Think of less diversity among books. Imagine less personality among publishers. And then think of a relentless conveyor belt of books that will enforce this lack of distinction. That's the dystopian publishing-world future imagined in the wake of last week's Penguin-Random House merger by Boris Kachka, New York magazine's book editor, in an Op-Ed published in Wednesday's The New York Times.
There used to be the Big Six publishers: Simon and Schuster, HarperCollins, Random House, Macmillan, Penguin, and Hachette. After the merger, there are five. This may seem like something only publishing industry insiders would care about. But it shouldn't be.
The biggest fear of the Penguin Random House merger is the lack of diversity inside the publishing industry, which likely will result in a lack of diversity in the books we end up reading. Here's how that scenario comes to fruition:
A Lack of Competition For Writers
"There is, for one, the persistent gripe of writers and agents: companies either forbid (as at Penguin) or restrict (at Random House) their constituent imprints from bidding against one another for a manuscript," Kachka writes. Basically, publishing mergers lead to fewer imprints bidding for a writer, meaning less competition to snag that writer and allow her to make a living penning mermaid romances or whatever.
That's terrible, especially a young and promising writers one who needs to start off strong. If this lack of competition were applied to the NBA, teams could effectively shortchange the Kyle Korvers of this world, knowing that there are few publishers who will offer competitive bids for players of that caliber. And since teams aren't dying to sign players for any serious sum, there's no need to get really invested and groom a second-string forward who is never going to be LeBron James. Or, in the case of publishing, E.L. James.
"That means not only lower advances, but also fewer options for writers to get the kind of painstaking attention — from editors, marketers and publicists — that it takes to turn their manuscripts into something valuable," Kachka explains.
Fewer Editors Editing Fewer Books
Corporate layoffs usually don't affect a consumer directly, but that might not be the case with the cuts that inevitably come with the Penguin-Random House merger. As Jeremy Greenfield, Editorial Director of Digital Book World, explained in Forbes, both publishing houses are home to many imprints, making duplication inevitable. That will mean that some imprints will have to go, along with the editors who run them and who are ultimately responsible for what makes it to Barnes & Noble:
Both companies had competing imprints (a smaller publishing division that often publishes a certain kind of book), editors and publishers. It’s likely that some of these talented publishing professionals will be seen as redundant corporately and be let go.
A Lack of Diversity
"Among the imprints that survive, the tendency is to homogenize and focus on a few general fields like ambitious nonfiction, accessible literary fiction or thrillers," Kachka explains. So if BDSM romances are selling, you can be sure that's what the Big Five will be publishing, to the exclusion of much else. As we found out with our foray into porn's Kickstarter yesterday, people have diverse tastes, and homogenizing means some of these get ignored.
Charlie Jane Anders, at io9, explained how this would affect sci-fi books in particular:
Presumably, if imprints do merge or come under a single editorial management, that means eventually you have somewhat fewer approaches to the fields of science fiction and fantasy — at least, within mainstream publishing. You're less likely to be able to say that Ace/Roc does one sort of book, while Del Rey does another — although, of course, even within imprints different editors often buy different things. A merger also might make it fractionally harder for new authors to break in, since they might have one less address to send manuscripts to.
A similar concern leads Kachka to wonder, "Can any reader tell a Pantheon from a Riverhead novel? The logo doesn’t do the trick. The value of a publishing house — and now an imprint — has been its function as that dreaded straw man of the self-publishing gurus: a gatekeeper." As Kachka points out, the gate has become a velvet rope for the select few, keeping out many potentially skilled writers.
"In the hoary Model T days, gatekeepers weren’t a cabal but a cacophony, competing tooth and nail," Kachka writes. Essentially, Kachka wants publishers to compete for our eyeballs, offer literary diversity and give us a reason to get excited about book publishing again. Perhaps that starts with getting angry about this merger.