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Bookish Diversions: Literary Capitalism
7 Biggest Publishers, Dance of the Penguins, the Problem of Discoverability, Anti-Capitalist Bookman, Great Bookstores, More
¶ Seven biggest book publishers. If you stack up their individual takes, the seven biggest book publishers bring in almost $13 billion in annual revenue, according to data collected by Insider Monkey when compiling a list of the twenty-biggest publishers. Penguin Random House and HarperCollins, the two biggest book publishers, contribute almost $6 billion to that total.
Insider Monkey looked at publishers of all sorts and ranked them by revenue and number of employees (see here and here). I wanted to see just book publishers with an emphasis on trade books, isolated them from the others, and ranked them on income alone. You can see the result in the chart below.
The employee data does offer some interesting comparisons. HarperCollins, for instance, brings in 60 percent the revenue of Penguin Random House but does it with a third of the staff (4,000 employees compared to PRH’s 12,000). Meanwhile, Oxford University Press makes about a quarter what PRH does but requires half the staff to do it (6,000 employees).
Last year, the US Justice Department blocked a proposed merger between Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster. Based on these numbers, the combined company would have pulled almost $5 billion in annual revenue—more than twice the size of Harper and bigger than both Harper and Wiley combined.
Of course, the large houses aren’t the only story. I currently have a book proposal under review at several different publishing houses, some of which are independents. Between the larger firms and indies, there’s a lot of creativity, competition, and excitement in the trade. And I bet some of these smaller companies have the potential to be disruptors. That’s been true since way back; after all, Penguin started out small, too.
¶ Happy feet. A few years ago I saved this image of the Penguin logo as it changed between 1935 and 1949, sometimes within years. “It’s the evolution of the Penguin Books logo,” says legal pundit Walter Olson, “but you are free to interpret it as a dance.” I can see it. What about you?
¶ Gambling on discoverability. Publishing has experienced periodic challenges with paper shortages and supply-chain disruptions, but discoverability poses a perennial difficulty. How do you make the market aware you’ve got a book worth reading?
Advanced reader copies represent one solution. When I worked in publishing, we would send out well over a hundred ARCs of a single book and follow those up with the same number of finished books—all to media outlets and influencers on the hope, chance, prayer that maybe 20 percent would pick it up and run with it.
Once—I’m remembering it was probably 2006—I visited the Washington Times offices in D.C. I was introduced to the books editor. Their office was nothing but a desk and books, stacked on every surface and rising from the floor like chest-high paper stalagmites. There were shelves along the walls, but those had long since surrendered any accessibility to the overflow from desperate publicists seeking to land a review—or any kind of nod.
Asreveals in his recent post, “Publishing Numbers Big and Small,” not much has changed since then. ARCs are a gamble. No publisher expects every copy to stimulate sales; it’s a conversion game. On this point, Michel begins with an insightful tweet from Pantheon publisher Lisa Lucas:
If y’all knew how many copies it took to make a book “move and shake” you’d know that a few hundred folks could change everything for a book’s momentum.
a few hundred people boosting a book they admire can do a whole lot to shake up a book’s entire trajectory. And that doesn’t just mean reviewing. If we’re keeping it real, most traditional book reviews don’t get that many reads. Often it would be far better to have someone with a big social media account simply tweet or instagram about your book than to have them traditionally review it.
More from Lucas:
If you love books, have friends who do too, and have 30 bucks (or a library card)—you have the personal power to create demand. This is especially important if you’d like to see books that traditionally don’t do well do well. It’s all down to the reader. That’s you!
Turns out capitalism is just people following their tastes. Practical upshot: If you like a book, talk about it.
Asat points out, however, there’s potentially a tradeoff we’re missing. Discoverability is just one challenge; the other is differentiation, and the trend over the last decade—thanks to our increasingly algorithmic world—has been for publishers to pursue the former at the expense of the latter. There are economic reasons this may be inevitable, but it means we end up all seeing a tiny sample of the whole, and many selections end up tasting alike.
¶ Gambling on influence. Another answer to the discoverability problem is to go further upstream and have influencers do more than simply publicize books; increasingly, publishers are giving celebrities imprints of their own. Most recently, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux hung a new shingle for drummer, bandleader, and music producer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. He joins a long line of other celebrities, such as Oprah and Sarah Jessica Parker who have their own imprints.
Janet Manley talks about the trend for LitHub and explains publishers’ rationale for the move. It doesn’t always work out. Johnny Depp and Lena Dunham’s imprints both failed. Maybe Questlove’s will be different. It’s named AUWA, and its first book will be a memoir from Sly Stone, Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin). Gimme a preorder link and I’ll be Sale No. 1 for that!
¶ Anti-capitalist bookman. William Morris’s life (1834–1896) spanned two careers: first as a socialist activist, agitating against the spread of capitalism in England, second as a designer and publisher.
Beginning in 1891, he and his partner published more than fifty books through Kelmscott Press from authors such as John Ruskin, Percy Shelley, William Chaucer, and Morris himself. He patterned his fonts and page designs on medieval models and crafted books that intentionally diverged from those on offer from larger, trade publishers. It’s undeniably beautiful work emanating from a distinct vision of art and commerce.
The company lasted two years after Morris’s death, closing shop in 1898, but some of his work lives on. While his typographical preferences have few fans among bookmakers today, his florid, decorative work lives on. May Wang has an excellent article in JSTOR Daily discussing Morris’s books and methods; before digging into Morris’s life and work, she begins with this tidbit:
The faintly antique yet timeless designs have garnered something of a cult following, such that we can adorn our cottagecore homes with Morris-wrapped soap, Morris calendars, Morris coloring books, or follow Twitter accounts that tweet every Morris design or track Morris designs on TV shows. This past November, housewares brand Williams-Sonoma even launched a line of utensils, crockery, and linens drawing on Morris & Co. archives to much fanfare, one of many collaborations Morris & Co. has undertaken in recent years that keep Morris’s designs in circulation.
I wonder what Morris would say about the capitalists winning after all.
¶ What makes a good book buying experience? It starts with better ideas. Nowhere does the capitalist side of the trade show up like bookselling. For a couple of decades, many looked at Barnes & Noble like a villain, a behemoth that easily outcompeted little bookshops and forced them out of business. I’ve never agreed with that take and explain why here. But the the success of James Daunt’s new leadership at the helm of B&N has caused critics to change their tone and sometimes their tune.
Daunt has succeeded in part by stressing the local nature of bookselling. Whereas the prior regime stressed centralized buying—one team in New York merchandizing the whole country—Daunt has decentralized and pushed the merchandizing back down to the individual hundreds of local B&Ns, every instantiation of which is now potentially unique to the community that frequents it. It’s a meaningful if not sufficient pushback to the standardization and sameness Anderberg highlights and deplores.
One reason people are ready to champion B&N is that the chain is seen as a last holdout against the domination of Amazon. But there other approaches as well.
“What if ecommerce was a boon for independent bookstores, instead of being their existential threat?” That question settled into Andy Hunter’s mind one night about five years ago. What came out the other side? Bookshop.org. Here’s the fascinating story about the market disruption native to capitalism and what a good idea makes possible. For more on that, see my dual-review “We Build the World With Imagination.”
¶ The young will see visions. Finally, here a wonderful human-interest story about bookshops, particularly a children’s bookstore celebrating its fifty-seventh anniversary.
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