Essay Steve Wasserman

What Simon & Schuster’s Acquisition Would Mean for American Publishing

If past experience is a useful guide to the future, we need not overly fear such imperial mergers and acquisitions.
[Dan DeLuca / CC BY 2.0]

By Steve Wasserman / Original to ScheerPost

The recent news that Bertelsmann, the German owner of the publishing empire PenguinRandomHouse, has made an all-cash offer of $2 billion to acquire Simon & Schuster, continues the relentless conglomeration that has marked global publishing for the past forty-plus years. If approved, the deal will leave only four gigantic publishing enterprises dominating the landscape of American publishing. The prospect is thought by some to pose a threat to the nation’s delicate ecology of literary and cultural life. Considerable alarm over the fate of the so-called mid-list book and a further contracting of diversity in the marketplace is widespread. How real are these fears?

The predicament facing us is best understood against the longstanding backdrop of at least two overlapping and contending crises: the first is the profound structural transformation that has for some decades been roiling the entire book-publishing and book-selling industry in an age of conglomeration and digitization; the second is the sea change in the culture of literacy itself, the degree to which our overwhelmingly fast and visually furious culture renders serious reading increasingly irrelevant, hollowing out the habits of attention indispensable for absorbing long-form narrative and the following of sustained and serious argument. These crises, taken together, have profound implications, not least for the effort to create an informed citizenry so necessary for a thriving democracy. The moral and cultural imperative is plain, but there may also be a much-overlooked commercial opportunity for the plethora of smaller, independent publishers who will likely be a chief beneficiary.

The struggle for market dominance, impelled by the continuing threat posed by Amazon, is, for many smaller publishers, akin to the internecine battles mounted by the gods on Mt. Olympus. If past experience is a useful guide to the future, we need not overly fear such imperial mergers and acquisitions. Indeed, even a cursory glance at the landscape of contemporary American bookselling and publishing makes it hard not to believe we are living at the apotheosis of our culture. Never before in the whole of human history has more good literature, attractively presented, sold for still-reasonable low prices, been available to so many people. Diversity, in all realms, is increasingly the watchword guiding publishing decisions as the readership expands and demands to be heard. In a word, all publishers understand that profits are to be had by appealing to an insurgent millennial culture even as the old habits die. Today, you would need several lifetimes over doing nothing but lying prone in a semi-darkened room with only a lamp for illumination just to make your way through the good books that are on offer. There is money to be made in culture and victory will go to those publishers, whether large or small, who are nimble and imaginative enough to take advantage of the opportunities that lie all around them.

I don’t underestimate the challenges. But I am no Cassandra. It would be a mistake to regard the quartet of publishing behemoths that will remain after the likely approval of the Bertelsmann acquisition of Simon & Schuster, as synonymous with the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Opportunities abound. It’s almost enough to give one hope.

Steve Wasserman
Steve Wasserman

Steve Wasserman, raised in Berkeley and a graduate of Cal, is Heyday’s publisher and executive director. He is a former editor-at-large for Yale University Press and editorial director of Times Books/Random House and publisher of Hill & Wang and The Noonday Press at Farrar, Straus & Giroux. A founder of the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities at the University of Southern California, Wasserman was a principal architect of the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books during the nine years he served as editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review (1996–2005). 

13 comments

  1. Thank you for these much need words of encouragement. It appears the literary world is alive and well.

  2. of little importance in a nation where according to the US dept of education 6% of adults read 1 book per year

  3. Your enthusiasm not withstanding, this merger seems eerily familiar to the rationale proffered in the mega-mergers in other sectors., i.e, it will improve quality, be more efficent and lower costs. However, just the opposite always seems to be the end result.

  4. Thanks for your pithy analytical summary from which I learned quite a bit.

  5. My critics have misunderstood my analysis. I regret I wasn’t more clear. Let’s try again: Make no mistake, I base my analysis not on “hope” but on the measurable evidence of the past forty years and more. These decades saw enormous acquisitions, mergers, and wholesale conglomeration. Fears that the resulting monopolies would enfeeble and constrain the sorts of books being published, reduce the diversity of authorial voices, and diminish the number of independent publishing houses, proved wrong. Nor did the emergence of the Internet hobble independent publishers or authors. Indeed, the opposite occurred. The number of titles exploded. Competition for diverse voices is now more intense than ever. Independent houses are flourishing. Nor am I in the “pocket of big publishing.” I left so-called mainstream publishing to head a forty-year old independent nonprofit in Berkeley and took a substantial pay cut to do so. My view is based on my experience and an analysis of the numbers. It is neither a sentimental nor a moralizing approach. Finally, that “serious imaginative writing in the US has been marginalized and largely unread for nearly 40 years” may well be true. But the reasons have to do with the general devolution of our literary culture and the marginal place that serious reading occupy in it. Publishers, big and small, have sought since Gutenberg to bring serious literature to readers. They fill–and will continue to fill–the trough of literature with admirable dedication, but, alas, too few readers bother to drink from it.

    1. While I fail to see any admiral qualities of big publishers, I do regret reacting so rashly in my comment. I’m sure you’re not in the pocket of big publishing. Honestly, I’m not that familiar with your work and I believe you’re doing your best to bring light to the dark. My apologies.

      1. After further thought, I think it’s virtually impossible to survive in this society without being in the pockets of the robber barons, whether directly or indirectly. We need solutions.

  6. the amerikan religion of “free enterprise”—far more innovation existed in USSR than at any time in USA—observed by everyone from Kojeve, Zinoviev Merleua-Ponty to H Bruce Franklin…u read Groucho, not Karl…he never claimed monopoly was more efficient. Rather he claimed the reverse; amerikan fascism over-produces, not for need but so that u can keep up w the jones…of course capitalism is “inverted totalitarianism” (Sheldon Wolin), where freedom/justice are despised…USA fully comports w Robert Michel’s “iron rule of oligarchy”—Michel was not a Marxist
    “inadvertent consequences” regards all societies
    Marx’s critique of capitalism has been demonstrated to be essentially correct, something even admitted by Fukuyama. It was Lenin to observed that capitalism could extend itself via imperialism/empire. there r many forms of “capitalism”–anglo vs Rhine model, etc. efficiency is less important than creative work and quality. amerikan capitalism rewards garbage–planned obsolescence, consumerism, oligarchic corruption.
    Both Herzen and Bakunin were more correct than Marx in emphasis and prediction; this does not render much of his analysis false however

  7. the amerikan religion of “free enterprise”—far more innovation existed in USSR than at any time in USA—observed by everyone from Kojeve, Zinoviev Merleua-Ponty to H Bruce Franklin…u read Groucho, not Karl…he never claimed monopoly was more efficient. Rather he claimed the reverse; amerikan fascism over-produces, not for need but so that u can keep up w the jones…of course capitalism is “inverted totalitarianism” (Sheldon Wolin), where freedom/justice are despised…USA fully comports w Robert Michel’s “iron rule of oligarchy”—Michel was not a Marxist
    “inadvertent consequences” regards all societies
    Marx’s critique of capitalism has been demonstrated to be essentially correct, something even admitted by Fukuyama. It was Lenin to observed that capitalism could extend itself via imperialism/empire. there r many forms of “capitalism”–anglo vs Rhine model, etc. efficiency is less important than creative work and quality. amerikan capitalism rewards garbage–planned obsolescence, consumerism, oligarchic corruption.
    Both Herzen and Bakunin were more correct than Marx in emphasis and prediction; this does not render much of his analysis false howe

  8. the amerikan religion of “free enterprise”—far more innovation existed in USSR than at any time in USA—observed by everyone from Kojeve, Zinoviev Merleua-Ponty to H Bruce Franklin…u read Groucho, not Karl…he never claimed monopoly was more efficient. Rather he claimed the reverse; amerikan fascism over-produces, not for need but so that u can keep up w the jones…of course capitalism is “inverted totalitarianism” (Sheldon Wolin), where freedom/justice are despised…USA fully comports w Robert Michel’s “iron rule of oligarchy”—Michel was not a Marxist
    “inadvertent consequences” regards all societies
    Marx’s critique of capitalism has been demonstrated to be essentially correct, something even admitted by Fukuyama. It was Lenin to observed that capitalism could extend itself via imperialism/empire. there r many forms of “capitalism”–anglo vs Rhine model, etc. efficiency is less important than creative work and quality. amerikan capitalism rewards garbage–planned obsolescence, consumerism, oligarchic corruption.
    Both Herzen and Bakunin were more correct than Marx in emphasis and prediction; however this does not render much of his analysis false

  9. homogenous thinking and monopoly produce the lowest common denominator. the existence of small irrelevant publishers matter little when distribution is controlled by technicians that serve power as Hofstadter described US academics and corporations/chain operations. the extraordinary lack of curiosity amongst amerikans—the hive mind—has made literature and true scholarship largely irrelevant in amerika

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