They Reminisce over You
The story of commercial publishing…has been one of cottage industries growing into public corporations, then being absorbed into giant conglomerates in order to survive financially.
-Sally Dennison, Alternative Literary Publishing (1984), pg. 7
A hundred years ago, in 1915, Alfred A. and Blanche Knopf (husband and wife) along with Samuel Knopf (father of Alfred A.) founded the publishing house Alfred A. Knopf Inc. There is no doubt that with the writers it has published over the last century, Knopf has become one of the most respected and well-known names in the field of literature. There is also no doubt that the story of Alfred A. Knopf Inc. defines the narrative of commercial publishing in the 20th century.
After operating independently for its first 45 years of existence, Alfred A. Knopf Inc. was acquired by Random House in 1960. 38 years later Knopf became a part of the German media corporation Bertelsmann when in 1998 Bertelsmann acquired Random House. In 2008, Bertelsmann combined both Knopf and the Doubleday imprint (itself originally started in 1897 by Frank Nelson Doubleday) to form the Knopf Doubleday Publishing company. After 15 years under Bertelsmann, and officially in June 2013, Bertelsmann and another global media company Pearson PLC merged their publishing holdings to form Penguin Random House (Bertelsmann 53%, Pearson PLC 47%).
Today, Penguin Random House is the largest publisher of general interest trade books in the world with nearly 250 imprints and publishing houses to its name. Penguin Random House is the biggest of the Big Five, a term that refers to the largest trade book publishers in the United States. The Big Five also consists of Harper Collins, MacMillan Publishers, Simon and Schuster and Hachette Book Group. That last one should sound familiar. Hachette Book Group and Amazon were involved in a long, drawn-out contract negotiation, particularly regarding the price of e-books, over much of the past year.
Now let’s pause for a moment. I want to properly introduce this weekly Real Pants beat to you. The name of it is Business Casual, and the focus of this weekly column will include current and historical issues and aspects within the general publishing community and literary world. Let’s narrow that down a little. In contrast to Alfred A. Knopf Inc., I started and run a publishing house called Scrambler Books. Scrambler Books is an independent publisher that on average publishes four books a year. It is probably the furthest away that one could get from Knopf and most other commercial publishing companies in terms of pretty much everything. Referencing the above quote from Sally Dennison, Scrambler Books is definitely at the cottage industry level and showing no signs of growing into a public corporation.
Most of the people associated with Real Pants are also a part of the independent publishing community. The independent publishing community can be thought of as a sphere residing in the same solar system as the world of commercial publishing, but one is Mercury and the other Jupiter. Yes, on a daily basis independent and commercial publishing both help to create, publish and sell books—but how they go about doing that, and their ultimate goals, are usually very different. Future versions of this column will explore some of those differences while mostly focusing on the independent side of things in the publishing community. Future versions of this column will also highlight the ingenuity and inventiveness of both the commercial and the independent publishing communities.
We are still at the beginning of the 21st century, but sitting here in 2015, I would argue that in regards to the depth and breadth of the books that are being published during the last 15 years by independent publishers, independent publishing is definitely approaching a peak point in its history. Take a look at the list of titles that these independent publishers from around the world are currently publishing and tell me otherwise: New Directions, Melville House, Wave Books, Octopus Books, Publishing Genius Press, Tiny Hardcore Press, Two Dollar Radio, Emily Books, Featherproof Books, Dalkey Archive Press, Black Ocean Press, Dancing Girl Press, Hobart, No Tell Books, Sator, Big Lucks Books, Civil Coping Mechanisms, Magic Helicopter Press, Editorial El Gaviero (Spain), La Bella Varsovia (Spain), Stillness and Blood Press (Mexico), Editora 7Letras (Brazil), Editora Cosac Naify (Brazil), Lingua Geral (Brazil) and Damocle Edizioni (Italy). Get your Real Pants on.
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