What Is Happening In Publishing?

Hello everyone, it’s your Publishing Auntie Jenn, here to sit next to you as we all wonder: What is going on with publishing right now? The general answer is “a lot.” Let’s get the housekeeping out of the way: I do not have any insider information, just almost 20 years of experience working in publishing in varying capacities and a willingness to play “connect the dots” with the information we do have (special shout-out to Publishers Weekly, whose reporting is invaluable to this piece). Full disclosure: I am a co-editor of speculative fiction anthologies that are published by Vintage, so I have a personal stake in PRH specifically. Onwards!

Two big news stories dropped the week of January 30th: Madeline McIntosh, the CEO of Penguin Random House, is leaving the company, and HarperCollins, who have (finally!) started negotiations with strikers, announced that they would be cutting 5% of their North American employees by June 30th, starting immediately. Given that layoffs and unions are big news right now across job sectors, we’ll start there.

HarperCollins has had a lot of press in late 2022 into 2023, mostly surrounding the union members striking for higher pay for entry-level employees (an extremely reasonable demand given that those employees have to reside in the actual most expensive city in the world), as well as much-needed diversification of the workforce and union security. The strike began in November, and folks on all sides are eager to see a resolution. News of mediation talks came on January 25th, just five days before the layoff memo. The memo from CEO Brian Murray to employees attributes the layoffs to the normalization (my word choice) of book sales, which spiked dramatically during the start and height of the COVID-19 pandemic and are now returning to pre-pandemic levels. HarperCollins is not an outlier in struggling to respond to that sales decline — everyone in publishing, including Riot New Media, was taken by surprise by the sales surge, and none of us correctly predicted how long it would last, or how far it would recede now that we are in the pandemic doldrums, dealing with inflation and concerns about recession, and seeing the impact of COVID-19-boom hiring on a swathe of businesses. HarperCollins specifically blamed Amazon for falling revenue in the Fall of 2022, which just goes to show that everyone who has been yelling about how beholden the Big 5 publishers have become on the Big A is correct. (Monopolies are bad, y’all.) The announcement stands in stark contrast to the record profits they logged in the past few years.

In a related “baby steps” move, Hachette Book Group just announced that they’re raising their starting-level salary to $47,500. This puts them above everyone but Simon & Schuster, whose base rate is $50,000, which is the number that the striking HarperCollins employees are asking for. (As a point of comparison, if you were making $50,000 in Chicago, the equivalent cost-of-living salary in NYC is $100,615. Having personally lived in NYC on around $50,000 a year, I can assure you that it was just barely enough to cover my half of rent in a two-bedroom apartment in Queens, eat out occasionally, and make interest-only payments on my student loans.)

To repeat, HarperCollins is not the only one experiencing this economic crunch, but is currently under the microscope, and at the time of writing is the only Big 5 publisher to announce layoffs.* HarperCollins is also the only one of the Big 5 Publishers with a union, although there are independent presses like The New Press which are unionized, and others have attempted it (most recently Skyhorse in 2017). The overall picture is of a large publisher floundering both economically and strategically. And with COVID-19 spotlighting inequities in the United States, from poverty-level wages to access to medical care to police brutality and beyond, it’s hard not to view these developments as the tip of the publishing reckoning iceberg.

PRH’s struggles are also of strategic variety, revealed by high-profile resignations that started with global CEO Markus Dohle, followed by Random House Publishing Group publisher and president Gina Centrello, and most recently PRH US CEO Madeline McIntosh. No matter how much of a book person you are, these names may be deeply unfamiliar to you, and that’s not just fine but expected — unless you work for them, there’s no reason you should know who they are. What’s important to know is that these are long-time PRH higher-ups with decades-long careers in publishing. Dohle’s departure is speculated to be related to the failed merger of PRH and Simon & Schuster, given that the announcement followed close behind the blocking of the merger in federal court. Centrello and McIntosh’s departures were both explained as personal decisions that would help make space for new leaders, but PW wonders (as do I) how much of this is failed-merger fallout, especially given comments made by Dohle during trial testimony.

The potential merger of PRH and S&S itself was a topic of hot speculation and divided opinions in publishing. While most folks I talked to were of the same opinion as myself and those who testified in the court hearings that it would be very bad for authors specifically and the publishing ecosystem overall, others were concerned that there might not be another buyer for S&S, leading to the sell-off and potential shut-down of its imprints. And with long-time leaders stepping away from PRH, additional uncertainty is added to the mix. What will it mean for the staff and imprints of PRH? Will it allow for fresh perspective (and perhaps a more diverse leadership roster)? Will it redirect energy away from initiatives introduced during the last few years that were aimed towards making the industry more equitable? Will it do both of those things plus some other stuff that I can’t think of right now?

We can’t know until we know, of course. But the impact of the uncertainty on the publishing industry is pretty clear right now: authors are deeply concerned about shrinking advances and brick-and-mortar stocking; employees are faced with continuing overwork and underpay while waiting for the potential other shoe to drop; pundits (it me?) are punditing; and everyone is waiting to see what the reading market will do next. 

*Pushkin Industries, Malcolm Gladwell’s audio company, has also laid off employees. They are part of the publishing sector, but not a major publishing house. Layoffs have also made news in the media and tech sectors. Matthew Yglesias noted in a deep-dive well worth your time that the numbers are actually quite limited compared to other sectors that get less attention, and could be a sign of improvements in the economy overall.