The early pioneers of modern-day publishing were visionaries, eager to make a name for themselves. Around the turn of the 20th century, the New York publishing houses were born, creating the foundation for the key players we know today. In the years that followed, we saw publishing houses merge, trade paperbacks gain popularity, innovative ways to sell books emerge, and big-chain bookstores open across the world.
Yet the basic publishing model, where the “big houses” ruled the business, remained until the onset of the digital age in the 1990s. The surge of new technology for printing and distributing books combined with the rising importance of the internet and the explosion of self-published books began to disrupt the system because authors no longer needed the big publishing houses to get their books into the hands of readers. Self-publishing and smaller presses were on the rise, competing with the big houses for market share. New visionaries stepped in, pushing the big publishing houses to examine old models and evolve with the times.
The history of the Big 5
The term “Big 5 publishers” refers to five key publishing companies located in New York City. For many authors, finding an agent and getting a book deal with one of these publishers is the ultimate goal.
Penguin Random House
In 1927, friends Bennett Cerf and Donald Klopfer acquired a publishing imprint that reprinted classic works of literature. Explaining their chosen name, “Random House,” Cerf said the initial plan was to “publish a few books on the side at random” – a plan that included James Joyce’s Ulysses.
As for the “Penguin” side, Sir Allen Lane, his brothers Richard and John, and V.K. Krishna Menon came together in 1935 to form Penguin publishing. An innovative thinker, Lane wanted to make paperback editions of classic literature available to the general public for the price of a pack of cigarettes and make them available in places other than bookstores, such as train stations, tobacco shops, and department stores. Woolworth then came on board with an order of 63,000, and Lane knew the team had found a successful model. The Penguin team also created the “Penguincubator,” a book vending machine designed to make books more accessible to the London public, in 1937.
In 2013, to stay competitive in the new Amazon-driven digital age, Penguin and Random House merged and now publish over 15,000 titles each year, comprising more than 250 imprints, including historic imprints Viking and Knopf.
In 1817, James and John Harper, two brothers in New York City, opened a small family printing shop; two years later, Chalmers & Collins Bookshop and Printing Works opened in Glasgow.
Over the years, the Harper brothers often showed their creativity and innovation. One way was offering prepackaged libraries, where customers could acquire a collection of books instead of only buying one. In 1926, they formed their Department of Books for Boys and Girls. A few years later, they published Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books, then went on to publish Maurice Sendak, E.B. White, and Shel Silverstein.
Initially, Chalmers & Collins struggled – Chalmers left the company in 1825 – but later found success by printing educational and religious texts like the King James Bible, which the business acquired the right to reprint in 1839. The company later branched out to fiction in the 20th century, ultimately acquiring legendary bestselling mystery author Agatha Christie. Like the Harper brothers, Chalmers & Collins also found success with children’s books, such as Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham.
Simon & Schuster
Dick Simon (the singer Carly Simon’s father) and Max Schuster, both Columbia graduates, approached publishing with an entrepreneurial spirit in 1924. The idea for their first project, a crossword puzzle book, came about when Simon’s aunt was looking for one for her daughter. There was nothing like it on the market, so Simon and Schuster published one, only to have it become a bestseller with over 100,000 copies sold. They released three more crossword books that year and continue to publish them today. Always thinking of new ideas, Simon and Schuster created the children’s line Little Golden Books in 1942. They decided to release 12 different books each with a print run of 50,000 copies. The books sold for 25 cents (instead of the $2-$3 that was typical of that time). In only a few months, they were on their third printing and had sold over 1.5 million copies. Today, Simon & Schuster is part of the CBS Corporation.
Hachette Book Group (HBG)
The mission of Hachette Book Group, owned by Hachette Livre in France, is “to publish great books well.” The original company was formed in 1826 by Louis Hachette. Hachette continued to expand over the years, most notably in 2006 when Hachette Livre bought Time Warner Books (including the Little, Brown imprint) from Time Warner in 2006. Each year, they publish 1,400+ adult books, 300 books for young readers, and 450 audiobook titles. In 2009, HBG announced its commitment to the environment and led the way for other publishers with its new environmental policy, which included progressive goals on recycled fiber use in creating books, greenhouse gas emissions, responsible paper sourcing, and a wide range of other initiatives.
Macmillan is well-known for its educational books, children’s books, and textbooks, but it has also published many well-known fiction authors. The company, founded in 1843 by brothers Daniel and Alexander Macmillan from Scotland, was located in London. In 1869, they opened an additional office in the U.S. in New York. One success story for this office was Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. The book, published in June of 1936, sold over 500,000 copies in the first three months. Macmillan also published James Herriot and Madeleine L’Engle, among many other notable authors.