February 17, 2018

Penguin Random: Bigger Is Better—Or Not | PubCrawl

My favorite comment on the merger of Penguin and Random House was in an Op Ed in the New York Times. “[M]aybe Random Penguin, as a few wags have suggested, would have been a more apt name.” (The name was widely tweeted and depicted as well.) I can see the image in my own mind, an even more eccentric-looking penguin than Penguin’s own, looking around with a slightly drunken gaze. It is so much more satisfying than the temporary logo, the penguin adjacent to the current Random House logo—a central house with two wings, presumably representing Random and Bantam Doubleday Dell (BDD), with which it was merged in 1998.

But however preferable the Random Penguin may be as an image, there is nothing “random” about the merger.

On one level it acknowledges the globalization of publishing—or at least the aspiration toward globalization—by bringing together both publishers’ various imprints and international divisions. On another level, it posits that bigger is better: a good old American concept, though Bertelsmann, the German conglomerate that owns Random House, is now 53 percent owner of the new entity. And perhaps most important, it creates a counterweight to Amazon’s growing influence and power in both the print and ebook world.

As someone who has worked in a company owned by a multinational corporation (LJ was previously part of Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier), I have found that “bigger is better” doesn’t always pan out. Corporate boards believe that the bottom line will benefit when back-end functions are combined, streamlining processes (and ultimately eliminating jobs). However, the core business often winds up getting compacted as well. While such combinations work for certain processes, they don’t necessarily fit the cottage-industry functions of book publishing–acquiring, editing, and getting the word out about books. Some things just can’t be put on an assembly line.

When Random and BDD became “big” Random 15 years ago, many worried about the survival of literary culture and the shrinking of outlets for authors. We couldn’t imagine the proliferation of self-publishing and ebooks that was coming, or the influence of social media on publishing and popular culture. But as much as popular literature is thriving, so is literary culture, here and abroad.

Nevertheless, there has been a diminution of literary fiction published by big houses, said LJ’s Barbara Hoffert, Prepub Alert doyenne and longtime literary fiction editor. When she came to LJ in 1986, more literary fiction was being published by big houses; now a larger percentage comes from small presses. While she is a strong supporter of small presses, she worries that they simply don’t have the resources to bring great literary titles to our attention the same way big houses can.

Traditional publishers like Penguin Random not only have the wherewithal to market new titles, literary and otherwise, they also, as one editor put it, “can manage book writing talent. Amazon doesn’t make authors’ books better. They look at algorithms.” The value that editors from traditional houses bring to the publishing process can’t be ­underestimated.

On the library front, the Random Penguin merger may be cause for some celebration, regarding both ebooks and library marketing. “Like many, I would love to see Penguin adopt Random House’s more library-friendly policies,” said Stephanie Chase, Director of Library Programs and Services at Seattle Public Library.

Random’s prices for ebooks may be high, but it has been at the forefront of “selling” titles to libraries through its ebook vendors—with simultaneous ebook and print release. Last year, Random House’s Skip Dye went on record with LJ, saying, “Random House’s often repeated and always consistent position [is] this: when libraries buy their RH, Inc. ebooks from authorized library wholesalers, it is our position that they own them…. It is not a license.”

Penguin has taken a much more restrictive route, only this April releasing its ebooks simultaneously with print, at retail prices—for a one-year lease, not in perpetuity.

As for marketing, for 23 years now Random has had a dedicated library marketing department on the adult side. Without casting aspersions on the stellar professionals at Penguin library marketing, they need more support—and more opportunities to be visible and active. “We’re able to do so much more with galleys, with visiting authors, because of the ease of contacting the RH team,” Chase told me. “I would love to see the Penguin field reps engage with libraries the way RH has asked their field reps to.” She said RH reps have helped target galleys to certain staff, especially readers’ advisors; had authors create content for library blogs prior to their appearances; and held mini–book buzzes for library staff, many of whom can’t attend ALA or BEA.

It’s way too soon to expect change—the two houses became one on July 1 and couldn’t move forward legally before then, said Stuart Applebaum, former head of RH communications, who now heads global and U.S. communications for the new company. Thus, “for the foreseeable future…current distinct and separate policies and terms” regarding libraries will remain in place. Nevertheless, he said, “When it comes to libraries…our underlying philosophies…are like-minded. Penguin and Random House both are staunchly pro-library.”

Applebaum went on to say that the way ahead would be a collaboration between the RH and Penguin library teams, together reaching out to the library community “for their views and recommendations about our respective best practices…. [We want] to get it right for all parties.”I for one am looking forward optimistically to some of the changes, especially as they affect libraries.

Francine Fialkoff

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Francine Fialkoff About Francine Fialkoff

Francine Fialkoff (ffialkoff@gmail.com) spent 35 years with LJ, and 15 years at its helm as Editor and Editor-in-Chief. For more, see her Farewell Editorial.