Most English-language books are published by one of just five publishers.
‘Ha!’ I hear you say – ‘I can name more publishers than that!’
If you’re a book lover, chances are you’re familiar with some of the major names and even logos of publishers. And you’d be right to think that there are far more publishing houses than just five.
But the fact is, the vast majority of these ‘publishers’ are actually just ‘imprints’ of larger publishers. They’ve been bought or merged into the ‘Big Five’. (Until Penguin and Random House merged, it used to be the ‘Big Six’.) How long will it be before there’s the ‘Big Four’? The ‘Big Three’? The ‘Big Two’, or even just the ‘Big One’?
Let’s meet the ‘Big five’ publishers
Penguin Random House
Penguin Random House is the world’s largest book publishing company. In the US, it controlled close to 40% of the market share of books in 2015. The company has around 250 imprints and publishing houses. Some are readily identifiable as belonging to this group (such as ‘Random House Children’s Books’ or ‘Penguin Group U.S.’). But others are much more difficult to recognise as Penguin Random House products. (Like ‘Knopf Doubleday’ or ‘Dorling Kindersley’ or ‘Mass Market Paperbacks’).
Penguin Random House is owned by the German company Bertelsmann, worth close to 10 billion euro at the time of writing, and Pearson. Bertelsmann also operates other printing/publishing services in addition to the 250 directly under Penguin Random House. Pearson largely publishes educational materials including textbooks.
HarperCollins comes in second, with close to 20% of the market share of books in 2015. Like Penguin Random House, the company was originally two separate entities. The US-based JJ Harper, and the UK-based Collins & Sons. Newscorp acquired both to form HarperCollins. Today, HarperCollins has over 120 imprints and publishing houses, including ‘Harlequin’, ‘Walden Pond Press’, and ‘Zondervan’, among many others. Its parent company NewsCorp, also owns a vast media empire including other publishers. At time of writing, NewsCorp was worth close to $10 billion.
Simon & Schuster
Dick Simon and Max Schuster started Simon & Schuster in 1924. These days, the company is the publishing arm of the $3 billion media corporation CBS, the eighth largest entertainment company in the world. In 2015, S&S controlled around 10% of the publishing market in the US. The company publishes around 2,000 titles each year, under 35 different imprints, including ‘Atrium,’ ‘Gallery Books’ and ‘Scribner’.
Hachette Book Group
Hachette Book Group, also with around 10% of the US book market, controls around 30 different imprints. These include ‘Little, Brown and Company’, ‘Orbit Books’ and ‘Perseus Books’. Hachette Livre, France’s largest book publisher, and the world’s second-largest publishing conglomerate, owns the company. In turn, Lagardère Group, a multinational media corporation worth close to 2 billion euro, owns Hachette Livre. Aside from Hachette, Lagardère also owns a swathe of publishers across France, the UK, Australia, Canada, China, India, Italy, the Ivory Coast, Japan, Poland, Russia, Spain and the US.
Publishers Launch did not estimate Macmillan’s market share. But according to Book Business, even if we conservatively estimate it at around 5% of the market, that means these five publishers control over 80% of the US book market. The German company Holtzbrinck Publishing Group owns Macmillan. Holtzbrink owns many general and academic publishing companies around the world, including Palgrave, Picador, and the Nature publishing group. While privately held, Holtzbrink reported annual sales in 2005 of over 2 billion euros.
So while there looks to be many traditional publishing options out there, in reality, these five companies control 60-85% of the English-language book market. And many of us don’t even realise it. Because these five companies control around 500 imprints with their own names and logos.
In my next post, we’ll take a look at why this is a big deal for readers and writers.