Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Big Six: Who Owns The Gods?

Whether it be on KindleBoards or in the mass media, there have been a whole lot of discussions about the Big Six of publishing. During these discussions, the pronouns 'they' and 'them' are used often. This is because most people don't know much about who and what the Big Six actually are. I was forced to figure all this out when I considered traditional publishing as an option. I hope to use this post to share what I've found.

The Big Six are the six largest publishing houses in the book industry. They publish the majority of books in the USA and elsewhere. If you want to get a book into the major chains, a Big Six publishing contract remains your best bet. Here they are in alphabetical order:
  1. Hachette
  2. HarperCollins
  3. MacMillian
  4. Penguin
  5. Random House
  6. Simon & Schuster
When discussing the publishing industry, we need to clarify what we actually mean by print publishing. Print publishing includes all fiction and non-fiction titles bearing those tiny ISBN numbers on their backsides. This excludes other forms of print media like newspapers and magazines. [Exception #1: comic books can have ISBN numbers too, but they aren't counted in the totals for the book publishing industry. Exception #2: some self-published novelists choose not to purchase ISBN numbers. They can get away with this by only e-publishing.]

The confusion doesn't stop there, though. Each of the Big Six publishers has many smaller publishing 'imprints' that live under the larger publishing umbrella. The logos of these imprints are what you see when you examine the spines of books. Sometimes you'll see something like a penguin and immediately know which of the big house you're dealing with. Other times you'll see something like the Tor logo and be less than certain which house it is. You'll have to turn to the book's cover page or search the Internet. Some of these imprints will turn out to be subsidiaries of the Big Six (of which there are hundreds). Others will in fact be one of the many small to medium sized publishing houses that operative independently of the big houses.

But why should we care about the Big Six?

Because the Big Six strongly influence what you can read. Each of the Big Six has thousands of authors in their stables. A cursory look at the book spines will reveal their near total dominance. They talk to countless agents, read through countless manuscripts, and ink deals with the select few that manage to survive their gauntlet. The Big Six then decide what edits should be made. They hire artists to design the covers. They have other stabled authors provide reviews for the dust jacket: "Amazing!!" "ZOMG!" "Tell me where to throw my money!!" They decide how much of their collective budget will be allocated to the marketing of a single book. They decide which titles will get pride-of-place at the front of the retail stores (a privilege they pay through the nose for). The Big Six even decide which books you will see when you rush into a airport bookstore to grab a fresh piece of fiction for your flight. Their influence is pervasive. Their grip on the traditional paths of publishing are absolute.

But who is running the show?

Who own these gods of publishing?

I put on my old business school cap and did a little digging...


Hachette Book Group
  • Notable imprints: Grand Central Publishing; Little, Brown and Company
  • owned by Hachette Livre 
  • which is owned by Lagardere SCA, a French media conglomerate
  • which is owned by MMB, perhaps a shell company (ticker:MMB)
They publish notables James Patterson and Joel Osteen among others. They've aggressively pursued Indian authors. Aravind Adiga, who won the 2008 Booker Prize, is housed in their stable. I think they are pretty wise to have their eye and that evolving billion-person market. Oddly, Gary Paulsen's Hatchet isn't one of their books. It's published by Simon & Schuster.


  • Notable imprints: William Morrow; Avon; Blue Door; Amistad; Walden Pond Press
  • owned by Ruper Murdoch's News Corp (ticker:NWS)
for a Migraine, click here

Lots of biographies and tell-alls here: Sarah Palin, Collin Powel, Courtney Love, Anthony Bourdain. Neal Stephenson, Terry Pratchett, and Paulo Coelho also call HarperCollins their home. If they want to keep it that way, they need to work on their editing. That wasn't Amazon's faulty, no matter what CNET said.


Macmillan Publishers Ltd.
  • Notable imprints: Tor; St. Martin's; Farrar, Straus & Giroux; Nature
  • owned by McGraw-Hill
  • which appears to be owned by Georg von Holtzbrinck Publishing Group, a German holding company. George von Holtzbrinck bought 70% of MHP's shares in 1994, and the remaining 30% in 1999, but I'm confused because MHP still retaining its own ticker (ticker:MHP)
Of interest to fellow scientists, Georg von Holtzbrinck also owns the Nature Publishing Group. Arguably the most important academic journals in the world, I have a few colleagues that would sacrifice their family pet to get a single paper published in Nature.

Ah, know that I want you, and you know that I need you.


Penguin Group

  • Notable imprints: Roc; Ace; Putnam's Sons; Ladybird; Viking; Signet
  • owned by Penguin Global 
  • which is owned by Pearson PLC, a British media conglomerate (ticker:PSO)
Penguin is now regarded as the largest of the big six, knocking Random House out of the top spot in 2009. They are best remembered by us indies as the latest publisher to go to war with Amazon. I don't really know how I feel about them. I appreciated their low-priced classics throughout my childhood, but their overpriced ebooks leave me frustrated.


  • Notable imprints: Knopf Doubleday; Crown; Bantam; Del Rey
  • owned by Bertelsmann, a giant private company that share with us its good taste, but never talks numbers
Random House is my personal favorite large publisher. Dr. Seuss, J.K Rowling, And Stefan Merill Block are among their authors. They're riding Erin Morgenstern's Night Circus to success at the moment. If they decide to market your book hard, they decide to market your book hard. You can't walk into a bookstore without tripping over a pile of Random House titles.


Simon & Schuster
  • Notable imprints: Pocket; Beyond Words; Aladdin; Threshold
  • owned by CBS Corporation (ticker:CBS)
First off, I want you to know that Simon & Schuster published this. Second, does anyone else find it downright hilarious that the same people that bring us the CBS Nightly News also own Threshold Editions? Shenanigans like these are why I like to think of the Big Six as little gods. I picture them sitting up there in the rarefied air of Mount Olympus, chuckling as we puny humans squabble over the few tattered cobs of corn they deign to toss our way.


For a grouped analysis of all these holding companies, check out this composite chart. Random House is not included in the analysis because Bertelsmann is a privately held company. And I'd like to make this info as accurate as possible. If you note any mistakes, please drop me a comment and I'll fix them.