Mergers and acquisitions and coffee houses

I’ve been mulling over this Random/Penguin merger, wondering if I care. I mean, these are already massive companies. Does it matter to me, as a writer, if two massive companies become one super-massive company?

Well, it turns out it does matter, and I do care. Because no matter how big a publishing house is, acquisitions are still handled by real people. And more often than not, a book is accepted because a single editor falls in love with something on page 75, or sees potential in the concept, or laughs in all the right places. These are things that happen on a personal level, not a corporate level, and with each merger there are fewer editor-gatekeepers.

If you’ve ever been to a real estate open house, you’ll know there’s no single factor buyers are searching for. Some love the place, some hate it, some are ambivalent. Editors are the same way. The reason books get rejected 27 times, then accepted and go on to make millions (well, theoretically I’ve heard that it happens…), is that taste differs. Just as you only need one buyer to fall in love with your house, you only need one editor to fall in love with your manuscript. But it could be any house showing. And it could be any submission.

The more acquiring editors there are, the more chances our manuscripts have. And the more diverse the market becomes for readers. A small number of gatekeepers means a smaller slice of personal taste is dictating what goes onto (virtual) bookstore shelves.

A second reason this matters to me: when we cut the number of acquiring editors, and we become more homogenized and appeal more to the commonalities of the mass market, we leave writers with regional or quirky or highly focussed books to the rigours of self-publishing. Without Douglas & McIntyre, would anyone have published Flight of the Hummingbird, which I thought was one of the most gorgeous picture books ever? Maybe not.

Of course, some writers will do very well by self-publishing. But many others will miss out for not having worked with a traditional publisher.

Traditional publishers have been slow to advance in many ways, but they’ve always excelled at hooking up talent. As creators, we’re often too close to our work to make wise decisions. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve hated a cover design, only to realize a year later that it’s much, much better than my original choice. Publishers put together the teams of creators — writers, editors, illustrators, designers — necessary to produce outstanding work. They are the coffee houses of ideas.

With each closure and each merger, we have one less coffee house. And the world of self-publishing, though exciting in its possibilities, has not yet found a way to consistently put great talents together.

So, despite the fact that I have no professional connection to Douglas & McIntyre or Random or Penguin, these things do matter to me. They matter to me as a writer, and they matter to me as a reader.

Whew. Longest. Post. Ever.

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