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The Big Deal With the Big Five

An aspiring author continues to query agents for even a small interest in their book - only to be rejected time and time again.

"If I could only get someone important to see how great my books are I might have a chance to make it big!"

It’s a common fever dream for authors getting their start to score a book deal with one of the Big Five publishing agencies. However, writers not in the loop may not understand the importance of the largest companies in the industry. So who are the Big Five and what makes them so special? The “Big Five” is a term used to describe the five publishing companies that take up an estimated 80% of the publishing trade market. These companies are some of the oldest, most prestigious conglomerations in the market and a contract with one of these behemoths could make or break an author. When it comes to having a book published, nothing often makes an author prouder than to be picked up by one of these industry-leading corporations who will sell their book on a mind-bending scale. The largest of these companies is a name you’ve likely heard before.

Penguin Random House is by far the largest of the Big Five and is a melding of nearly 275 subsidiary imprints. This goliath publishes as many as 15,000 books and sells well above 4,000,000 copies of its most popular titles annually. The result of a 2.4 billion dollar merger in 2013 between Random House and Penguin Group, PRH was cited as the publishing industry's response to the ever-growing book market on Amazon. PRH is home to over 10,000 employees and boasted a $4.3 billion revenue in 2021. Its author portfolio includes myriad best-selling authors such as R.J Palacio, John Green, Paula Hawkins, George Orwell, Dr. Seuss, and E.L James to name a few. A deal with Penguin Random House could be the achievement of many new authors' careers.

Joining PRH in the lineup are HarperCollins and Macmillan with a 2021 joint revenue of $3.3 Billion. The two companies are unaffiliated but are grouped here for comparison to Penguin Random House. It takes both combined even to approach the market share that PRH has! Founded in 1817, the American-subsidized HarperCollins has been the house of choice for Mark Twain, Dickens, Margaret Brown and Martin Luther King Jr. HarperCollins has a digital catalogue comprised of more than 200,000 titles by best-selling authors and first-time novelists alike. Macmillan, the German-owned academic monolith was founded in 1843 and has been a platform for Lewis Carroll, Rudyard Kipling, and Thomas Hardy. Macmillan is also one of the most prolific pedagogical publishers in existence and has made thousands of textbooks available to students the world over. A contract with either of these companies could easily be worth a fortune and is a highly coveted luxury for any author looking to expand their readership and influence.

Hachette Book Group is a distinguished publishing company that marries 28 separate imprints into a powerhouse conglomerate that is responsible for publishing approximately 3,300 titles per year. In 2021, Hachette was able to bag $2.8 Billion in revenue despite its comparatively short list of independent presses and published 204 New York Times Bestsellers. 30 of those 204 titles reached #1. Hachette Book Group has been producing bestselling books since its foundation in 1826 by Louis Hachette under the name Brédif. Hachette has printed for many well-known contemporary authors such as Stephenie Meyer, J.K. Rowling, James Patterson, and Maria Semple. This high-grossing corporation continues to be a beacon of success for popular artists and annually grows larger. Any mid-selling author would be mad to turn down a deal with Hachette.

Simon & Schuster is the final Big Five contender and happens to be my favorite publisher on the list. S&S was founded in 1924 by Richard Simon and Max Schuster to publish crossword puzzles. At the time Richard was a piano salesman while Max was an editor for a car magazine. The pair operated on the basis of publishing whatever was popular with the masses. Rather than signing authors the traditional way Max and Richard compiled their own schemes, then commissioned writers to pen them. Owning 52 imprints, Simon & Schuster publishes books from all genres and made $993 Million in 2021. This sterling company has proffered many widely revered authors and iconic works. Notable examples include Taylor Jenkins Reid, Neal Shusterman, Stephen King, and Becca Fitzpatrick. Simon & Schuster employs 1500 people and publishes approximately 2000 titles each year.

I saved Simon & Schuster for last intentionally because there is a very real chance that the Big Five will Become the Big Four. In 2020, ViacomCBS announced that it would be selling Simon & Schuster to the highest bidder. Those familiar with the industry assumed correctly that another top five company would attempt to purchase the house. PRH won marginally over HarperCollins and agreed to pay $2.18 Billion for the business. Years later, the merger has temporarily been suspended pending the results of a Department of Justice lawsuit which alleges that the resulting company would be far too powerful and detrimental to the industry as a whole. And they’re right. But that’s not what we’re talking about today.

Now that we know a little bit about these giants, let’s discuss why everyone chases a spot on one of these publishers' desks. Enhanced marketing, expert editing, and recognition by a prominent brand are all tempting to an author. If signed with a Big Five you are guaranteed streamlined entry to libraries and bookstores worldwide as well as ensured copyright protection. Quite a lot of Big Five published authors experience improved notoriety and tend to sprout an ego. Not that ego is necessarily a bad thing, though a little humility does go a long way. All this combined with the idea that big publishers are always looking for the next “Hunger Games” or the next “Twilight” gives newer writers the impression that their unique writing style qualifies them for a shot in the big leagues. Unfortunately, this is not always the case and even if it were, A Big Five publishing contract is not without its own set of drawbacks.

Big Five publishing companies are expert risk assessors first and foremost. If they don’t think they can sell your book they aren’t going to bite. That doesn’t mean that your book isn’t good or even that they couldn’t make money on you. What it does mean is that as with all things, there is a hierarchy of needs for a publisher that must be met. It takes money to run a massive publishing house. So every title they choose to publish must be profitable enough to be worth their time. For example, you might have a brilliant story to tell but you don’t have the readership to market a book. This means the publishing company will have to spend money to get people to notice your book. Alternatively, you could be a terrible writer but you may have a large audience. In this case, all the publisher has to do is announce that they’ll be publishing your book and watch the money roll in.

For unproven authors, the process to sign with a large publishing house can be tedious, competitive, and draining. First, you need an agent, which you can only get if they like your pitch or your manuscript. There's no way a colossal publisher will pick you up without one. Second, your agent needs to be worth a flip to make sure that your book gets the attention it deserves when they bring it home. Let’s say you get past this point. You have an agent. They have successfully pitched your book to the company. Now you’ll have to sign a contract giving up most if not all of your rights to your work and you’ll certainly lose most of the profits you could have made with another, smaller company that would sell the same number of books. For established authors, this isn’t of much concern since Big Five houses will often pay advances that translate to livable wages and sell so many copies of their books that royalties alone keep them afloat. Chances are that if you’re the average author this won’t work for you since you neither have the patronage nor publicity to sell your books efficiently. You’ll be paid a small advance which runs out in a few months and maybe you sell a few thousand copies of your book. You’re looking at a maximum of $6,000 once every six months. In this scenario, the best strategy for survival is to continue writing the same way you breathe. Constantly. Everything you write will have to sell modestly. It's worthwhile to note that book sales often behave like the summer wind and no book is guaranteed to sell. But try not to be discouraged! Here's why.

Increasingly, fledgeling authors are turning to smaller presses to build their fanbase and reputation. Small presses are vitally important to the industry as a whole because they allow lesser-known authors a chance to make a name for themselves before moving up the chain. This ensures that when the joyous day finally comes that an author is accepted by a prestigious publishing house both they and the publisher will be compatible with each other's needs. A smart author is a prepared one. This being said, if you feel like you’ve done the work and feel as though you’re ready to submit your work and sign with a large publishing house then join us here next Sunday where I explain the best way to get picked up. Here at HIP, we want to see authors at all levels succeed in bringing their stories to life. Thank you for taking the time to read this article. If you liked it, please share it with your friends!

Written by:

Joshua Adams

CEO, Editor


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