This past week, Pearson, the owner of Penguin for the last half-century, jettisoned its remaining stake in Penguin Random House—the book publishing joint venture it formed six years ago with Bertelsmann, the German media group.
According to an article in MSN Money, End of an era for book publisher Penguin:
The company originally owned 47% of Penguin Random House when the joint venture was set up in 2013.
It sold a 22% stake in the business to Bertelsmann, its joint venture partner, for $1bn in July 2017.
Today it sold its remaining 25% stake in the publisher, again to Bertelsmann, for £530m.Ian King, Sky News
With Borders dead and Barnes & Noble brought to its knees, Amazon is stronger than ever, and indie bookstores and mom and pop bookstores are coming back to life. We are, indeed, living in strange times.
Or are we?
Why So Quiet?
First of all, forgive me for this small segue. Maybe it’s I’ve been a bit off the grid. I’ve been very ill with pneumonia and my grandfather who raised me passed away unexpectedly right before Christmas.
I only knew about this article because one of my followers was thoughtful enough to pass it onto me via Facebook.
Thus, if my analysis is off the mark, I’m blaming it on the drugs. That aside, when I first began blogging, everyone was talking about THE BIG SIX. BIG PUBLISHING. If any major house did anything there was at least some article somewhere.
Yet, when I tried to do further research on this Penguin sale, the ramifications, what ripple effect this shift would have for authors, readers, the market….
Nothing. Not a blog or a blip or a boop. I even subscribe to The New York Times and couldn’t find anything.
ONLY ONE ARTICLE. The one I’ve linked to on this post. Otherwise?
So this is why I am confessing AHEAD of time to being on A LOT…A LOT of drugs, because if y’all have seen the flurry of activity and I missed it, please pass it on to me and accept my mea culpa ahead of time.
I don’t believe I’ve missed anything, though. It’s a sign of how much the industry has changed since I began blogging a decade and a half and almost two thousand blogs ago.
That, and excuse the tinfoil on my head, but the multimedia conglomerates had a LOT of egg on their faces with the whole nasty Barnes & Noble thing. Now that these staple houses are toppling like the proverbial house of cards?
Not good optics. Maybe just me. Or blame the NyQuil.
Without a flurry of activity to derive a brilliant analysis from—gets cramp patting self on back—I went a different direction. If you read the article I linked to regarding the end of an era (apropos for ending the teens, I suppose) there is a very interesting history behind the creation of Penguin.
Thus, do we ever really END anything? Or is it as the book of Ecclesiastes tells us?
There is nothing new under the sun.
A young director at Bodley Head, Sir Allen, came up with the idea of publishing books for the same price as a package of ten cigarettes after waiting on a platform at Exeter St. David’s station for his train back to London.
Much to his chagrin, he had too much time and nothing to fill it with. No cell phones back then.
He lamented at the paltry selection of magazines and Victorian novel reprints. During that time, books were prohibitively expensive. About 8 shillings or almost $37 in modern currency.
Not only were the books during that time mostly inaccessible to the public, the publishers had to sell at least two thousand copies of any book to break even. Sir Allen had a BOLD idea. He wanted to offer more books at a MUCH lower price to a FAR LARGER audience.
To offer the books at Allen’s comparably rock-bottom price, the publisher would have to sell almost twenty times the volume. BUT, everyday people would finally have better access to a vast catalogue of titles they’d never before imagined outside of a lending library.
Penguin Breaking the Trends & Rules
Penguin’s early catalog included Agatha Christie and Ernest Hemingway. Penguin’s gamble, like Amazon’s, paid off big, because Sir Allen, just like Jeff Bezos, saw a gap in the market and he filled it.
Despite protests of renowned authors like George Orwell publicly decrying publishers having anything to do with this new venture—claiming that cheap books would only devalue them and people would cease to read and all of publishing would collapse—Sir Allen plunged ahead with his plan.
Penguin sold three million books the first year in business.
Apparently Sir Allen wasn’t the only one bored wandering train stations with nothing to read.
Penguin launched a non-fiction division, a children’s division, and, with the meteoric rise to fame and success, even made the bold decision to publish DH Lawrence’s banned title from 1928, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, uncensored.
Fifty Shades of WHOA dass crazy!
This decision, of course, landed Sir Allen in court for breaking the Obscene Publications Act 1959. He (Penguin) was acquitted, the publisher sold a bazillion copies, and the rest is history (pretty much repeating itself).
Blogging Across Three Eras
I’ve had the unique challenge/blessing/curse of blogging about publishing since before the rise of digital. I began blogging in the aughts, then into the teens and now will continue into the twenties, assuming I don’t lick any light sockets in the next couple days.
My blogging adventure began on a site called Gather (probably now gathering cyber dust somewhere), then on MySpace. Then, that crashed and burned and I moved to the free WordPress blogging platform, then finally learned my lesson and moved to blogging on my own website.
***Take my blogging class. It’s on sale. Seriously, I did all the dumb stuff so you don’t have to. I will save you YEARS of stupidity.
I blogged about being an ‘aspiring author’ when our prime goal, our ONLY path, was to pass gatekeepers. There WAS no Kindle or Amazon.
Self-publishing was vanity press and meant plunking down over ten grand and all your self-respect and any respect from fellow authors forever and ever AMEN.
Vanity publishing was a death sentence in our industry, unless some stroke of John Grisham luck won you an appeal.
But I blogged on Gather and MySpace that social media WAS going to change the world as we knew it. I asserted that, for the first time in history, novelists had a way of creating an audience BEFORE a novel was even finished, thus vastly increasing odds of success (and was laughed at and y’all know the story).
If you don’t, pick up a copy of my author branding book Rise of the Machines: Human Authors in a Digital World. It’s evergreen.
Platforms change, people don’t. Look up your ex if you don’t believe me 😉 .
Into the Teens
I kept yelling and howling that authors NEEDED to be on social media and was shut out. Kept telling the Big Six to PLEASE listen, that I could HELP them, help their authors.
As of 2011, I even had one of the most legendary agents in NYC representing me for Rise of the Machines, and even HE couldn’t talk reason into them. But, his guidance is part of why that book is so good—OUCH! CRAMP!—so there’s that.
No matter how much I blogged and begged, every prediction came true. Cassandra Syndrome seriously sucks sometimes. And no, I don’t really take pleasure in being right. It would have been nice for the right people to listen (though Amazon tweets my blogs)…sigh.
I don’t begrudge Amazon anything, because if people are going to do dumb business? Bye Felicia. It isn’t good for their authors. Dean Koontz saw that, which is why he signed with Thomas & Mercer.
It really wasn’t until a a few years after Borders closed that the New York publishers seemed to even wake up out of the fugue state and recognize that the Internet might exist (still weren’t ready to admit there was a threat).
In the aughts, we were dealing with the fallout of the dot.com burst, the disintegration of Web 1.0 and the rise of Web 2.0 out of its remains.
Web 2.0 was like a cute pet people fed but no one believed might one day bite back (despite many bloggers warning not to feed it after midnight).
Throughout this past decade, I’ve battled the FREE book boom, the exposure dollar debacle, the blog tour dystopia, and algorithmic alchemy. I’ve spent most of the teens on the front lines.
In the aughts, there was the challenge to get writers to stand up for themselves, to realize they were a business. Now? I’ve spent the past five years reminding them they are WRITERS, not advertising agencies.
A decade and a half dedicated to educating us as artisans. Knowing enough about business to be effective, but remembering why we are here…THE ART.
Penguin is a Footnote, So What Now?
If there is anyone who can grieve Penguin or the change or loss of any of the publishers, I suppose it’s me. I’ve dreamed of being an author since I was a little girl who spent every cent of babysitting money at the closest B.Dalton.
My father loved books, my grandfather, my entire family. I have a first edition copy of Animal Farm I inherited from my Great Aunt Iris.
I started writing my first novel before I even knew how to spell any words. Too bad Amazon wasn’t around then, LOL.
My grandfather has died. In fact, I’ve lost now fifteen members of my family in just over five years (downside of an aging family). A family so large I couldn’t fit them into a picture in 2009, I can now count on one hand.
So I know how hard change and letting go can be. How tough it is to wrap your head around what the future will look like without the staples of the past you’re so accustomed to. What it is to be unmoored.
But, we grew used to a world without the mom-and-pops, the B. Daltons, the Waldenbooks and other small chains and gradually became accustomed to the giant stores. Then they started becoming too much of a hassle as we began shopping more and more on-line.
As more small Amazon stores open and the small indie bookstores boom back to life, we will recalibrate to a new normal. We’ll browse the used bookstores and see those bright (or faded) orange Penguin spines and smile with nostalgia just like when I find a picture of my grandparents and me from back when I was in high school.
Nothing remains the same, which is good. But some things never change, which is also good.
Markets, trends, what people want, tastes and preferences and buying patterns? Those change. It was the publishers JOB to pay attention to that. They owed that to the readers and most of all to the authors they had a contractual obligation to protect and make their product profitable.
The publishers (or rather the multi-media conglomerates who owned them and called the shots) had a duty to shareholders, and they failed.
That’s why they’re falling like a line of dominos. Mergers, sales, and acquisitions are happening far faster now that Barnes & Noble has been sold to a hedge fund because that sale decimated their cash flow.
Large preorders from B&N have been all that’s been keeping the lights on for years…and I have blogged until I am BLUE about how dangerous that was (so that’s enough on that).
Roaring into the 20s
We are writers, thus we tend to be on the nostalgic side. Much of the past fifteen years has been experimentation, growing pains and figuring out what works and what doesn’t, what we like and what we don’t.
Paper isn’t dead. But digital is alive and well. Sir Allen didn’t ditch the luxurious volumes that cost $37, he just made it where those weren’t the ONLY reading option.
People riding a train could get a small pulp copy of Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms to read on a trip.
They had OPTIONS.
Same today. We can buy hard cover, paperback, audio, digital, etc. Maybe we have too many options, but that’s where quality writing and platform come into play.
Modern authors do face many unique challenges, but one major threat—I believe or rather pray—will soon fall away. Profiteers have invaded our profession en mass. There are far too many who are more interested in advertising and marketing than actually learning about story and craft.
This makes discoverability a nightmare, since—with over a million self-published books being released per year—the readers are being buried in Hell’s Slush Pile.
But, if history is any indicator, they will get weary and move on.
There is only so long one can churn out crappy books, work fifteen-hour days juking algorithms, toss out two grand a month only to make back three before you turn in your chips and move on.
I’ve been in this profession a LONG time…which is a lot to say these days. I’ve seen all the scams, all the grifts, all the types come and go. Writers—those of us who are here because we LOVE books, LOVE stories, LOVE to read and the written word and honor and respect the art? We’re hard to get rid of.
Contrary to popular belief, storytelling is the oldest profession 😉 .
We’ve been around since the cave days and we aren’t going anywhere. If we’ve made it through the invention of cave drawings, hieroglyphs, papyrus, the quill, the Gutenberg press, the newspaper, the radio, T.V., movies…Ms. Pac Man?
We will survive and thrive.
So raise a glass, toast to a new adventure, commit to your profession and to doing it honor with your work. Have some fun and ROAR into the TWENTIES!
***Since I have been very ill, I am extending all the holiday sales so y’all can go wild and treat yourselves!
I love hearing from you!
What are your thoughts? Looking forward to the 20s? New Year’s Resolutions? Thoughts on Penguin and the eery similarity to our modern adventures with Amazon?
Makes it all seem not so scary to me. I love hearing from you, especially since I have been sick and away so long. I MISSED Y’ALL!
And to prove it and show my love, for the month of JANUARY, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.
I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages (5K words) of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or fewer).
***I will announce December’s winner once I feel better.
In the meantime, PLEASE treat yourself to a class! We have a TON of classes that we will be deleting or putting into cold storage come mid-January (I’m extending the sales to January 15th since I haven’t been around to tell you about them during the holidays).
These will no longer be available after January 15th, so STOCK UP while you can.
NEW Year, New YOU! ROAR into the TWENTIES!
ON DEMAND Sales!
HIGHLY RECOMMEND–> On Demand: How to Write Deep POV
By #1 Best Selling Author Maria Grace! Normally $55 now $30
ON DEMAND Dark Arts: New Year’s SPECIAL Building Your Villain
Usually $55 and until January 15th is only $30.
Three hours of psychopaths, sociopaths, narcissists, pathology and how that applies to writing.
It is like the Behavioral Analysis Unit for Authors. Tres FUN! Villains are some of the most enduring characters in literature. Why not add your own legends to the list?
I’m also offering:
The Art of Character NEW YEAR’S SPECIAL: Writing Characters for a SERIES ON DEMAND
Normally $65 and NOW only $40.
FOUR hours of training on characters on how to develop characters that that can go the distance.
Bring on the Binge: How to Plot and Write a Series (ON DEMAND).
Normally $65 and NOW only $40. Pairs PERFECTLY with The Art of Character for Series.
ON DEMAND! New Year’s Sale! Story Master: From Dream to DONE
Usually $55, now ONLY $30.
This class is to train you how to plot whether you’re a plotter, a pantser or a mix of both. It’s also a crash course in creating dimensional characters.
On Demand: Beyond Bulletproof Barbie
Usually $55 and now only $25.
This is a THREE-HOUR class on guns, knives, weapons, fighting, law enforcement (from local cops to international espionage) and more. Everything you need to build a bad@$$—male OR female—and get the details CORRECT.
Spilling the New Year’s Tea: On Demand Blogging for Authors
Usually $75 and now only $40.
Get prepped and ready for the new year, new you, new blog.
Bite-Sized Fiction: How to Plot the Novella
Use New20 for $20 off
Popular On Demand Classes
Need some help with platform and branding?
Branding: WHEN YOUR NAME ALONE Can Sell (ON DEMAND)
Use brand10 for $10 off.
For the complete list, go to the OnDemand Section.
***I will add more classes, especially from Maria Grace, in the coming days, as I get stronger.
Great blog. I agree that some things change, but some things stay the same. I’ve noticed a lot of the “bad” writers or “lazy” writers are disappearing. Eventually those of us who write good stories, hire professional editors, and cover artists will eventually prevail.
I hope you get to feeling better. Sorry to hear about your grandfather. Praying your new year is wonderful.
Thank you for this interesting article, Kristen. Just did a quick search of Bertelsmann and trusty old Google informed me that they’ve been in the publishing game since 1835. So I’m resting easy thinking PRH is in good hands.
Hope you’re actually feeling better and not just letting off steam.
Happy the holidays shall be for you and yours, now and into the future.
(If I could make it so…)
An excellent article. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. It made me feel part of a completely worthwhile
community of authors who independently publish their work. Congratulations.
The reference to the promotional/marketing madness that has hit that same community is very apposite. Free books should be regarded as a shame, unless a strict, and short time period is part of whatever offer is on hand. I don’t care if authors think it’s a good idea and will help sales. The fact is, as I see it, it devalues the honesty and effort involved in the production of any half-way decent literary work.
The absolute power of the big house monopolies is fading, and the concept of ‘vanity’ publishing is becoming less of the behind-the-hand smirk that it used to be. However, I wonder. If information technology had not made the production of writing so very easy, and accessible to everyone who has a story to tell or an idea to disseminate, would we have the hundreds of books of questionable quality currently pouring into the pool of independently published (and marketed) works?
Anyway, it’s a very good article, and I recommend it to all my fellow independent authors.
Incidentally, I have one or two of the originally-published Penguin paperbacks. I don’t handle them nowadays, because they have become fragile.
Hope you have a healthy, happy January.
There should be a better way for readers to navigate the Slush Pile… seems like a business opportunity in that for some industrious metadata guru entrepreneur/programmer. I suspect the SP will get worse before it gets better.
Oh Kristen, I am so sorry to hear about all the losses in your family, and pneumonia on top of all that?! Damn…
Thank you for keeping us all in the loop re: Penguin. I had no idea.
Class sales you say? Yes, there was one or two (or five or six) I was interested in.
Feel better soon.
I hope you are feeling well soon. Health is everything (well, ALMOST everything).
Oooo! I can register for your Plotting A Series class in just a few hours! Yipee!
Yes you can 😀 .
Kristen, I just remembered that I’ve tried to reach you twice by email (a reply to your email to me from early 2018). I was on the fence about taking your Art of Character class because of my budget, and you told me that if I signed up for it, you would throw in the on-demand Plotting class for free. I did take the character class (and loved it), but I haven’t seen that free class materialize yet. The last time I emailed you was Nov. 9, 2019, and the subject line was “This is Kristen Lamb” (that’s how you sent the first email to me). Maybe my messages are going to your spam folder?
Nope, just been that sick. Started as bronchitis that turned to pneumonia then the death in family. Email me again so it’s fresh at kristen @ wanaintl.com and I will send it to you.
Hi, Kristen. I’m so sorry about your grandfather, and I’m sorry you’ve been so sick. My dad died several years ago on Dec. 23, so I understand how difficult it makes the holidays (as if we don’t grieve them the rest of the year). I’ve paused and said a prayer for you and your family. I hope you have only wonderful memories of your granddad and that you’re 100 percent well soon. 🙂
Thank you for continuing to call it how you see it, though (and make me laugh, in the process). I attend a monthly book club in a used-book store in my small town, and I’m so glad it’s still there – way down on Main Street where nobody sees it, but it’s there. Long live the independent bookstore!
I’m sorry for the loss of your grandfather. It’s kind of a strange feeling to have the older generations, who are there as our shields against the world when growing up, gradually leave us. Only to discover we’re now the shields for those who follow us. I also hope you’re feeling better. Those Energizer people lied. Dang batteries don’t last that long. At least mine haven’t been lately.
To truly succeed at anything, you have to be a fearless risk-taker. An out-of-the-box thinker is even better. It’s not always a natural fit, but can be learned. Sometimes you start young, because someone else unintentionally made you a rebel. I started writing a book more than 30 years ago now, then set it aside for the last 20. Truth to tell, I’m actually glad I wrote that book now. I started off writing it close to its original format, but I have the bad habit of asking myself questions while cleaning rabbit cages. In the end, I had a totally different animal because I took risks. People ask me what I write. It’s set in 1816 London but it’s anything but a Regency novel, traditional or historical. I did check my facts when I chose not to play the alternate universe card. I pretty much gave up reading books a few years ago, because I could no longer find anything I enjoyed reading. Even from my favorite authors. Corporations are the killers of imagination. Frankie’s song, “My Way” is pretty much my mantra. It didn’t take me very long to decide, even before finishing the first draft, traditional publishing was no longer my dream. It just doesn’t suit my personality. I’m well entrenched in my rebelhood now, and at what point do you decide to take a chance on yourself? If you wait until life is perfect, you’ll miss the opportunity.
Get well soon!
Ready to herald in a new month, new year and new decade all in a single swoop? Yes, ma’am. I am.
Thanks for keeping us in the loop about changes in publishing. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Storytelling, the oldest profession indeed.
Take care of yourself.
Wonderful post as always, drugs or not. In it’s own way a message to keep writing good words because cream always rises to the top. Thanks for the impetus. And kind wishes to you at this time of sadness. Also, rest and regird. We need a coach yelling from the rooftops! Happy New Year, Kristen.
Well, last things first. I hope you’re feeling better soon! It’s bad enough being sick without having all the social obligations and stresses of the holidays. Much less travel. UGH.
This year, I am revising my current novel (Holly Lisle’s HTRYN as a guide) because my husband has insisted I learn to revise rather than just keep writing novels and sticking them under my bed like some deranged Emily Dickinson. (He’s right, but don’t tell him that! He’ll think I’m pulling out all of my hair for effect.)
Thanks to your Rise of the Machines, I have hit 400 hundred posts on my blog. This is HUGE for me because it means I’ve been blogging three times a week, every week, without fail, for 2 1/2 years. I didn’t think I’d last the month, honestly. I’m not the most interesting blogger, but when it comes up in conversation that I write, I have a blog, I have a business card with my blog on it, I have a professional email address, and I can smile and say, yes, I’d love for you to visit. 🙂
So, thank you for your vision of what writing could be in the future, what it can be now, and how we can leave past mistakes behind us. <3
So sorry for your loss and hope you’ll get better soon. Just a note to thank you for keeping us informed and to wish you a good – better- New Year.
Kristen, you are awesome, what else can I say but thank you so much for your vast, brilliant perspectives? That and please get well bloody damn soon!!! We need you.
Awesome post as always, Kristen! Hope you start to feel better soon. <3 I'm very much looking forward to 2020, and hopefully the demise of all the "get rich quick" folks on Amazon – I too plan to be here a long, long time.
Take care and here’s to a better 2020!
I hadn’t heard about this until your post, so it’s not the drugs. I’m so sorry about your grandfather!
Good, because I was beginning to think I was going crazy!
And thank you for the condolences. He was 93 so he lived a good long life. Just he was very robust and Lambs live a VERY long time. He’d been planning for Christmas so we had not expected this. It was a shock. I was very sad because I had pneumonia and couldn’t attend his funeral. I showed to give flowers but didn’t stay for fear I’d be contagious. Sad times. It’s been a long month, so thank you.
Nothing to read while at a train station… what an image that gave me. What a great time to read… waiting for a train, on a train… In So Cal where I now live it’s podcasts or radio while driving 3 mph in all-day rush-hour traffic. I don’t like audiobooks.
My prediction, a huge audience soon for awesome 99 cent online short stories. But first, you do have to build somewhat of an audience.
Love your blog. Looking forward to your blogging class.
Grief fades somewhat, but always there. Sometimes, eventually, can inspire. Sorry, your grandpa passed.
I am so sorry for your loss, Kristen. And no, you are not going crazy. I did not know about Penguin. I don’t think this was well publicized. Happy New Year to you and your beautiful family. I’m welcoming 2020 with open arms as we say goodbye to another decade. The best is yet to come. XO. (2nd comment and am not sure if my first comment went).
Great article and thanks for the heads up on the changes! I’m finishing the first draft of my first WIP and was getting around to thinking about the whole traditional publishing vs. self-publishing thing when I came across this article on twitter.
Roaring into the Twenties indeed!
You called all this shizz! And yes, I still lurk. 🙂
I’m so sorry you are still dealing with so much loss. Hugs to.you and I hope the pneumonia is all the way in your rearview mirror.