House now, and in the future. Our investments in enhancing the supply chain and our marketing support will supply more services for physical retailers, while expanding our opportunities in the digital space. We expect to create more tools to help you take full advantage of the many online marketing platforms for growing your readership. And we certainly want to continue to expand our Author Portal, which has become an enormously popular and useful resource for so many.

For now, it is business as usual at Random House and Penguin. Soon, we hope to join together to offer an even deeper backlist, alongside our newly published titles. In our partnership, we will be even better positioned to provide copyright protection and support your intellectual property.

Random House and Bertelsmann believe strongly in the future of trade book publishing, and our continuing commercial and cultural success is a major reason why Bertelsmann is extending and expanding its investment and support with the new company. For us, separately and in partnership, it is and always will be about the books. Your books.

All my best, 

Marcus Dohle"

If you are as impressed as I am by large quantities of horse manure, the true significance of this announcement will have completely escaped you.

So now, boys and girls, we will have a pop quiz.

What is the underlying meaning of the above passage?

a) This merger does not affect me, because I am never going to get published anyway.
b) WOW! If I ever do get published by Bertelsmann/Pearson/ Random House/Penguin, I'll be famous all over the world, and maybe even in Outer Space.
c) What the hell is a deeper backlist?
d) It is and always will be about the books. Your books.

(The correct answer is: e) We're screwed.)

(The first sentence is the tip-off. Notice the close proximity of the terms: "entrust", "mandate", "mission" and "everyone, everywhere, in every format, and on every platform.")

The reason that the union of the two largest publishers in the world is terrible for writers is unclearly stated in paragraph two: 
 "we will build on the history and heritage of each of our storied brands."

The
 history of these publishing houses has nothing whatsoever to do with storied brands. In fact, it has nothing to do with "marketing support", "platforms", or "supply chains" either. The origin of Random House, as stated by Bennet Cerf,  was "to publish a few books on the side at random."  And so they did. Many random authors, who couldn't find a home elsewhere, were published by Random House (Ayn Rand and Jerzy Kosinski among them).  The heritage of Penguin was to publish LolitaLady Chatterly's Lover, and Deer Park, books which had been rejected by scores of publishers (back then we still had scores), and which, once they were finally published, made it onto banned book lists everywhere.

This is the proud heritage of Random House and Penguin: to publish groundbreaking new concepts without regard to the "market." Because that is the purpose of a publishing house - the dissemination of ideas.

We will be reading fewer of them in future.

Bertelsmann, a privately owned company based in Germany, owns publishing, music, and broadcasting companies in 60 countries, including: BBC Books, Multnomah, Triumph Books and the largest English trade publishing house in the world - Random House, which in turn owns Crown Publishing Group, Knopf Doubleday, Crown, Harmony Books, Ten Speed Press, Tricycle Press, Celestial  Arts, Three Rivers Press, Broadway Books, Clarkson Potter, Watson-Gupthill, Back Stage Books, Anchor Books, Doubleday, Vintage, Pantheon Books, Delacorte, Fodor's, Bantam Dell, Del Rey, The Dial Press, The Modern Library, and ... (wait for it) ... One World. 

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