A publishing giant’s merger could leave book decisions to a few

The behemoths of publishing Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster are set to merge for $2.2 billion, now in the hands of a federal court reviewing antitrust violations filed by the Justice Department.

If the merger is allowed, the Big Five publishing houses (Penguin Random House, Hachette Book Group, Harper Collins, Simon & Schuster and Macmillan) would become the Big Four, consolidating too much power in too few hands, says Lori Feathers, co-owner and adult book buyer of Interabang Books, an independent bookstore in Dallas.

Feathers, a 24-year-old former lawyer before embracing her passion for books full-time, is a strong voice for small publishers. She serves on the board of the National Book Critics Circle and recently established the Republic of Consciousness Award to support small presses in the United States and Canada. She spoke with columnist Tyra Damm about the merger project.

Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster’s proposed merger is currently stalled in the court system. What are your concerns about the merger and how it might affect sellers, authors, and readers?

My concern comes mainly from the fact that books are not products like the others. If a company has too much power over the content and production of available books, then it controls the dissemination of original ideas, voices and artistic expression.

At the store, we make a concerted effort to bring in diverse books, books in translation, books from different viewpoints, which in many cases means sourcing books from independent publishers and small publishing houses. ‘editing. This is something that excites me, my colleague Lisa Plummer, children’s book buyer at Interabang.

It’s not at all that Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster don’t publish good and important books. They absolutely do. But a merger of that size, by any measure, would constitute almost 50% of the book market in the United States. You are putting a lot of decision-making power over which books to publish in the hands of a single editorial board, jeopardizing a fully vibrant marketplace representing many different voices and viewpoints.

Many authors worry that editors at the Big Five publishing houses are increasingly going after celebrity authors, politicians and star writers. These big name authors demand big advances for their books and therefore all the attention and advertising dollars of the big publishers are devoted to promoting these particular books.

What does the current market look like for small independent publishers?

It’s really difficult. Most cannot afford to pay advances to authors or conduct marketing and publicity campaigns for their books.

Part of the fun for me of being a book buyer and independent bookstore owner is scouring all the rabbit trails and finding the gems the little guys publish. It is very difficult for them to compete with the big publishers.

Even though we’re making a really concerted effort to find these great, different, original voices, I’d say more than half of the books in Interabang Books are published or distributed by Penguin Random House before you factor in their plan to acquire Simon & Schuster. This is the case for a large number of independent bookstores across the country. Penguin Random House has such dominance. No matter how good someone is, you don’t want all the publishing power and control in the hands of one company.

While you have readers looking for different titles, you also have readers looking for bestsellers or what they saw on a morning show or heard about on a podcast. Do you need to have a balance of what you offer in store?

You absolutely must have a balance. I am a small press champion through the literary prize I created and also with my podcast Across the Pond which very often highlights novels and collections of short stories published by small publishers. We also read small press books at our monthly book club discussion at the store. There are many other people who do wonderful things to highlight the work of small publishers – for example, book reviewer Sam Sacks in his weekly column for The Wall Street Journal.

What is the current market for independent booksellers?

The greatest asset of our store is our booksellers. Not only do they read all the time, but they very often read the unexpected and the non-obvious and put these types of books in the hands of customers. I think that’s the main reason people come to our bookstore. They want to learn and discover a book that they have never heard of before or a book that is set in Norway and has been translated into English, for example. Curious people want to have an experience with someone who is an avid reader and can spark their interest in finding a good book that is off the radar.

Our booksellers can recommend amazing, lesser-known authors that many customers may never have heard of, or a small publisher that we really like and do such a good job of finding strong emerging writers.

That’s why I see this potential merger as maybe an unhealthy thing. The more you allow a publisher to be big and monopolistic, the more you threaten the viability and the ecosystem that allows all these small publishers – and the divergent decision makers within these publishers – to coexist.

What can readers do to help authors and independent booksellers?

They can go to their local independent bookstore and ask for a book recommendation printed by a small press. They can buy and help create our own little local press here, Deep Vellum, which publishes excellent books in English and in translation. These are small but important acts that support and facilitate the work of emerging writers, new voices and small publishers.

Tyra Damm is a frequent contributor to the Dallas Morning News.

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About Florence M. Sorensen

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