The latest shockwave to hit the publishing world is the news that Random House and Penguin could be merged by their respective parent companies. Instead of having the Big Six publishing companies, we could be down to the Big Five. What will this lead to (apart from John Scalzi's joke that we could get a company called Random Penguin)? And what would this mean for science fiction and fantasy?
Currently, Random House owns Del Rey and Spectra — the latter imprint already having been somewhat decimated by layoffs a few years ago. Meanwhile, Penguin owns Ace and Roc — which were originally parts of totally separate companies, until Penguin merged with the Putnam Berkley Group in 1996.
Actually, the experience of Ace and Roc is a good barometer for what you'd expect to happen if the Penguin/Random House merger goes through. Ace, Roc, Del Rey and Spectra would all be parts of the same publishing empire — and for a while, at least, they might keep their own staffs and identities. But not forever. As Ace/Roc editor Anne Sowards explained in a 2007 interview with Dear Author:
Until 2003, Ace and Roc were separate editorially and the difference between the two was a matter of editorial taste. But towards the end of 2003, the editor who ran Roc left to pursue her own writing, and the editor in chief of Ace was put in charge of both lines. Subsequently, the science fiction and fantasy editors, whether they are a part of Berkley or NAL / Signet, work on both Ace and Roc titles.
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So in the case of Ace and Roc, it took about seven years from the Penguin/Putnam merger to the imprints coming under a single editorial regime. And when HarperCollins acquired the William Morrow and Avon book lines from Hearst, it immediately merged its HarperPrism and Avon Eos imprints into one line, called Eos. (And now called Harper Voyager.)
On the other hand, this article from 2000 about the state of science fiction from Publishers Weekly — after the last wave of mergers — is full of quotes from publishing insiders saying that these mergers only strengthen science fiction imprints, in part because a merged sales force has an easier time knowing what's going on in the market.
What does that mean to aspiring authors and people who just love to read? Presumably, if imprints do merge or come under a single editorial management, that means eventually you have somewhat fewer approaches to the fields of science fiction and fantasy — at least, within mainstream publishing. You're less likely to be able to say that Ace/Roc does one sort of book, while Del Rey does another — although, of course, even within imprints different editors often buy different things. A merger also might make it fractionally harder for new authors to break in, since they might have one less address to send manuscripts to. And with self-publishing becoming more and more attractive an option, it's not a great time for traditional publishers to become even more monolithic and unwelcoming.
Still, it's early — and it's really hard to speculate about a merger that's just been announced as a possibility and may not actually happen in the end.
Thanks to Rose Fox for helping us with the correct URL for the 2000 PW article.
Top image: A random penguin, by Rezsox