You’ll sometimes hear—in person and all over social media—people talking derisively about the “Big Five” as though they were the devil incarnate. There are several accusations that typically go along with the tirade, but the most common seem to be “They’re a monopoly!” and “They’re gatekeepers!”
I’m not here to defend the Big Five (Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette Book Group, and Macmillan) because (a) they certainly don’t need any help from me, and (b) they’re all large, world-wide media corporations, with all the complexity—good & bad—that goes along with that. Saying the Big Five are all wonderful would be as shortsighted as saying they’re all bad. (However, I will venture that among the broad classes of entertainment/media industries*—film, music, and books—the publishing industry as a whole probably gets the highest marks when it comes to fundamental honesty and idealism. Which, again, isn’t to say they’re perfect.)
*Hunter S. Thompson reportedly said, “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side.” And while he did say it, his original quote was actually about the TV business. Which only strengthens the overall point.
I’m more here to address some commonly held beliefs (including the two mentioned above… both of which I’ve heard frequently on book tour and seen countless times online). Because holding outdated or incorrect beliefs—especially those that cast you in the role of hapless victim—can only hold you back as you strive for success in your chosen arena.
Let’s start with the first one because it’s pretty cut and dried—the numbers are right there for anyone who wishes to look. The first sentence of PRH’s ‘Imprints’ page reads: “Penguin Random House is the international home to nearly 275 editorially and creatively independent publishing imprints.” Obviously there’s no way any given project is going to fit all—or even most—of these, as each imprint has its own focus and flavor. But still, there’s a lot of choice here. (There are around thirty separate kidlit imprints alone just within PRH.)
Not all of the Big Five have 275 imprints (PRH being the biggest of the big) but it’s probably fair to say that between the five of them there are on the order of 500 separate imprints. And don’t forget about all the other large publishers. The “Next Five”—Scholastic, Disney/Hyperion, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Workman, and Sterling—are each significant enterprises with multiple imprints. And the “many under one roof” paradigm doesn’t end there. Sourcebooks—a Chicago-based independently owned publisher which recently cracked the Top 20—has ten or so imprints of its own.
And beyond all this, many of your favorite independent publishers have distribution deals with one of the Big Five, leveraging the bigger publisher’s ability to get the indie’s books into bookstores, schools, and libraries nationwide. I mean, why not? That’s obviously one of the benefits to the author of being affiliated with a Big Five imprint. Why shouldn’t a smaller indie avail itself of some of that same bookish horsepower? Win-win.
So, the “Monopoly of Big Publishing” in actuality may be on the order of 1000 separate publishing imprints, all things considered. Hardly a paucity of choice, editorially or otherwise. And although it’s probably a subject for another post, the short take is that most of these imprints really do function as independent publishers, as least as far as editorial choices (i.e. which books they choose to acquire, etc.), and rely on the parent company for the bigger admin tasks like publicity, sales, marketing, etc.
Regarding the concept of gatekeeping… I suppose it depends on your definition of the term. If you mean there’s an evil troll at the bridge keeping you out because he simply doesn’t like you, or because he simply doesn’t recognize brilliant writing when he sees it, well… we’re going to have to agree to disagree.
But if you mean that the company that: (1) pays the author for the rights to the book, (2) pays for the editorial staff, and (3) art direction, and (4) copyediting, and (5,6,7) publicity and sales and marketing, along with (8) paying to have the books themselves physically printed and (9) distributed to the point of sale… if you mean those people actually deign to choose which products they buy and market, well, then yes, I suppose you could say they’re gatekeeping.
Although to me this seems akin to accusing Costco of gatekeeping when they choose which brands of ice cream they wish to sell in their stores. I mean yes, they do make a choice. As does everyone in every business where the goal is keeping customers happy and keeping the lights on.
(I’d say if a publisher doesn’t do any gatekeeping*, they may be a printer, not a publisher, and you may be paying them instead of the other way around. In violation of Yog’s Law.)
*Check this list from SFWA (paying particular attention to #5).
Well, as authors, we have the power of business choices too.
Our choices include either creating a product that’s targeted at a specific business, or creating the best work we can and then finding a good fit for it within the marketplace. (And as counter-intuitive as it may seem, the latter may be the better path in the long run.) Or, you have the option of bypassing any sort of middleman and taking your work directly to the market yourself. All valid choices, and all can lead to success… whatever that means for you. The only choice I’d recommend against is choosing to believe that someone out there is somehow keeping you down. That’s a no-win belief… especially these days, when there are so many options available to us.
Including the Big Five Hundred… and beyond.
It’s up to you to discover where you—and your work—might best fit.
One of the hardest things about being a writer (assuming aspirations of publishing success and all the baggage around that) has little to do with the writing itself. It has everything to do with the difficulties of pushing forward with your writing efforts when you’re emotionally drained from the sustained lack of success. (Notice I didn’t call this “failure.” There’s an important distinction which we’ll get to.)
There’s a story (having every earmark of being apocryphal, except that it’s true) told by the famous collegiate running coach, Jack Daniels. He was coaching a talented distance runner, whom he took to an international track meet in South America. (IIRC the event in question was the men’s 5000 meter race.) Shortly after the start it became clear Jack’s student was outclassed by the international field. He fell further and further behind, until he was half a lap or more behind the rest of the pack. Totally disheartened, as he passed his coach he asked if he could drop out. Coach Daniels told him that as long as he ran up and caught the leader first, he could drop out. The runner then sprinted to catch up to the pack, knowing that once he reached them he could bail out and rest. However, it took him so long to catch up that by the time he passed the leader the race was almost over, so he hung in there and won the whole thing.
Wow. There are a lot of lessons in this story.
In distance running, the mind usually gives up long before the runner actually has to. (It’s thought this is a “governor” effect built into the brain, to keep us from hurting ourselves, and that one of the reasons elite runners are successful is that they’ve learned to override this governor.) I’ve experienced both sides of this (which is another post) but there’s also an interesting complementary phenomenon I call the “finish line effect.” This manifests when you’re totally fatigued and out of gas near the end of a long effort (like, say, 26 miles into a 26.2 mile marathon), and suddenly you see the finish line up ahead – finally! – and the fatigue magically lifts and you find you actually have something left in the tank after all and you’re able to finish strong.
The overarching lesson for us here is that fatigue is largely a mental construct. That doesn’t mean the effects of it aren’t real. They certainly are. But maybe—armed with this information—when we feel fatigued after a long effort without the results we hoped for, we can realize we don’t necessarily have to follow that little voice telling us to give up… to give in… to quit.
The “effort vs. results” equation isn’t fixed, it’s a continuum. Occasionally (very rarely, in my experience) someone actually hits the jackpot on their very first effort (whether first manuscript, first query, or first submission). But for the vast majority of us, it’s a long uphill slog. Probably multiple manuscripts (some abandoned mid-stream, some unpolished first drafts, some finished but in need of further revision & editing, and a few driven all the way to submittal-worthy completion). Probably multiple queries for each finished manuscript. And unless the manuscript in question falls into the “fully baked” category, you may go through multiple submissions without a positive response from an agent (or editor, as the case may be). And once you do get representation, the whole query/sub process starts over, trying to find that editor who is looking for exactly what you’re offering, at the time you’re offering it.
So yeah… perhaps multiple manuscripts, perhaps over multiple years, without a “yes.”
Some things to keep in mind along the way…
1. This isn’t failure. This is what success looks like… from the middle of the process.
2. This is absolutely the norm. I’ve heard tons of ‘author origin stories,’ and they’re almost all some version of this.
3. “Success” is probably not the best choice of immediate goal, as you will very likely become very discouraged very quickly. Instead, the initial goals should be to:
(a) improve your craft, to the point where you are able to…
(b) draft/revise/edit/polish a really strong manuscript.
(I’ve said before that in my opinion probably 90% of success hinges on this—having a really strong manuscript before you take any further steps.)
4. Somewhere along the way, this process may begin to look like failure to you. It’s not. (See #1.) But if you let the process discourage you to the point of quitting, then—and only then—does it become failure.
5. Realize there’s a finish line out there somewhere, waiting for you. You just don’t know how far away it is. Guess what? No one else does, either. What you do know—and what you should keep top-of-mind when you feel “failure fatigue”—is that the only way anyone ever got to the finish line was through sustained, incremental forward movement. (Remember, the best remedy for rejection is writing.)
6. And of course, once you get there, the finish line is really just another starting line. That’s the way it works. For everyone. So…
7. Enjoy the process! If you don’t love the actual act of sitting down at your desk—alone, for hours—and crafting the story in your mind into words on the page, then you may be in the wrong line of work. Because, really, all we have 100% control over is the work itself.
This is where I write about things that are of interest to me and which I think may be of interest to you. I’m assuming most of you are here due to an interest in reading, writing, editing, publishing, etc., so that’s the primary focus.