Here at Big Fish Media, we believe there’s much to consider in news of the merger between Random House and Viking-Penguin, two of the most powerful trade houses with enormous literary histories, deep lists of major authors and steady streams of bestsellers. Mergers are about gaining efficiencies, and efficiencies are about consolidating costs–therefore, each company’s backlists, talent, and book operations are exposed to risk.
The silver lining for me is that our best indie publishers could step into the chaos and confusion with razor-sharp value propositions for authors. From the perspective of authors, growing, stronger indie publishers means real alternatives to the Big Six, err Five.
While I would be thrilled if the merger results in innovations and new opportunities for authors, let’s look some potential implications for business and nonfiction authors:
- Will the merged houses “strategically” eliminate business or other niche imprints? During this shakeout, it’s possible that publishers will make priorities of certain categories and eliminate or reduce others. Keep an eye on the business imprints such as Portfolio.
- Will editors be intimidated? While curation remains a buzz word of modern culture, consolidation means fewer editors-in-chief with varying tastes and talent networks. Consolidations breed group think. With more editor layoffs you get more fear to conform. To wit: Simon & Schuster consolidated trade imprints, closing the storied Free Press and laying off a number of proven, talent editors (S&S is not part of this merger, but is exploring the possibility of doing so). Diversity is key to ecosystems and diversity of ideas and judgment is essential to a profitable creative business.
- Will acquisitions get bogged down pre-merger? As an observer of business change, I see this as the most acute short-term concern. Mergers mean some people get to keep their jobs and others don’t. Bosses will be changing, and if you’re part of these companies, you’re not going to want to stick out as being too creative. Until re-organizations are completed, many folks who acquire books could be concerned about overcommitting for too many advances, acquisitions, or complex books. Editors will want to work those yellow stripes in the middle of the road.
- Will new books will be included in possible new pricing and distribution programs? Some reporting indicates that the merger was in part driven by the imperative to stop Amazon’s momentum in distribution and publishing. Amazon’s steep discounting, aggressive move into acquisitions, and the Kindle’s ubiquity combine to mount an existential threat to trade publishers. They relied on their distributors for a century as a reliable intermediary with customers, now Amazon wants to develop its own content and leave them behind. The merged colossus will likely experiment with lower pricing and digital distribution. These potential initiatives could be terrific, but if you are in discussions with one of the two companies about a publishing contract, get your expectations on the table and into the negotiations regarding price, format, and distribution.
- Will backlist books get lost in system integration? If the imprint that cared the most about the backlist gets shut down (Free Press at S&S for example), the new team will have less interest and historical knowledge of the backlisted books. Contract and royalty systems are combined and typically errors and glitches occur. If you have backlisted books at one of the two houses, check in regularly to find out if the book is under a new imprint, editor, or publisher. Then educate the new editor about the book.
- Will contract boilerplate and nonnegotiables be changed? We can expect this consolidation will include an opportunity for executives to set new expectations about provisions in the contract that will be “boilerplate”–largely nonnegotiable for authors and agents. This could include lower royalty rates, different rights splits, digital royalty changes, new language on author warranties. We won’t know this for a while, but it’s a reality to watch out for.