Hachette’s announced purchase of Workman makes an already uneven playing field even more slanted

Yesterday’s news that Hachette Book Group has entered into an agreement to purchase Workman Publishing for a reported $240 million USD can only be seen as one more hurdle for independent publishers on both sides of the 49th parallel. In an environment that has multinationals racing to see who can absorb their competition fastest, the plight of publishers without recourse to the deep pockets of foreign owners becomes ever more precarious.

Workman is described in The New York Times as “one of the largest independent publishers in the United States.” Best known for the perennial bestseller What to Expect When You’re Expecting, as well as the Brain Quest series and page-a-day calendars, Workman has long been considered a trailblazer in the way it conceives of and packages books and related products. An outlier in the North American publishing landscape, a majority of its list is created in-house. The NYT writes that “the company publishes relatively few titles a year and invests in them heavily. They also look for content that will be relevant for years, like pregnancy or gardening.”

Though known primarily for its innovative and carefully produced service nonfiction, Workman also maintains a literary imprint, Algonquin Books, which has had success with titles such as Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants and Lisa Ko’s The Leavers.

Should the deal, which is subject to regulatory approval, go through, Workman will become the eighth publishing group under the Hachette umbrella, according to industry magazine Publishers Weekly.

While the proposed merger, which PW refers to as a “binding commitment,” appears to make sense from a business perspective, it represents another instance of consolidation in a publishing field that is becoming increasingly dominated by giant multinationals. Last fall, Penguin Random House made waves when it announced its intention to purchase rival multinational Simon & Schuster, potentially turning the U.S. Big Five publishers into the Big Four (along with Hachette, HarperCollins, and Macmillan). HarperCollins, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Group, had already scooped up Harlequin Enterprises from erstwhile Canadian owners Torstar; earlier this year HC announced it was purchasing legacy publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

In both the U.S. and Canada, major multinationals already wield outsized influence in the market; they dominate media coverage and their financial clout allows them to offer advances well in excess of what even the most successful mid-sized independents could afford, thereby ensuring their ability to secure the most popular authors for their lists. It is now common practice for the multinationals to wait for authors signed to independents to achieve success via a bestseller or award-winner, then poach them for their follow-up. Canadian authors discovered and nurtured by independents who have books out this fall with multinational presses include Kathleen Winter, Zoe Whittall, Katherena Vermette, and Ian Williams.

The disproportionate influence of multinational publishers is concerning because increased consolidation results in fewer options for authors looking to place their books in an ever shrinking marketplace. It also inevitably results in fewer risks being taken on new, innovative, controversial, or experimental writing. Multinational publishers with shareholders laser focused on the bottom line of a P and L sheet will be almost axiomatically risk averse.

Which might be easier to countenance if the independents, long responsible for locating the next generations of authors, were able to survive in a market that is becoming increasingly inimical. As review space in mainstream media continues to contract and books from smaller presses get lost in the noise of an ever-more monolithic media landscape, it will be harder and harder for those independents to continue acting as canaries in the literary coalmine.

It will also be increasingly difficult for authors to build a career should their books underperform market expectations. The midlist author is all but extinct and houses that once groomed authors through a series of books that did not sell (one thinks of Mordecai Richler at McClelland & Stewart) will no longer remain patient: if a first book tanks, you won’t be getting a second chance.

As the NYT puts it, publishing “has increasingly become a winners take all game.” This would perhaps be easier to accept if smaller publishers weren’t behind in the game before even hitting the playing field.

Hachette’s announced purchase of Workman makes an already uneven playing field even more slanted