Independent book publishing, part 1

It’s easy to get so immersed in a subject that you lose track of how much of it is generally known. alfred a. knopfI’ve been talking about the difficulties of independent publishing for so long that it began to seem to me that the subject was common knowledge. Then a comment on this blog made me realize that I needed to take a step back. So, over the next few days, I will do a quick overview of the plight of the independent book publisher.

Let’s start by recalling the contributions of the great American publishing companies of the 20th century. As we go along we can also see what has become of them.

  • Dodd, Mead and Co. published such authors as Anatole France, A. E. Housman, G. K. Chesterton, Kenneth Grahame, and Agatha Christie. It went out of business in 1990, having failed to find a buyer.
  • Doubleday & Co. published Rudyard Kipling, W. Somerset Maugham, and Joseph Conrad. It became part of the Bantam Doubleday Dell division of Random House in 1998, having been acquired by the German multinational Bertelsmann in 1986.
  • E. P. Dutton published writers like Francoise Sagan, Lawrence Durrell, Luigi Pirandello, John Irving, Joyce Carol Oates, and Peter Matthiessen. It was acquired by Penguin in 1986.
  • Authors published by Harper (Harper & Brothers / Harper & Row) included Mark Twain, the Bronte sisters, Thackeray, and Dickens. It was acquired by News Corp in 1987.
  • Henry Holt published Robert Frost, Hermann Hesse, Norman Mailer, Robert Louis Stevenson, Ivan Turgenev, and H.G. Wells. It was acquired by HBJ in 1986.
  • Houghton Mifflin was started by Ticknor and Fields, who published Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark Twain, and Henry David Thoreau. The company was acquired by Vivendi in 2001 and passed on to Riverdeep in 2006.
  • Alfred A. Knopf used to publish great literature in translation as well as serious original literature. Their authors included Witter Bynner, Robert Graves, Wyndham Lewis, H. L. Mencken, Ezra Pound, Willa Cather, Langston Hughes, Thomas Mann, Andre Gide, D. H. Lawrence, Jorge Amado, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Yukio Mishima, Kenzaburo Oe, Yasunari Kawabata, and many more. It was bought by Random House in 1960 and acquired by Bertelsmann (which employed Jewish slave labor during the Nazi period) in 1998.
    Knopf’s list was largely built on translation, but by the time I was the director of Mercury House we were publishing more literature in translation each year than Knopf was.
  • Little Brown’s authors included Donald Barthelme, J. D. Salinger, Gore Vidal, Evelyn Waugh, and P. G. Wodehouse. It was acquired by Time in 1968 and sold to Hachette in 2006.
  • Macmillan published Matthew Arnold, Lewis Carroll, Thomas Hardy, and William Butler Yeats. It was acquired by Robert Maxwell in 1989 and after bankruptcy reemerged as the business name of another German multinational, Georg von Holtzbrinck.
  • G. P. Putnam’s Sons published notable authors from Edgar Allan Poe to Vladimir Nabakov. It was acquired by Penguin in 1996.
  • Random House, the world’s largest English-language general trade book publisher, is now owned by Bertelsmann, a multinational corporation with a dubious past; Bertelsmann is based in Germany.
  • Charles Scribner’s Sons published such authors as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Kurt Vonnegut. It merged with Atheneum in 1978 and again with Macmillan in 1984, and is now owned by Holtzbrinck.
    (Update 12/21/07, a correction from Galley Cat:
    Scribner somehow winds up still a division of Macmillan, but the Macmillan that bought Charles Scribner’s Sons in the ’80s and was then acquired by Simon & Schuster in 1994 was a separate entity from Macmillan Publishers Ltd., which is now the company formerly known as Holtzbrinck.”)
  • W. W. Norton was known for distinguished nonfiction publishing. It is the only publisher on this list that is still independent.
  • William Morrow was perhaps best known for its children’s authors such as Beverly Cleary. It was acquired by Hearst Corporation in 1981 and sold to News Corp in 1999.

Now, you might say, publishing companies are sold and merged all the time. Why does any of this matter? It is true that such changes in its landscape have been a part of publishing since the Renaissance. But:

  • Never before has such a large percentage of the publishing market been in the control of so few organizations.
  • Never before has so much of American publishing been accountable to foreign owners.
  • Never before has publishing been a piece of giant entertainment multinationals that control not just book publishing but to a large degree its promotion and distribution.

There is no need to romanticize. I’m not saying the old publishers were better or more dedicated people than those in the business today — it’s just that there were so many more of them. Yes, we have more independents than ever in the sense that the bar to printing a book has been lowered by technology so that there are a seemingly infinite number of garage operations. But there’s a big difference between printing a book and being a publishing company.

Today 80 percent of U.S. publishing is controlled by five giant multinational corporations. In my next post we will take a closer look at who they are and how their activities affect the way books are published in this country.


Shown: Alfred A. Knopf in his office, from the Knopf Archives.


More posts in this series: part two| part three


← Previous post

Next post →


  1. There are some independant publishing houses you miss though that might be worth mention, such as Godine & Black Sparrow (I work for them, do I’m biased) who first published John Banville in the US, Charles Bukowski, Wanda Coleman, etc., as well as a list of first-in-English-translations – they’ve survived since 1970 or so.

  2. Yeah I think you can say they were more dedicted or loved what they are doing..kinda ridiculous that 5 giant corporations now control 80% of the market. People need to stop merging and start doing their own things. That’s really how the best work is done in any facet of business.

  3. Yes, Black Sparrow, although sold to Godine, remains independent in spirit. There are quite a few excellent publishers at roughly that level, and I probably should have addressed that. Dalkey Archive, Graywolf, Mercury House, Counterpoint, Green Integer, Godine, Coffee House, Copper Canyon, and quite a few more. These folks are doing heroic work but their job isn’t easy. I wanted to begin by looking at the larger houses with longer histories — the storied presses that hark back to the first half of the century — because it is telling that many of those were in business for seventy or eighty years or more, yet nearly all of them gave up the ghost in the past two or three decades.

  4. I think the fact that publishing has gone the way of multinational corporations is more reason to celebrate, support and encourage independent publishing! Vote with your dollar for the kinds of business you want to support.

  5. Gerald Howard

    I wil read further posts with interest, as I am of two minds on the larger issue. I am an executive editor at large with Doubleday Broadway, a division of Random House, which is owned by Bertelsmann, as you know. I worked from 1988 through 1998 at W.W. Norton, the last standing “independent” and for eight years before that at Viking Penguin. In that regard, you will want to add to your list the Viking Press, founded in the twenties by Harold Guinzburg, bought by Penguin in the mid-eighties. Not too many years after that purchase. Tom Guinzburg, Harold’s son, who had run Viking since the late sixties, was shown the door rather brutally by Penguin management. The repercussions from that action were still palpable when I arrive as a Penguin editor in 1980.

  6. I was at Putnam in the 90’s when they taken over by Matsuishta, became a founding member of Hyperion when Disney decided that they didn’t own enough forms of the media, and then went on to become a Director at Simon & Schuster, um, I mean Viacom. In other words, I watched the career I dreamt of as a little kid turn into a “synergy machine” for the entertainment congloms right before my eyes. Can anyone remember the last REALLY GREAT book that was published by a major house in the past ten years? Those publishers listed above all died and like Lawrence Sanders post-humous books, they’re just puppets for the industry. I agree-let’s put our dollars where our hearts are–support independents!

  7. Al Longden

    Bill Jovanovich would turn over in his grave for no mention of Harcourt and their authors like Alice Walker, Virginia Wolf, Ainise Ninn (sp.) and a slew of other worthies. Additionally, Harcourt bought Holt Rhinehart Winston (CBS Publishing) in 1986 not Henry Holt. Which was spun to Holtzbrinck about that time. Harcourt was acquired by General Cinema, which changed to Harcourt General, which was then sold to Reed Elsiver and split between Reed and Thomson. With Trade Publishing going to Reed. Trade has since been spun from Reed to Houghton Mifflins parent to form Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Trade……. (its exhausting…..and the beat goes on and on and on and on!!!!)

  8. Thanks to everyone for these helpful and interesting comments. I have been away from the internet — I thought I would have occasional access while on the road but that didn’t turn out to be the case — as a result, I’ve got a little behind but will resume this series soon.

  9. Tom:

    I get depressed when I think about the future of book publishing. Twenty+ years as a professional writer and I’ve seen the quality of editors decline sharply and with the proliferation of publishing technologies and creative writing classes, every asshole out there thinks he/she has the talent and brains to be a writer (and they’re wrong, wrong, WRONG). Those few reasonably sentient editors that exist are swamped with junk and I’m stuck in a teetering slush pile with hobbyists, wannabes and weekend scribblers. And now I read your piece and feel like taking a long, fast drive off a short pier. Thanks, pal…

  10. Years ago in a record shop I saw a poster charting rock bands from the late fifties to the early eighties arranged in a sort of evolutionary tree. Yardbirds branched to Led Zeppelin and also branched to Renaissance, for example.

    It seems to me a similar poster could be made charting the evolution of these publishing houses. I imagine you could make some money on this.