DOJ vs Randy Penguin Soap Opera Continues

It’s going to be a while before we hear the final verdict–and probable appeals–in the tale of Penguin Random House’s desire to “merge” with Simon & Schuster. What we’re getting in the meantime is a ringside seat to the lengths those folks at Randy Penguin and their hand-picked editors and agents (yes, agents) will go to make traditional publishing even smaller. Frankly, there’s not enough popcorn to get through the trial and I know my IQ drops every time I read some of the so-called justifications for the merger.

One of Randy Penguin’s so-called justifications for the merger centers on Amazon and on self-publishing. Now, the Amazon part shouldn’t come as a surprise to any of us. After all, Amazon is the big evil in the minds of so many in traditional publishing, even though much of publishing’s problems can and should be laid directly at the feet of the publishing houses. As for self-publishing, Randy Penguin doesn’t like the fact authors like Brandon Sanderson–who still traditionally publishes–can go to Kickstarter and finance the publication of books that for whatever reason didn’t go to the publisher.


What this really shows is Randy Penguin wants to put every author like myself out of business because we dare look at their so-called gatekeepers and say “Nope, you aren’t getting your hands on my books. I’ll let the readers be the gatekeepers instead.”

I rarely agree with anything coming from management from Macmillan, but I do agree with this statement:

“Less competition is going to change the dynamic. Two of the major players becoming one—the prices, the advances, the type of competition at the auctions—I think it’ll have impact across the board,” Macmillan CEO Don Weisberg testified in federal court on August 8. “If I’m an agent and there’s one player that’s bigger than everyone else, I think that will have an impact. You’ll have to change your behavior to deal with that.”

When it came time for certain agents and authors to take the stand, one of the bits that stood out for me came from John Glusman (publisher at Norton):

 [H]e didn’t believe the merger would hurt advances, quipped that the Big Five “regularly overpay for books” and that Norton is impacted directly “because we end up losing authors. We don’t overpay for books. We pay on the basis of what we project for sales.” In his opinion, midlist authors will be harmed by the proposed merger.

Left unsaid is they overpay for books that are from the right celebrity or political figure or that they think will be the next best thing in fiction and that often, if not rarely, earn out. But it isn’t those authors who wind up being hurt by the overpaying of advances but the mid-listers. But let’s go ahead and let the Randy Penguin take over another major house so they can overpay even more advances and hurt even more authors who don’t have the “name” or the “cause”.

One of the most laughable comments came from author Charles Duhigg, who is published by Randy Penguin.

“If this merger goes through,” he said, “I believe PRH wants to make the world a better place for writers. The thing I know about Andy Ward and PRH is that they love authors and want to give us the freedom to write what we want to write.”

As long as you aren’t writing conservative non-fiction or fiction that doesn’t tick off all the social checklists set by the publisher.

But, if you listen to Randy Penguin, you’ll hear how it wants to help the authors. So does Simon & Schuster. Before buying into that, consider this from an author who published with the Randy one until recently:

[S]he told me that the marketing and publicizing of midlist authors has already diminished significantly during her career. “Five years ago, when I was debuting, I had an advance that was smallish but standard for a new author at my imprint, and I got marketing and publicity to match,” she shared. “By 2020, the publisher support had almost entirely evaporated for me and so many other midlist authors that I know, both at my imprint and elsewhere.”

This author believes that PRH’s marketing and publicity departments were explicitly told to deprioritize her imprint’s books, and worries what that could mean for the authors at S&S whose imprints might soon be acquired.

Sound familiar?

Here, however, is the quote we should all remember and take note of the next time we decide to submit to a publisher and they offer an advance. According to Jon Karp, CEO for Simon & Schuster, $100k is really nothing more than a “rather small advance”. That sound you just heard was the sound of thousands of authors’ jaws hitting the floor and then running off to check their last advance before shouting “Liar, liar, pants on fire!”

Read this entire thread. It shows the lie to what Karp said and one has to wonder if, as Saintcrow mused, he actually has no clue what his own house pays authors or if he committed perjury. Either way, heaven help S&S.

Stay turned. Keep the popcorn handy. If the DOJ wins, you know the publishers will appeal. If the publishers win, it is possible the DOJ will appeal. No matter what happens, we haven’t heard the end of it.

53 thoughts on “DOJ vs Randy Penguin Soap Opera Continues

  1. I’m wondering if he got that “rather small advance” number by dividing the total paid in advances by the number of authors receiving an advance.

    Or he’s a lying moron. Your choice.

    We need MORE publishing houses, not fewer. There’s a reason why all the big B&M book stores are now tchotchke stores that also have some books – they’re only getting books from the Big 5, and the selection is very limited.

    1. Even if the first option is what he did, I think his math skills must be worse than mine. My guess is the latter and, if I’m right, I really, really want to see him having to explain before a jury of authors not in his pocket how he “misspoke”.

      You’re absolutely right about needing more publishing house and not fewer. We also need publishers who are more interested in making a profit than they are in “educating” the public into thinking and acting in accordance with their sense of “right”.

      1. From what I am seeing, trad pub as a whole is a small and shrinking pie, compared to what it was even in ’05. There is still money there, and resources… If, that is, you are a name. They’ve made a lot of very bad bets in the last few decades. Not least of which was the ‘zon and ebooks.

        I’d like to see a practical alternative to the ‘zon rise. Sure there are alternatives. But they’re not quite there yet. You don’t get near as many potential customers.

      2. Thing is, a lot of these publishers think that they will make a profit by producing books with the “right” opinions, because they live in the Manhattan bubble where 90% of the people they interact with have the “right” opinions and the other 10% know to keep their mouths shut.

      3. My little town doesn’t have a dedicated book store; back when I was buying paper books, we had to drive 10 or 20 miles to get to that kind of store.

        Most of my new-book purchases were from spinner racks in drugstores or variety stores, and the shelves in the magazine sections in Wal-Mart and the grocery stores.

        I haven’t been in Wal-Mart in five or six years, so I have no idea what’s going on there. But the spinner racks went away, even in 7-11s and gas stations, back in the 20th century. And the grocery store I use doesn’t sell magazines or books any more.

        So, that’s your tradpub brick-and-mortar market penetration, at least where I live: zero.

    2. Embracing the power of “And”, he’s a lying moron who doesn’t know what his company pays out for advances. I’ve been hearing that $2K is the advance established midlist people are getting.

      It’s true that some people whose initials are HRC or BHO are getting millions in advances while their books are showing up by the tractor-trailer load at remainders shops. But for every one of them there are hundreds and hundreds getting the two-K-or-less advance.

      But then, to be fair we’re seeing the number of books sold per title drop to 1k to 2.5k for a regular newbie author. Can’t remember where I saw that one, it was a report from the New York trenches.

      In Canada newbie dead-tree authors regularly see numbers like 500 copies sold. In Canada publishers don’t usually give advances, the author gets a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts and that forms his/her/xir’s advance.

      1. Twenty years ago I wrote a book that has been used in a small way in the homeschooling community since then. It has actually sold about a thousand copies over that twenty year period. I’ve never made a cent on it but nowadays when I see that for some trad authors a thousand copies is all they will ever sell, I start seeing myself a bit differently. (I should add that my sister did most of the hard publishing work. She died last year and that is among the many reasons that I miss her…)

        1. Someone did the figures on book sales about fifteen years ago – I can’t recall the actual figures, but the average book – which includes everything from blockbusters to tiny specialty privately-pubbed volumes – works out to about fifty copies.
          In my old indy-author circle, we took this as a good sign. If you sold more than fifty copies of your book, you were way ahead of the game!
          My own first novel, To Truckee’s Trail got taken by some local Christian home-schooling circles in their segment about the emigrant trail, because it was non-violent, clean, and stressed family/community values, I think. No sexual content and a lot of hard information about what it was like, to travel in a wagon, across the trans-Mississippi west in the 1840s. It’s still my best-sellers. Gone way above 50 copies, since it was released to the wild.

    3. And that limited selection is repetitive!

      Sure, I like dragons as much as the next obsessive geek, and twee female characters are also a Thing that there’s demand for (sparkle butterfly kittens and their adventures in cupcake forest! No, I am not totally kidding, that’s a paraphrase of one of the books my daughters latched on to, the cover is exactly the shade of pink you’re thinking) but… did they really need more than half of the series in that age range to be ones that I can’t tell apart?

      Couldn’t we have somebody publishing Coming of Age stories that are not about sex, *and* actually involve folks growing up, getting less selfish, etc? Last Kids on Earth is the only one I can think of, and even it is pretty heavy on the Idiot Ball at times. (It’s a kid book set in kids in zombie apoc, they have a good reason to keep things KIND of shallow!)

      1. So what are the things that bound Young Adult? Is it primarily subject matter, or does emotional intensity need to be moderated as well?

        I was kind of reading David Drake at that age, and I’m pretty sure that’s not really his target audience. However, I do think I picked up a lot more of what life can require from his books than Timothy Zahn’s, admittedly fun, books.

        1. Heinlein’s formula for a juvenile (which is what they called YA in the 50s) is tell the best story you possibly can using a teenaged protagonist and with no sex. Look at his annual juveniles (Have Space Suit, Will Travel, Farmer in the Sky, Starman Jones, Podcayne of Mars, etc.) and you can see it. Today? You can throw in the sex.

          1. Doing a compare between *Have Spacesuit, Will Travel* and *The Puppet Masters*, it looks like he did not moderate the story telling. The difference is the level of problem is matched to the level of competence of the protagonist. Nobody is going to pull a teenager in to help sort out an interplanetary stealth invasion.

            I’ll have to think about that.

            1. Nobody *realistically* would, but it seems to be the staple of a lot of Young Adult books today. Harry Potter was awfully young to be saving the entire wizarding world, for instance.

              1. Honestly, I have a soft spot for stories where the characters aren’t always saving the world. One of the things I enjoy about One Piece is it can cycle between world ending conflicts to “We’re out of fish. Can you go get some, without starting a war and/or losing the mast, again?”

                It does seem to take a certain amount of planning to do though, but I think it gives the audience a nice change of pace between things, and adds a lot of room for new dimensions to a character.

                I mean, how else are you going to find out about the Heavy’s bonsai collection that he keeps because it reminds him of the orchard his mother used to keep?

        2. As a library genre, YA has a protagonist between ages 12-18. So the content is less important than the age of the characters. Now, do NOT get me started on “technically YA but completely inappropriate for 99% of young adult” books.

        3. Originally, it meant suitable for youth– no pr0n, no gore, no sadism.

          Now? It mostly means “has young characters,” and blasted near every time when something starts selling, they go and inject some poison into it, then wonder why it dies.

          1. I suppose my real question was more, what should it mean, rather than what the current bookstore definition is.

            What I’m realizing is, I’m not actually sure what coming of age will look like for the current generation. It could easily be anything from how to survive the collapse of society, to how to not go insane during the singularity…

        1. You have some of the best YA fiction around, Dave. It’s a model worth stealing. Let’s face it though, Cloud Castles was a coming-of-age story with sex. It was not a YA, though as the protagonist was older than his teens.

        2. I was going to recommend The Cloak Society by Jeremy Kraatz before I realized it’s billed as children’s. . .

    4. “We need MORE publishing houses, not fewer.”

      Every author a publisher might not be fully practicable, but would FIX that problem with the Power of the Mighty Atom.

  2. Oh, isn’t that cute. The buggy whip manufacturers are consolidating.

    Except, of course, that I really have nothing against buggy whip manufacturers, I just don’t care to buy what they’re selling. The Big Publishing Houses, on the other hand, actively hate me and those like me and are disgusted that they still, in a decreasing amoutg and strictly by accident, put out products I want to buy.

    Popcorn has too many carbs, but I’ll keep my snacks and diet sodas by my side as I watch.

    1. And, for the first time, they actually put on the record that they are scared of indies and want to crush us. So tell me again why I should care about their continued existence?

  3. If $100,000 was on the small side for advances, I might have considered trying to go traditional with my stuff. Even after taxes, just a couple of books could buy me a decent house here, even without royalties.

    But I don’t know many authors who went that route who got anything close to that.

    1. Neither do I. Maybe that was the total advance paid to a number of authors? From what I understand, unless you are a Dem politician or a TV reality star, your advance is so paltry that working in fast food would pay better, per hour put in.
      A hundred thousand here, a hundred thousand there … pretty soon you are talking about real money!

    1. There are a lot of people who still see the “prestige” of tradpub, or who think of all indie publishing as either vanity presses or too much work. Lots and lots of people. Many of them want their books in traditional bookstores, or want to be able to show off to their families/friends/others that they are a Published Author(tm), or have had a “lifelong dream” of being published, and therefore wan the validation of the tradpub gatekeepers.

    2. I don’t know for sure, but my impression is that for non-fiction (including textbooks, and industry books like programming, optics, semiconductor, chemistry, medical, etc) there still can be good reasons for tradpub.

    3. My mom wants it teh same reason she sells her hand-crafts for just over material cost– the validation of This Thing I Made Really Is Good.

      What we need is some of the indy type houses that can scoop up folks like that, before they get predated by the big houses.

      Stuff like all the short story collections that folks have been doing lately, for example– they’re not going to make anybody rich, but you get the emotional validation of “my story is good enough.”

    4. All I can figure is that they simply don’t know or understand the economics. Someone needs to write the publishing version of “Some of your friends are already this fucked” which I might add was written 30 years ago and still applies to the recording business.

    5. Well, a minor one. If you’re -as I am – introverted and not good at self-promotion, it may gain you a little exposure to start your ball rolling with a first book. Unless that grows suddenly and fast (unlikely but possible) little reason to continue.

  4. To be completely fair to the guy, he did say that when he started in the biz, 100K was a lot of money, but that now it is a fairly small advance–presumably for the same “top-tier” clients. That is, when he started, they might have given the Clintons and the Obamas and the “celebrity” clients a 100 or 200K advance and now give them ten million or whatever. Which, hey, inflation in general but also could be specifically calling out how much more concentrated the advances are to the top tiers.

    Possibly/probably giving him too much benefit of the doubt, but still as much a symptom of the problem.

  5. In “Randy Penguin wants to put every author like myself…”, Randy Penguin is the subject/actor, so it should be “Randy Penguin wants to put every author like ME…” The reflexive, though very, very commonly misused, requires the subject/actor, and the object/acted upon be the same. Tee hee! 😉
    That said, since I can’t write myself out of a damp tissue, I envy those, like y’all, who can.

  6. *saunters off to check popcorn cart* Let’s see, plain, white cheddar, butter, kettle corn, caramel, yep, the lawyers are circling already.

  7. I worked for a farmer’s co-op for 20 Years. We marketed the crops for about 16,000 farmers. In sixty years of operation it went from a small co-op to a billion dollar business. A co-op is a non-profit organization. The sales less expenses all go back to the farmers. Of course the farmers had to wait for a period of time to get the total amount for their crop, because the co-op needs operating capital. Why can’t independent authors start their own co-op?

    1. One big problem is sales tax collection for all the local, regional, state, and national jurisdictions. Yes, there are things like GumRoad that will do it for you, but that’s been a major brake on co-ops. Also, which state/country to incorporate in, what laws for contracts and liability would apply . . . Lots of things that most writers are possibly willing to do for ourselves alone, or for a few other individuals selling through a small publisher, but scaling it up requires herding cats on a scale very few are willing to contemplate.

      1. The jurisdiction thing is very important, especially when greedy states like CA and NJ can wriggle in.

        1. It would be tempting to say, “You need a straw purchaser in a free state. We will NOT arrange that for you, but that’s what you need. Or you need to free your state. Good luck.” But then, I can so impractical about some things.

          (I think at least one firearms manufacturer told California that if they don’t shape up, too bad you can’t get anything serviced: Not OUR problem that YOU are STUPID.)

    2. I was thinking of proposing an idea to my writers group: we come up with an imprint that we all put on our indy books, and cross promote each other (ads in the back ‘also by XYZ publishing’ ‘if you like (genre), try ______). No money changes hands unless we hire each other to do editing, formatting, covers, etc.

      What do you think?

        1. Not exactly. AFAIK, Ring of Fire Press functioned like a tradpub house, with editors, art directors, layout, etc. They uploaded the files, collected the money, and paid the bills.

          I want to keep it simple. Each author an indy publisher, but collect in groups of authors who get along well. Cross promote each other. “XYZ Publishing” is only an imprint, a logo. Everyone is responsible for preparing and publishing their own work, and is free to do it all in house or hire someone’s help. They also collect all the money themselves (and pay for any help they contract for.)

          The cross promotion can be putting each other’s ads in the back, running a table at a convention, etc.

          I’m wondering if this would work.

    3. Well, they can, but then you have this problem: the author who’s running the co-op has to spend most of their time doing the formatting, cover art (or sourcing said art), the uploading, the marketing, the bookkeeping… this quickly turns into a full-time job.

      And then you have the problems of
      1.) finding a writer who wants to have her full-time job running a co-op instead of writing her books.
      2.) finding an employee who’s as invested in selling the books as the authors are.
      3.) Unlike wheat, which is a pretty uniform crop (other than hard red winter wheat vs. soft white summer wheat, and the moisture percentage when harvested, yes), books are wildly different on sales potential. One bushel of hard red winter wheat is going to be fairly straightforward to market just like the next bushel. Which farm it came from really doesn’t matter. But one Sarah Hoyt book is completely unlike a Peter Grant book, and that’s even before we start with “Is that a Sarah Hoyt shifter book, or a Sarah Hoyt Darkship Universe book… because when you switch genres, you switch audiences, and only retain a small core that read by author instead of by genre.

      So it’s not as simple as it appears.

      1. And it is really hard to determine whether a bushel of wheat is an amazing innovation or a dud.

        Or both. The imprint won’t profit if, in a half century and thereafter, the works that dragged it under are classics.

  8. Rather small? I am reminded of a politician for one of these places who got a $28 million advance. the book likely sold at least 28 copies. Relative to 28 million, $100,000 is small. However, the attorneys needed to have asked for the counted range of advances, HOW MANY people got each advance. Apparently they did not.

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