What the Penguin Random House-Simon & Schuster merger means to authors

Photo: Amy Whitehead

The biggest publishing house, Penguin Random House, is merging with the number three publisher, Simon & Schuster. Here’s what that means for you as an author: lower advances, less service, more publisher nickel-and-diming, and still more of the responsibility for success landing on you.

Publishing houses struggle to maintain profits and market power in a publishing world increasingly dominated by Amazon. Once these two publishers merge, the combined mega-entity — which might as well be called “Extremely Random House” — will have more bargaining power with Amazon and big physical bookstore chains like Barnes & Noble and Hudson News.

Why advances will go down

Penguin Random House suggests that Simon & Schuster “will continue to be managed as a separate publishing unit under the Penguin Random House umbrella.” So nothing will change for authors, right?

No. Authors always get the shaft. Always.

Consider how books get sold to publishers. For my most recent book, the agent sent the proposal to about 15 publishers, and eight were interested. But publishers under the same corporate umbrella don’t bid against each other, because that would just be stupid. So in the cases where editors from two sister publishers were both interested, the one who wanted it most ended up bidding, and the other one dropped out. Only five of the eight publishers submitted bids.

Consider what will happen with your next book. If an editor at PRH wants it, and so does an editor from S&S, only one of them is going to end up bidding.

If those were the only two suitors, you’ll only get one offer. And if there are others, you’ll still see fewer bidders and less competition.

What else will get cut?

Naturally, the new publisher is likely to consolidate operations like accounting and distribution. This will generate more efficiency. But it’s not enough. They’ll try to save even more money by cutting other corners.

In the time I’ve been working with publishers (13 years so far), I’ve seen these changes:

  • Shrinking advances.
  • Advances stretched into four installments instead of three (the fourth installment is one year after publication).
  • Less editorial attention.
  • Sloppier page layout practices (which are often outsourced), requiring more author attention to avoid errors.
  • Far less marketing spending and less effective publicity.
  • Unwillingness to pay “co-op fees” for placement in airport stores.
  • Less favorable deals for audio and ebook rights.
  • Lower quantities of free author copies and higher costs for additional author copies.
  • A hopelessly shriveled market for translations (except for Chinese).
  • Less responsiveness from publishers after the launch.

I also know authors who have seen enormous hassles getting royalties straightened out, or even finding a contact once their old publisher is acquired. (I haven’t personally experienced these problems.)

And of course, there’s Disney which is now refusing to pay royalties altogether for one author. That’s probably an isolated case — unless they end up getting away with it. You can be certain that big publishers are watching this case closely.

What should authors do?

This development won’t have an immediate effect on most authors. But it is certainly part of a trend.

Basically, as an author, you have to take more responsibility than ever before for your own books. What does this mean?

  • Find or hire your own editor to improve quality, rather than expecting the publisher to do it.
  • Pay very close attention to quality — do your own fact checking and monitor copy edits and page layout for the introduction of errors.
  • Work with an agent who can represent your interests and has the power of multiple authors behind them. Agents cost you 15% of your book revenues, but whether its negotiating the contract or getting promised service from the publisher, you’ll be very glad to have one in your corner. They know how to get things done in this relationship.
  • Take responsibility for your own marketing and publicity. The publisher has a team for this, but you’ll be a lot better off if you augment it with your own resources. This costs money, but pays off in visibility.
  • Consider hybrid publishing. When a publisher works for you, you get far better service, and a lot speedier time to market.
  • Consider working with a small press that’s more committed to its authors.
  • Consider self-publishing with the help of a publishing services company like Page Two.
  • See if you can get your own audiobook deal.

That’s a lot of work. But if you leave things to the publisher, you’re less and less likely to get the results you want. Especially if they’re in the midst of a gargantuan merger.

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  1. I feel the same way about what the merger means for people like me, Josh.

    Yes, hybrid publishing means more work and expense. On the other hand, though, the juice is worth the squeeze. Not only do you produce a better book, you maintain the intellectual property—as you well know.

    Should a big publisher want to cut a deal, then you’re in a position of strength. I discovered that in late 2009 when Why New Systems Fail did surprisingly well.

  2. Josh, these media companies are always buying each other or merging. I haven’t been following you long enough if you’ve posted blogs featuring your perspective on self-publishing, hybrid publishing, and small or even micro presses. If u have, please drop the links to those posts in a reply. Thank you.

  3. One other thought: Expect audiobooks to increasingly be farmed out to third parties who hire subcontractors to record them. I shudder to think about something getting lost at each stage. To quote Kevin Hart, “Little problems become big problems.”

  4. I have written a book which is a sexy spy story. In it an Iranian exile and a CIA agent search for her father, fall in love, he quits the CIA and the live happily ever after. It is sexy, it is a page turner. Why no big publisher wants it? Because the co-protagonist is Iranian, a none terrorist, what?!!! Yes, St. Martin is interested in yet one more book about valiant CIA agents defending the US from I-ranian terrorists. The sedate set don’t want it because it isn’t yet another book about three generations of immigrant women. There is no place for new voices, plain and simple. For the stupid, the book is too sympathetic to Iranians, for the intellectual, it isn’t immigrant experience enough. Yuck to them all.