What Penguin Random House means for authors

Penguin  Random HouseAs Hurricane Sandy was rolling up the east coast, I was switching back and forth between NAOO’s website for weather updates and Publisher’s Marketplace, because the rumors about Random House and Penguin were confirmed. Two of the biggest publishers in the world were combining forces.

For anyone working in the publishing industry, this raised a lot of questions, and several concerns. By now we know that the name of the company will not be Random Penguin, or Penguin House. It will be Penguin Random House. There are other pieces that are starting to fall into place as well, like this week’s news that Penguin is going to settle with the DOJ on the agency ebook pricing model, so that Penguin joins Random House with a clean slate. Well, maybe not entirely clean since they and Random House must comply with the DOJ restrictions for two years, but they won’t be bringing Random House into a major litigation. (For more details about the settlement, see: http://www.mediabistro.com/galleycat/penguin-settles-price-fixing-suit-with-the-doj_b62676) But there are still many things up in the air…

Will the government allow it?

The deal is expected to close in the second half of 2013. Only regulatory concerns could prevent it. The biggest hurdle is how much market share the new company would control, whether it would be too powerful. Penguin Group CEO John Makinson said that the combined market share was less than 30%, and added “we wouldn’t have reached this point of announcing the transaction unless we felt some confidence in our ability to obtain regulatory clearance.”

But the Authors Guild is not so easily satisfied, and they called for “close scrutiny” of the deal. The discrepancy seems to lie in how the market is defined. Is it the overall book market we’re talking about? The Authors Guild suggests that within book submarkets, such as fiction or narrative non-fiction, the combined market share of Penguin and Random House could exceed 35%. So what would that mean for authors? Scott Turow, president of the guild, said the following:

Penguin Random House, our first mega-publisher, would have additional negotiating leverage with the bookselling giants, but that leverage would come at a high cost for the literary market and therefore for readers. There are already far too few publishers willing to invest in nonfiction authors, who may require years to research and write histories, biographies, and other works, and in novelists, who may need the help of a substantial publisher to effectively market their books to readers.

Will this consolidate a potential author’s options?

Turow’s comment is a nice segway into my biggest concern after the announcement. Earlier in the week of the Penguin Random House announcement, Simon & Schuster had just consolidated its imprints, cutting out the Free Press entirely, which left editors without jobs and authors with one less place to send their book. Would this merger consolidate the breadth of publishing options even further? From what it sounds like, no. Random House and Penguin will maintain all of their current imprints and encourage competition among them.

In a letter to Penguin staff, Makinson noted:

I have no doubt that some authors, agents and customers will express concern to many of us that this merger will reduce choice and competition. I believe, and so I know does Markus [Dohle], that exactly the opposite will happen. The publishing imprints of the two companies will remain as they are today, competing for the very best authors and the very best books.  But our access to investment resources will also allow Penguin Random House  to take risks with new authors,  to defend our creative and editorial independence, to publish the broadest range of books on the planet, and to do it all with the attention to quality that has always characterized both Penguin and Random House.

How else could it affect authors? $$$

While authors might be able to send manuscripts out to the same group of editors, ultimately Penguin imprints and Random House imprints will not get into a bidding war over a book. Toward the close of an auction on a book, only one Penguin Random House editor is likely to make an offer on a book. They’ll still have to compete against HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, Macmillan, and other smaller publishers. But the stakes will be one big guy less than they are now. It’s possible that this could lead to lower advances for authors. That said, the advances over the last ten years have already noticeably dropped as the market has adjusted to a more digital audience.

On a slightly more local level, the Random House Author Portal is the best, an easily navigable site with pretty sales graphics and several years of historical sales and royalty data. Penguin authors will inherit this, which is a huge relief since the Penguin royalty site, just recently launched, kicks you off after 5 minutes of inactivity, has no historical royalties, and runs on a site that looks like it was built in the 90s. So Penguin authors, rejoice, you’ll have much easier access to your sales information after the merger is complete.

Overall, the merger makes business sense from the publishers’ point of view. Pearson, who currently owns Penguin, can focus more on educational content; Random House would enjoy a larger market share and the prestige of Penguin’s titles. For the rest of us, I suppose time will tell. It’s a major change in the publishing landscape, but publishing companies have been merging, separating and acquiring since George P. Putnam was walking the streets of Manhattan. I hope that we can still buy the Penguin book bags, but if they change the design to Penguin House, I won’t mind.

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Dissecting a Debut: Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

Dissecting a Debut is a feature that is similar to book reviews, but I want to focus exclusively on author debuts and consider why each book was embraced by the publishing community. My hope is that these posts will give the sprouting authors a bit more buzz, offer readers book suggestions much like any other review would, and perhaps most importantly, help other writers understand what’s grabbing the interest of publishers these days.

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

Genre: YA Fantasy
Page count: 451
Publisher: Random House Children’s
ISBN: 9780375866562
Pub Date: 7/10/12
Agent: Dan Lazar
In Brief: A shaky peace exists between humans and dragons in Seraphina’s medieval kingdom, where dragons walk the streets in human bodies, so as not to frighten people. Prohibiting dragons’ natural form is one of the many rules outlined in the treaty signed 50 years ago. But when a royal family member is murdered in suspiciously draconian fashion, just days before the treaty anniversary celebration, Seraphina must be careful to hide the truth about herself, even as she comes to realize that she’s the only one who can help the village maintain its peace with dragons.

I had heard fantastic things about this book from other people in the publishing industry. I was expecting some awesome writing, the kind where you read a sentence and then pause to think, wow. What a beautifully crafted sentence. It’s hard for a book to live up to such high expectations, of course, and this one didn’t make that kind of impression on me. The writing is very good, but it’s not something you notice sentence to sentence. It’s in the world-building, which is crafted as well as any immaculate sentence, and strong world-building is on most SF/F editors’ wish lists.

The kingdom of Gorred in Seraphina is a strange medieval town, where knights have been banished and dragons walk around as people, with only a silver bell to distinguish them. An additional “garden” within Seraphina’s mind is even more complex with grotesques who each have unique talents that keep the garden clean and tidy. The outlying lands beyond Gorred, home to dragons or to foreign people of eastern cultures rather than the typical european that you see in SF/F, complete this fascinating worldview so unique in YA fantasies (with the exception of a few authors, like NK Jemison).

As unique as Seraphina’s world was, Rachel Hartman crafted it in a way that felt natural. (I mean, of COURSE there’s a secret speakeasy where rogue dragons and humans drink beer together!) This is something that takes time and understanding. It’s very similar to crafting a deeply character-driven novel. The author must get to know the characters and write them the way they demand to be written. In the same way, Hartman knew every inch of the kingdom, its politics, stereotypes, religion, and customs.

In an interview with The Enchanted Inkpot, Hartman said she had been writing in this world for eight years. She wrote a comic set in Gorred with different characters, so she has characters in the world that never made an appearance in this book, but she knew what they were doing, and what was happening in their kingdoms. This knowledge about every piece of the the society allowed her to show the world to the reader without explicitly explaining how things worked in Gorred. I encourage you to really think outside the plot as you’re writing. Develop minor characters to find out what their ticks are, build neighborhoods that your leading lady might get lost in down the road, and let your imagination, not your plotline, determine what happens as you explore the world you’ve created.

It’s hard to review this book without giving too much away, because with each page, the reader learns something new about the plot. But I think I can say this much. Seraphina’s mother was a dragon and her father was human, which makes the girl’s very existence something immoral and illegal among both species. As the kingdom’s music mistress, she’s right in the thick of politics and fear when the royal prince is found dead without his head. She must hide her tell-tale scales, but a little bit of romance, and a lot of concern for her kingdom and its people prevents her from staying in the shadows. She’s a true heroine in a fantastic conflict between dragons and humans, emotions and logic, art and intellect, love and persecution.

And….we’re back!

It’s been a long month. Correction, a long six weeks. Of course, even before Hurricane Sandy hit NYC, I was remiss in adding new posts in October. I took on my first client as an agent and I was running around the city with editors — coffee here, lunch there, and a Halloween Happy Hour to boot. It was an exciting time for me…and then the hurricane hit and it was exciting in a whole different way.

Now, here I am, sitting in my parents’ living room in Kentucky, trying to get a literary agency off the ground while also looking for a new place to live. Because when the 19 inches of water finally leaked out of my house in Hoboken, NJ, I was left with a stench you wouldn’t believe and a ruined home. My husband and I camped out in Brooklyn for a while, thinking how it would have been great to have family in the area when we were rendered homeless, and then we decided to move closer to family.

The good news is, while I’m sitting here, I’m also  reading some fantastic debuts and drafting up some great blog posts that I think could help a lot of my author readers.

Oh, and crazy things have happened in among the Big Six and I want to talk about in terms of how they’ll affect authors…

The Random Penguin http://www.mediabistro.com/galleycat/random-house-penguin-to-merge_b59763

S&S consolidated http://mhpbooks.com/the-complicated-history-of-free-press-takes-another-turn/

So read up and I’ll be back soon!