When Two Publishing Giants Merge They Become Even More Incompetent

Amy Fleischer's redesign of the logo for Penguin's 75th anniversary and their reissue of Frankenstein

Look out, they’ve created a monster!

They apparently start/continue committing Acts of Random Penguin.

I thought I was inured to the craziness that is traditional publishing. Until I found this:

Penguin’s insane policy on electronic galleys for authors.

What kind of organization would make authors pay for electronic images of their own covers? After all, this is an image that can ONLY be used to promote your book. But Penguin Random House wants to charge $300 for that image. They wish to be compensated for their design work, they say. Apparently getting around 94% of the take on a paperback is not enough.

Then there is the insanity – which has been going on for a long time – that they wish you to pay for a PDF of the electronic copy of their book. These are often demanded by foreign agents, but the house wants you to pay hundreds of dollars (and in my time with them, it was thousands) for it, thereby impeding foreign sales.

On top of all, Penguin also refuses to send free electronic reading copies to reviewers and other promoters.

Perhaps it is the old way of doing things. Or perhaps it is that they can’t stand to let go of control over promotion, even though they’ve actually stopped promoting most authors.

Or perhaps they’ve forgotten that they – not the author – get the lion’s share of the profit?

When Penguin and Random House, two of the largest publishing houses in New York City, merged, most people were hesitant what to think. Some of my colleagues talked of how the bigger organization allowed for cuts in staffing and publicity could be consolidated and…

And I remembered working for both houses. One of these houses is the one that sent me on a book tour for the Magical Shakespeare Trilogy a year after the last book had come out – which for traditional publishing purposes meant it was useless, since stores weren’t going to restock books they’d already sent back – without any promotional materials, over my birthday, with two weeks notice and… wait for it… when another of their departments had already taken the books out of print.

This is the sort of thing that happens in a too big organization. It’s not just that one department doesn’t know what the other is doing – it’s also that no one has to pay for mistakes made, because the guilt is usually distributed between so many departments and organizational functions that no one pays for stupid moves. And in a huge organization, sending an author on a doomed book tour for a few thousand dollars comes out of petty cash, right beneath tea for the editorial staff.

The fact that it annoyed the author, wasted writing time and made the author – and the house – seem totally unprepared at presentations due to lack of materials was also immaterial in the old publishing push model, when at any rate my career had already been written off by the house, and the bookstores stocked their shelves according to how much “confidence” (read incentives) the house had in the books (and gave the bookstores.)

The way publishing is moving is NOT conducive to big companies, who make slow and conflicting decisions. In my capacity as an independent publisher, I assure you that the business is moving too fast for everyone, much less for big dinosaurs whose brain takes months to communicate with its foot.

But even so, and even for the house that calls itself Penguin Random House and which the rest of us call Random Penguin, this is a strange decision.

As I thought many times, while working for them, it almost seems like they’re going out of their way NOT to make money.

Or perhaps it’s just the way of the Penguin. Or the doomed dinosaur.

In the old style of publishing, where the publisher was king there was room for all these errors and more. In the new style of publishing, with nimble indies running around and eating the publishers (nest) eggs, perhaps it’s time to reconsider.

In a time of catastrophic change, those who don't adapt die.

In a time of catastrophic change, those who don’t adapt die.