Like so many other sectors, publishing has been subject to a rapid acceleration of pre-existing trends during this pandemic year. Writers, booksellers and publishers have been forced to focus much of their energy and resources online — with many discovering new possibilities in the process — but they also face a fast-changing corporate landscape.
In June, Book Advisors, a financial advisory firm for trade publishing, predicted in a research paper that “mergers & acquisitions activity will gradually increase as publishers seek stronger partners and increased scale” in the wake of the pandemic. In late November, German media giant Bertelsmann confirmed that its publishing arm, Penguin Random House, would buy US publishers Simon & Schuster. If the deal passes antitrust scrutiny, it will reduce the Big Five of publishing (Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster) to the Big Four.
Optimists speculate that a PRH-Simon & Schuster merger could help publishers create the marketing and distribution muscle they need to challenge Amazon’s hold on the book market. Sceptics contend that mergers lead to the loss of jobs in publishing, threaten mid-list authors (by lowering their chances of landing big deals in literary auctions where multiple publishers vie to buy rights) and reduce diversity across the field.
This is not a new complaint. In 1987, Edwin McDonnell, a writer for the New York Times, lamented: “Why this frenzied pursuit of one publishing house by another? And are these mergers and acquisitions good or bad from the book buyer’s point of view?” The consolidation of multiple publishing houses and imprints during the 1970s and 80s did not fully crowd out independent publishers, but it gave the original Big Six (Penguin and Random House merged in 2013) far more control over distribution channels, and over booksellers and bookshops around the world.
One of the most significant shifts was identified as early as 1972 by John Tebbel in A History of Book Publishing in the United States: “The viewpoints of the corporate boardroom had been brought into a business that had, from the beginning, functioned as a small community.”
As publishing has become more corporatised over the past 40 years, the opportunities for authors, as well as the risks, have expanded. Increasingly, the largest fees have gone to writers who are already well-known in public life — from Pope John Paul II, who received an estimated $8.5m for the 1994 memoir Crossing the Threshold of Hope, to Barack and Michelle Obama, who in 2017 negotiated a $65m package for A Promised Land and Becoming. For most, writing is a gambler’s game. A survey of 5,000 writers across genres by the Authors’ Guild in 2018 reported that the median pay for full-time writers in 2017 was only about $20,300 a year.
Another problem is the unpredictability of reading and writing tastes: many breakout books defy classification and big publishers are more inclined to play it safer than independent presses. This year’s Booker Prize-winning novel Shuggie Bain, a debut by Douglas Stuart, had been rejected 32 times by US publishers because they were unsure if his story about a working-class boy in 1980s Glasgow was marketable.
Successful writers must now juggle the demands of the creative life with the need to be business-like about their social media profiles, sending out newsletters or dropping samples of their work on publishing platforms such as Substack and Medium.
Online events hosted by bookshops, literary festivals and individuals have boomed during the pandemic — and while many of these activities involve time-consuming, unpaid work, they can offer access to a much wider and more diverse audience than most face-to-face events. Some writers who might have previously found work as freelance columnists are turning to newsletters, using sites such as Patreon, a membership platform that links artists and creatives with paying fans. American writer Emily Atkin, for example, left her job at The New Republic last year to launch a climate-focused newsletter titled Heated; within two months of charging for subscriptions via Substack she was earning a six-figure income.
Many others have found an unexpected lifeline in Zoom; a friend who received a “good” advance for his last non-fiction book in India — roughly £7,000 for his three years of research and work — said he made twice that amount in three months of running online writing workshops.
Very few writers are tempted into their career by the salary (uncertain) or the lifestyle (writers were working from home in pyjamas before it became fashionable). They’re chasing a dream, and as their expectations from big publishing fall, many are learning how to become their own one-person small businesses.
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