Many of you would be aware of the proposed $2.17 billion purchase of publishers Simon & Schuster by Penguin Random House which would have created a publishing giant with 70% of the US literary and general fiction market.
The merger of the two publishers would have reduced the five major publishers to four—the other three being HarperCollins, Hachette Book Group and Macmillan. The US government didn’t think the purchase was a good idea for authors or readers and said it would ‘substantially lessen competition,’ so it blocked the merger in November.
What’s fascinating is that the testimony in the court case this year has laid bare some of the mechanisms of how traditional publishing actually works. What caught my eye was a comment from the Macmillan CEO Don Weisberg, who when arguing against the merger, described publishing as ‘a business of gambling’. What made it even more interesting was that Penguin Random House CEO Markus Dohle arguing for the merger compared Penguin Random House to Silicon Valley ‘angel’ investors, saying, ‘We invest every year in thousands of ideas and dreams, and only a few of them make it to the top… Each book is unique and there’s a lot of risk.’
So the two opposing sides actually agree on the importance of luck in picking bestsellers.
The mega-selling SF author Stephen King testified as a witness for the government in the case, arguing that mergers in the publishing industry harm authors and are bad for the industry. He said that when he was an unknown author in the 70s, there were hundreds of imprints, competition was fierce, and he didn’t need an agent. Since then, the number of publishers has shrunk and with them the size of author advances and opportunities for new writers. ‘There comes a point,’ he said, ‘if you’re very, very, very fortunate, that you can stop following your bank account and follow your heart.’
In fact, Stephen King deliberately tested the importance of luck in publishing by writing five novels under the Richard Bachman pseudonym. In the eight years before Bachman was outed, Stephen King was a mega-seller while Bachman was a nobody. After he was outed, the Bachman book sales rocketed, quickly reaching 3 million copies. In his introduction to The Bachman Books Stephen King ruminates on the role of luck or accident in his own publishing success:
‘The fact that Thinner did 28,000 copies when Bachman was the author and 280,000 copies when Steve King became the author might tell you something, huh? Part of you wants to think that you must have been one hardworking SOB if you end up riding high in a world where people are starving, shooting each other, burning out, bumming out… but there’s another part that suggests it’s all a lottery, a real-life game show not much different from Wheel of Fortune or The New Price Is Right.’
What role does luck actually play in the publishing industry? Food for thought for all of us.
This blog appeared in a different form as an Editorial in Aurealis #156.