What the Penguin & Random House Merger Means for Authors

For the past few years, authors have kind of looked on in dismay as publishing houses like Penguin and Random House lumbered like dinosaurs underneath the growing shadow of the meteoric threat known as ebooks.

I was – and continue to be – part of that group, so I was proud to hear of the Penguin & Random House merger.

I firmly believe that, at the rate the industry is going, it’s imperative for publishers to move fast to adapt to this stuff.

Think about it:

Amazon is casting a big shadow over the industry and no one quite knows what to make of it.

That’s why I was happy to see that Random House and Penguin, after months of courting one another, took the plunge and officially merged… and even happier that they weren’t shy about the reasons, either: ebooks.

Pearson (Penguin’s parent company) Chief Executive Marjorie Scardino explained:

“Together, the two publishers will be able to share a large part of their costs, to invest more for their author and reader constituencies and to be more adventurous in trying new models in this exciting, fast-moving world of digital books and digital readers.”

Why this is good and not bad

I don’t know about you, but it’s pretty hard for me to see mergers as good things.

Alarm bells go off in my head about monopolies, money grabs, and mature-capitalism-limiting-consumer-options-to-the-point-of-tyrannical-corporate-control-and-terrible-customer-service (looking at you, Comcast).

But I can’t help but think positively about this merger as a necessary adjustment to the rapidly changing landscape.

Why? Because I’m hopeful that by combining forces, Penguin and Random House will be innovative. 

There are so many possibilities for big-name publishers when it comes to ebooks, if they choose to be advocates for authors instead of stockholders.

I’ve talked about a few of them before:

  • Monthly subscription on a chapter-by-chapter basis, with new content delivered straight to mobile devices (there’s already been a semi-promising step in pay-per-page trends)
  • Hiring agents whose job it is to find those ebooks in the rough… yes, reversing the model on its head
  • Creating the next definition of “book” (shorter? more pictures? more social?)
  • PR departments for self-published authors
  • Interactive books for tablets & smartphones

Now, there are potential downsides to the merger, too. There’s already talk about consolidation, that small publishers won’t be able to compete and they’ll have to join with Random-Penguin… and the notion that the merger may send book prices “soaring.”

What it means for authors

Authors are a suspicious bunch. We curl our noses at violent changes like this, because it’s just another distraction from our Masterpiece.

It’s too early to gauge the long-term reverberations of the Penguin & Random House merger. We don’t even know if it will be deemed legal yet.

However, if you polish Scardino’s statement enough, you can glean some meaning.

If Random House and Penguin are focusing on “new models” for books, then you should, too.

This is a big move by big publishers trying to adjust to the digital age and authors need to follow in their footsteps.

How? Well, you can…

  • Make a website
  • Publish things everywhere
  • Create a dynamic presence that can be Googled
  • Don’t write in a bubble

Sure, writing in a bubble is necessary for authors who want to do any critical thinking, ever. You need to be at peace with your thoughts and enter your zone.

But don’t get too isolated. Authors need to be as digitally savvy as publishers, because when you start knocking on their doors with a manuscript and you don’t even have a blog… well…  consider your bubble popped.

You’ll realize, as you free-fall to earth, publishers like Penguin and Random House – along with thousands of authors – are scrambling up Digital Mountain, even if none of them are sure what’s at the top.

Looking for more? I’m working on a guide to Facebook & content marketing for writers looking to promote their books, due early 2013.

If you’re interested, sign up for The Creative Brief, my free monthly newsletter, and I’ll email it to you as soon as it’s ready!

Photo Credit: Anne Froehlich

45 thoughts on “What the Penguin & Random House Merger Means for Authors

  1. I’ll be self-publishing my novel soon enough, so I’ve doing my best to create a presence for myself, including a growing blog and publishing as many short stories as possible. Hopefully it’ll all pay off in the end.

  2. I wrote a book as a form of mental-self-preservation. (I wrote a paranormal romance in graduate school.) When it was finished I was like ‘hey, I wrote a book’. I submitted it to three small presses because – to borrow your phrase – why not. Melange Book agreed and published my work as an ebook. It is also available as a print-on-demand book, which is great for friends and fam that want the signed copy.

  3. This is such great news! I love the innovative ideas they are considering.
    I started blogging to build an author’s platform a year and a half ago. I was originally going to publish a non-fiction book and completely changed to a paranormal fiction after posting many flash fictions on Fridays.
    Since I always blog a photo with my posts, it makes me wonder about the inclusion of them in the book I am currently rewriting. Such a cool concept!
    Thanks so much for sharing. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!
    I am signing up for your newsletter.

  4. Hooray. Acknowledgement that ebooks are a significant part of the future and cannot be relegated to one guy with a second-hand desk and a budget of fourpence. I think the same foot-dragging and doom-saying happened when that guy Gutenberg threatened the existence of society as we know it and the inevitable decline of morals by inventing moveable type.

    Serialised novels? Sounds awfully familiar – weren’t Dickens’ novels originally published as serials? I wonder whether modern serialised authors will have some of the same problems, with readers demanding plot changes?

    I think we have seen many of the changes, and threats, that ebook doom-sayers are predicting already; the invention of a new book mode (printed) did not destroy the publishing industry in the fifteenth century; the education of the masses with the consequent demand for cheap fiction did not destroy it in the nineteenth. But now the publishing industry has another threat: people can publish their own books, so if they don’t get with it quick, they’re going to get trampled.

    But yes – with social media all over the place, authors cannot afford not to be visible, unless they’re already so famous that the traditional media does all the visibility for them. I think author visibility, and thus the perception that the author is nearly a friend, is also a powerful tool against ebook piracy. You wouldn’t steal a book from a friend, would you? So you’re less likely to steal from an author with whom you’ve interacted online. Also, the author gets to guilt-trip potential readers: hey, I’m a nice guy, we chat online – now you can support me by buying my book. Sort of like all those relatives buying tickets to youth shows. If you know someone, you feel you’ve almost got to buy their book, even if you normally wouldn’t, or you’d get it from the library.

    I’m one of the thousands (millions?) of bloggers who are ‘writing a book’. I’m determined to make it work, and my nice new blog is Step One. By the time the book is finished, hopefully the blog will be flourishing. We’ll see.

  5. I think it’s interesting how these traditional paper publishers are looking to the future and focusing on ebooks while there is another cultural push to learn more traditional arts. Canning at home is making a comeback while we are all buying ebooks for our Kindle apps. For me, it’s a little disorienting.

  6. This is a very astute perspective. I think writers have often wanted to step back and observe… but when you live in a time of change for writing and publishing (say… the printing-press, or the internet) it is all the more important to keep up with the times if you want any of your work to be read.

  7. Interesting. Some of my writing was just included in a self-published anthology of women bloggers/writers (“Tangerine Tango” in case you wanted to know), and I’ve been feeling a little sheepish about it – like “well, it’s not a REAL book, nothing to get excited about, don’t bother to read it,” etc. So now you’re telling me that this and other self-published works ARE real books and I don’t need to feel sheepish about it anymore? I am trying to wrap my head around this. Thanks for the interesting viewpoint.

  8. I guess it’s a good thing I decided to start writing on a blog. I’m rather new and oblivious, but I would like to become a professional creative writer.

    How does free, self-publication affect the writing scene? No e-book publisher will accept a work if people can just read it free off of your blog; so this leaves me wondering about how an author goes about choosing what to publish free on a blog, and what to try and sell, because if you want to live as an author, you do have to do some selling.

    Seems to me the logical distrubtion is to put short stories and poetry on blogs because they’re, well, short, while novels (and particularly novel series) get saved for e-book publication. Are short-story collections going to go extinct (as a publishable book) since they’re probably moving to free-to-read blogs?

  9. Hi all,

    Thanks for reading and, yeah, I’m thrilled to be Freshly Pressed!

    I love the points being brought up here, especially by Theophania, HuffyGirl, and Gibble96.

    I think ebooks are going to be the future, whether we like it or not, so, yes HuffyGirl, I think having something “published” by the way of ebook is something to be proud of… it all depends on what your idea of a “book” is. The thing to keep in mind is that most readers (who aren’t writers) don’t care what it is, it’s just a good bunch of words they’re reading.

    It’s our writerly sense of pride that prevents us from thinking that ebooks are “real.”

    But that’s because we remember a time when ebooks weren’t “real” and self-published authors were thoroughly thought to be part of the “vanity” press. We’re still under that impression, really.

    The Random Penguin (which I prefer to Penguin House, just slightly) merger is the cornerstone here, and opens up that big scary question: in a day and age where your words can go public with a click, what does it mean to be “published?” What does it mean to have a publisher?

    Gibble96 — I don’t think that the answer is free content. The scary part is that this is all up to writers, because we’re all going to self-regulate the prices if we self-publish an ebook. But I don’t think anyone wants a profit margin of 0.

    However, free e-zines are revolutionizing the exclusivity of premium content. In the future, I think short story payments will be VISIBILITY via magazines instead of cash. That visibility will be get more readers to know about the author’s meatier projects, better short stories, and short story collections. But that’s all in the early stages.

    I’ve got a lot more to say about the topic, obviously! Stay tuned, I’ll be writing another post this weekend 🙂

  10. I choose to look at the changes in the publishing industry as a good thing, as well. I’m throwing myself into social media, and even though it’s pretty exhausting work, I’m excited to see how the way people communicate is changing.

  11. I’ve noticed in the past two years since I first published, that the e-book world has been rapidly expanding at an astounding pace. It’s bit of the Wild West out there right now, with so many self-published material becoming available. We’re all throwing our needles into the haystack, but despite how much easier it is to self-publish, it’s becoming harder to get “noticed”. We still need to put the work in, but would we breathe a sigh of relief if the cavalry (Penguin House) finally came in and helped create some kind of organization, some legitimacy to the self-published “works in the rough” that deserve to be brought to light? Of course. 🙂 If Penguin House and other agencies worked to find the good material out there, we’d get the best of both worlds.

  12. The changes you propose are great, I’m not holding my breath. A number of agents are on the prowl for (only) the top-selling self-pubbed e-books, because that’s much easier than finding an obscure diamond in the rough. But even this is a more democratic “natural selection” system than the old ways. We only have “Harry Potter” because the 8-year-old daughter of a publishing company CEO strongly encouraged her father to buy it!

    Earlier this year, in one of my comments on Kristen Lamb’s blog, I predicted that at least one of the “Big Six” would be gone or merged in the next five years. Looks like I’ll have to speed up my crystal ball, because we might be down to the “Big Two or Three” in a few years. Self-pubbing is now the “safe bet”, really. I’m not worried about Amazon or Smashwords being around five years from now. But what if one of the “Big Five” (or less!) goes under and takes the rights a few million books with it? Dorchester Press on steroids, and every author would be praying Amazon would ride in on their white horse and “rescue” them.

    The trad. pub. change I’d like to see: No advances. The publishers should be willing to take more risks if they don’t have to pay anything up front, and the authors wouldn’t be ball-&-chained to paying back an advance. You can self-pub without owing anyone a dime if you can do editing and cover design yourself. Even if you pay for those, you pay flat fees and owe nothing further. Since advances are shrinking anyway, why not take it to the logical conclusion and “level” the field a bit more with self-pub?

  13. Interesting perspective on this. I mostly read book bloggers and indie authors going on with some disdain about the “big 6” publishers and how their lack of vision and lack of willingness to take risks has pushed more and more authors into the world of e-publishing and on-demand publishing. I had the problem of not being able (even with an agent) to find publishers willing to take a risk on books that weren’t easy to place in a genre (my books blend science fiction and mystery) and so ended up going indie to get my books out there. It will be interesting to see if the merger actually leads to innovation. I hope it does, but I’m still wary.

  14. Interesting post for me to read, being one of those whose gut reactions to big mergers, e-books, twitter and blogging can all be summed up as ‘oh no…’ Though obviously I wouldn’t be here, if I wasn’t trying to overcome that! Thanks, and congratulations on being ‘freshly pressed’.

  15. Congratulations on being freshly pressed. This was very interesting to read and gave me insights I haven’t thought about before. I am a long way of having publishable work but still want to know how the industry works. Thanks.

  16. Congratulations of getting Freshly Pressed! It’s great when it happens to you, I know. Great post and interesting news. I’ve been a fan of Random House ever since they responded to an eleven year-old me after I written a query letter. I agree that ebooks are the future, I just hope that they don’t eradicate the good old fashioned kind of books. Cheers mate!! 🙂 Oh, I’ve reblogged this.

  17. I have only just (last week) decided to look into publishing some cartoon eBooks.

    As a freelance cartoonist, things are looking grim in the print industry, so I’ve got to get more irons in the fire.

    For me, I’m at the bottom end of a very steep eBook learning curve which disappears into the clouds.

    So thanks for this post. Any bit of info I can pick up along the way can only point me in the right direction.




  18. I just have to wonder how having fewer publishers will impact all writers. As it stands, getting a book published by a “real” publisher is a mountain that few of us can climb. Publishers are so conservative about what material they select that everything is just like everything else. Hemingway, Wolfe, Faulkner … none of our great American authors would have gotten published in this climate. Max Perkins is a long distant memory. You’re lucky if you get published to even have someone take a look at your manuscript before it goes to press. PR? Advertising? Not happening. It doesn’t bode well, particularly if there will be even LESS room for creative writing and good story-telling without bells, whistles, and a connection to the internet. I love eBoooks, but I also like good writing. You know — characters, plots, and a ripping good tale you don’t want to put down.

  19. Reblogged this on Serendipity and commented:
    I just have to wonder how having fewer publishers will impact all writers. As it stands, getting a book published by a “real” publisher is a mountain that few of us can climb. Publishers are so conservative about what material they select that everything is just like everything else. Hemingway, Wolfe, Faulkner … none of our great American authors would have gotten published in this climate. Max Perkins is a long distant memory. You’re lucky if you get published to even have someone take a look at your manuscript before it goes to press. PR? Advertising? Not happening. It doesn’t bode well, particularly if there will be even LESS room for creative writing and good story-telling without bells, whistles, and a connection to the internet. I love eBoooks, but I also like good writing. You know — characters, plots, and a ripping good tale you don’t want to put down.

  20. This is an interesting post and as a person who sees writing as her future I think it is important to critically think about things like this.
    I guess everyone will experience some kind of change if the two companies merge but it is too early to tell how it will influence authors. And being able to adapt is a good quality to have so let’s aim at that and not focus on the negative.
    I would also really appreciate it if you take a look at my baby blog and tell me if I am doing the right thing: http://anayadeath.wordpress.com/

  21. No advances? What are you smoking?

    Yeah, let’s level that playing field so everyone can publish and no one can earn a living. What a terrific idea. I’ve published two well-reviewed non-fiction books on national issues (guns, low wage labor) with major houses (Pocket Books, part of S & S) and Portfolio (an imprint of Penguin.) How exactly do intelligently researched books get produced if no one is willing to offer authors a penny to produce them? Journalists like me, full-time freelance, actually earn a living from our writing and making sure no one gets a penny may feel “fair” to those desperate to publish but I doubt will suddenly produce amazing quality work when people have to self-finance all travel and research costs, let alone the daily cost of supporting themselves. Get serious.

    1. Good points, Broadside. I think that the payment model for good writing is going to get worse before it gets better. Every single kind of technology is disrupting payment models and, yeah, essentially pushing prices to 0 because no one wants to take a risk.

      Now, the reason this is happening is because supply is overwhelming demand. That’s happening because the traditional curators of the content are themselves overwhelmed. And who are the curators that we trust? Traditional publishing houses.

      Amazon is aggressively, mercilessly undercutting competition, which means innovative payment structures need to be found to keep things sustainable and feed the writers themselves.

      One of my optimistic guesses is that when Amazon and other major companies do determine the new route that they want to take with authors, the payment will be different but it will also be beneficial for authors.

      The fact is that people want to read. People are reading more than ever before, what with the dominance of texting, the web, and smartphones as our preferred methods of communication.

      What I really wish would happen is the democratization of coding for mobile apps, making it so easy to code (just like WordPress and others did for making a website) that creative people can use them to create forms of books that have never been tried before, but I think we’re some years from that.

      Right now, I think the most important tool writers have is self-promotion. Ruthless, embarrassing amounts of self-promotion.

      I’d love it if there was a “Freshly Pressed” version of books by a TRUSTED SOURCE, something like book bloggers do, but with the force of the industry behind it.

      I honestly think books are going to have to be serialized and it’s going to have to become a point-and-click option to purchase something (for about $1), without even reaching for a wallet whatsoever. Smartphones will pave the way for this.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s