Publishing Startups, Buy-ups, and Mergers: Penguin Random House

It’s with a glad heart that I write this post, even having just read of the merger of Penguin and Random House into the wildly inventive corporate moniker … Penguin Random House. Corporations are always merging these days, essentially to improve their bottom line by reducing the cost of keeping full-time and other employees (and savings in consolidating infrastructure as well, but salaries are, I suspect, the biggest saving). By consolidating, there are certainly efficiencies to be gained, but unseen costs, gaps, inefficiencies must surely result as new redundancies are discovered, and old jobs that are cut, merged, or added are discovered to rest, or to have rested, upon a different kind and amount of work and responsibility than the corporate design comprehends. Eventually, I’m sure Random Penguin House (yes, I know I’ve transposed the name…) will become a much bigger, more profitable entity with a deeper bureaucracy that will give birth to still more inefficiencies, but what do I know?…

Returning to the gladness of my heart, I’ve lived long enough to observe the working of the forces that govern cultural industries. Those forces are creative and entrepreneurial or they are corporate and purely bottom-line driven. The corporate forces, impatient for better and better bottom lines, follow a conservative, risk-minimizing strategy: buy the established brands that others have taken the risk to develop, absorb its authors, the crème of its executive and creative employees (still one and the same at even a mid- to large-size house), lay off the rest, and satisfy stakeholders. The creative forces are entrepreneurial: they want to make something new, create a new ventricle to pump fresh blood, circulate new ideas, new books.

The creative forces manifest in two sorts of person: the first, the brave and bold entrepreneurs who start new companies from scratch and grow the companies carefully, publishing not to fill book slots in a catalog “list” but to discover and launch important new voices and ideas; the second, oft-frustrated editors within big corporate houses that struggle to launch new brands in-house and tap the same spirit of adventure and discovery.

Ultimately, I don’t think the second sort of person matters much at all. They’re doomed to fail because almost no big corporate organizations like to take significant risks; and startups, whether independent or in house, are risk fraught. But the real entrepreneurs, the indies, they represent the real creative force that yields up real variety in publishing—they publish different books than a big house would, books of real merit and, sometimes, of quite wide appeal. They also offer different work environments, habitats for creative sorts who would otherwise languish in the brightly lit, cubicle-choked open-concept offices of multi-national houses. And they provide important conduits for indie culture; marginal culture; dangerous, disruptive, and vital culture.

The sad thing about all the mergers and buy-ups for me is the loss of different voices, and each house, however on the cusp of being a corporate giant they are, is a distinct cultural voice. The sadder thing for me, as a creature that has to live in this ecosystem, is the loss of distinct work habitats and in-house cultures to belong to.

But the mergers are part of the bigger picture that includes the creative startups. They are always starting up, and though some die off, others find a niche, grow, and change from micro-houses into small houses that may yet become medium houses. The pluralistic forces of culture find a way. Because of the these terms in which I understand the working of all cultural industries, I’m very glad-hearted and eager to promote to the next generation of publishing people the value of starting and or working for micro-houses, even if you can only do it freelance or part-time.

I’ll be writing next about how to approach micro-houses for freelance and part-time work to complement either your full-time or half-time job, or, better still, get your career and income started with a colourful independent house.