All the Latest on Random Penguins

The kids at Penguin Random House Canada (PRHC) were shocked - shocked! - this week to learn they worked for a company determined to profit from selling books, even those written by Jordan B. Peterson.

PRHC announced Monday that the author of 12 Rules for Life, which sold millions of copies for the company worldwide, had penned a sequel entitled Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life. It will be released in Canada in March under PRHC’s prestigious Knopf Random House imprint.

According to Manisha Krishnan at Vice, who has the best account of the heated town-hall held at PRHC the day of the announcement, several employees confronted management about its decision to invest further in a man world-famous for refusing to refer to transgender students by their preferred pronouns — a man they say is “an icon of hate speech and transphobia and… white supremacy.”

It was not simply the fact that PRHC was publishing another Jordan B. Peterson (above) that irked. The book was not announced, even internally, until the last minute.

“I feel it was deliberately hidden and dropped on us once it was too late to change course,” an employee told Vice.

Management’s subterfuge supposedly prevented staff from getting out in front of the book and canceling it the way employees and writers at Hachette had bullied their bosses into dumping Woody Allen’s memoir last March, the week before the world changed.

Another complaint was that since last spring, PRHC “has been doing all these anti-racist and allyship things and them publishing Peterson’s book completely goes against this. It just makes all of their previous efforts seem completely performative.”

For my part, I was shocked it took the PRHC employees this long to figure out what was going on under their roof. SHuSH broke the story more than a year ago.

As SHuSH reported, Peterson’s representatives, Creative Artists Agency (CAA), were shopping his sequel around New York in the summer of 2019, right around the time young staffers at Manhattan media outlets were enjoying their biggest successes in canceling people whose views they considered wrong or objectionable or dangerous. The New York Review of Books had just rebelled against their editor-in-chief’s decision to print Jian Ghomeshi’s non-apology for his reprehensible antics, leading to the dismissal of said editor-in-chief. And the New Yorker’s staff revolted when editor David Remnick’s invited Steve Bannon to speak at a magazine event. Bannon was outlawed and Remnick apologized.

[Correction: Just learned that Peterson moved from The Cooke Agency to CAA, the mega-American agency, after the success of his last book. The text has been changed to reflect the move.)

CAA’s first stop with the sequel was Penguin Random House US, rich cousin of Penguin Random House Canada, and both of them part of the Penguin Random House multinational publishing company, a division of Bertlesmann, based in Gütersloh, Germany.

Penguin Random House US had famously whiffed on the opportunity to publish 12 Rules for Life a few years earlier, leaving all of its phenomenal profits for Random House Canada, which sold the book around the world almost by default. Penguin Random House US wasn’t going to make the same mistake this time. The CAA people were warmly welcomed. Jordan B. was offered a fat contract with the Random House U.S. imprint. He signed. All was good.

At least, all was good (as reported earlier) until Random House U.S. announced to its staff the good news that the best-selling Canadian controversialist had joined their ranks. Inspired by their peers at the New Yorker and New York Review of Books, the staff howled. Management swiftly folded. Peterson was told that Random House U.S. wouldn’t be his publisher, after all. PRH would release him under another suitable (i.e., inconspicuous) imprint — it’s got hundreds of them.

That’s exactly what they’re doing. The sequel will be published in the US in March by Portfolio, a business imprint in a broom closet in the Penguin wing of Penguin Random House US. Among Portfolio titles: The Dilbert Principle by Scott Adams; The HP Way by David Packard; and Swim with the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive by Harvey Mackay. Odd company for Peterson, and not the treatment usually accorded an author who has brought a couple hundred million to the firm, but the execs at Portfolio presumably know how to get the books printed and shipped to stores, and that’s really all a phenomenon like JBP requires.

Management’s shell game with its imprints somehow convinced the foaming footsoldiers at 1745 Broadway that their company had nothing to do with JBP2.

With Penguin Random House US taking the lead on the book, it was a dead certainty that Penguin Random House Canada would get the Canadian rights (the Canadian rights deal may well have been done simultaneously). That was the moment for PRHC staffers to take to the barricades. They missed their chance. Last Monday was far too late.

Moral of the story: read SHuSH newsletter.

It fell to Anne Collins, publisher of Knopf Random House Canada, and as credible a figure as exists in Canadian publishing (herself a Governor General’s Award-winning author), to explain to staff at Monday’s town hall that it is important for a large publisher to be open to “a variety of voices.”

Bravely, she went further, according to Vice, suggesting that Peterson’s therapeutic musings had “helped millions of people who are on the fringes of society who would otherwise be radicalized by alt-right groups.”

It was a proper response, given the setting. Anne’s a pro. If I’d been in her shoes, I would have blown it.

I would have been confrontational: “Who do you think’s been paying the freight here the last couple of years. It’s not Tessa McWatt and Shame on Me: An Anatomy of Race and Belonging. I mean, fine book but does Tessa see the light of day here without a win like JPB to make her affordable?”

I would have added: “You know Random House was built on right-wing politics, no? Ayn Rand (above) was a staple of our list in our glory years, and she’s still a significant contributor under Signet, one of our ‘classics’ imprints.”

And more: “We also publish George W. Bush and Henry Kissinger and the Fifty Shades Trilogy. And you’re all complicit. Don’t be suckered by the shell game. Don’t think your hands are clean because you work at the other end of the hall. It’s all Penguin Random House, and you’re complicit in all of it.”

As for the evasions: “Of course, we hid the damn thing from you. We can’t have tantrums getting in the way of business. Next year’s budget, our current staffing levels, and lots of things we like to do as a publishing company depend upon this book. It’s JBP or the 2021 Christmas party. Think about that.”

And: “As for the anti-racist and allyship things, of course it’s performative. All corporate social responsibility stunts by all publicly-held companies are performative. But we probably do some good regardless, and at least we weren’t partnering with WE.”

Probably, by this point, the employees would have been looking for rope. I would have blithered on:

You fools. Do you have any idea who you work for? I’ll show you hate speech and white supremacists. I’ll show you fascists. There’s an official 800-page report on your employer’s links to the Nazis. Real Nazis, not pretend Twitter Nazis. Our dear masters at Bertlesmann printed nineteen million pieces of anti-Semitic material and Nazi propaganda during WW2. Including The Christmas Book of the Hitler Youth.

The head of the company made donations to the SS and his Lithuanian printers used cheap Jewish labor from the local ghetto. How’s that for allyship? Bertlesmann spent the war raking in money, and the moment the war ended they lied about it, claiming that Hitler had shut the company down victims. You can’t make this shit up. It was in the New York Times. It’s on Wikipedia. Surely if we can stand on the shoulders of The Christmas Book of the Hitler Youth, we can learn to swallow Jordan Bernt Peterson’s mother—ing pronouns.

Then, wary of the rope, anxious to get them back to their desks in a productive mood, I would have bargained.

“Look, we’ve been sitting forever on Joseph Boyden’s next novel to assuage your sensibilities. Give us this one and we’ll keep Joe on the shelf for three more years.”

As I said, I would have blown it.

The big news in the world of publishing this week had nothing to do with Jordan Peterson. Penguin Random House, the world’s biggest publisher of consumer books, got bigger, buying Simon & Schuster for $2.1 billion in cash.

I have a few things to say about this but best to review the handwringing first.

There’s been a lot said about how the Big Five publishers, which includes the above two plus HarperCollins, Hachette, and Macmillan, are now a Big Four and that’s a disaster for all concerned. (In the interests of time, I’m mostly going to look at this deal in an American context.)

I’ll pick on Franklin Foer at the Atlantic, only because he was more comprehensive than most who wrote about the sale.

Foer says the deal “is deplorable and should be blocked. As book publishing consolidates, the author tends to lose—and, therefore, so does the life of the mind.”

He says competition to sign writers and the size of advances to writers will shrink, making it “harder for authors to justify the time required to produce a lengthy work.”

He expects publishing to become ever more corporate, more risk-averse, and lose its sense of a higher purpose. It will become like the movie world and gravitate to sequels and established stars.

And, says Foer, the size of Penguin Random House S&S, which will control roughly 33% of US consumer book sales, will invite curiosity from regulators and induce political caution in the firm in deciding which writers to publish.

This is mostly tripe. The same arguments were trotted out to protest the Penguin and Random House merger in 2013. Advances for big-time writers have skyrocketed since then (look at the Obamas and their $65 million). Yes, there is a disparity between rich and poor authors, and the middle-class author is dying, but that all started well before the latest rounds of consolidation in book publishing. The whole of the entertainment world and, indeed, the whole of the American economy has been in winner-take-all directions.

As for publishing becoming more corporate and losing its sense of purpose, I’d rather have S&S owned by another publisher like Bertelsmann than ViacomCBS, which is a cable and television outfit. More on that later.

The notion that publishing becomes more risk-averse and politically cautious because of this merger is not so much argued as asserted. I don’t see it. There wasn’t a single publisher in the U.S. afraid to take on the Trump administration, and if he’d won another four years, that wouldn’t have changed, merger or no merger.

Sally Hubbard, the author of Monopolies Suck, says American discourse will be less diverse because of the deal: “We’re seeing this across the whole economy, whether it’s online speech and the consolidation of the control of speech with Facebook and Google or whether it’s the destruction of local news and journalism. You start having a less pluralistic society, more concentration of ideas through fewer gatekeepers.”

I don’t buy this either. The Independent Book Publishers Association of America has 3,600 members. That’s an army of independent publishers. And there are now close to two million self-published books released in the US annually. The discourse will be fine.

Robert Thomson, chief executive of News Corp, Rupert Murdoch’s firm, which owns HarperCollins, rang the antitrust alarm. He said the willingness of Penguin Random House to outbid his firm for S&S indicates that it wasn’t simply buying another publishing asset, it was “buying market dominance as a book behemoth.”

This is mostly sour grapes. I expect antitrust regulators will look at the deal. I don’t think they’ll be any more inclined to get in its way than they were to block the Penguin merger eight years ago. Regulators are permissive about consolidation in low-growth industries, and an oligopoly of four major publishers isn’t much different from an oligopoly of five. The combined firm will only have about a third of the trade book market, which in the scheme of things isn’t an extraordinary degree of concentration (especially compared to the tech world). Depending on how the regulators frame the sale, how they define the new firm’s competitive set, it might be argued that PRHS&S’s market share is “below 20 percent” in the US, as Bertelsmann claims, citing data from the Association of American Publishers.

The worst regulatory outcome I can see is PRHS&S being forced to divest of an imprint or two if it has a much larger market share in some particular publishing sector. Thomson, for instance, claims that the new firm will have 70% of the market for literary and adult fiction. If he’s right, that might raise eyebrows, but I don’t expect so.

The one comment that rang true to me in all the complaints about the deal was made by the US Authors Guild which predicted editorial layoffs. That will almost certainly happen. More below.

I hope that relieves you of any fears that the world is ending. I don’t think the deal is great, but it’s not a disaster.

In fact, it may be worse for Penguin Random House than for readers, writers, booksellers, or other publishing companies.

Let’s take a look at what PRH bought. The 96-year-old Simon & Schuster (the original gents above) publishes the likes of Stephen King, Bob Woodward, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Mary Higgins Clark, and David McCullough. It is owned by ViacomCBS, which also owns Paramount Studios and Nickelodeon, and is doubling down on video streaming as the key to its future growth, a good reason to dump its book assets.

You might wonder how a cable and television company ever got in the book business to begin with. The answer takes us back to the nineties, a time when big-thinking media types believed there was something magical about the convergence of broadcast and print assets. Bring them together and profits would explode. All kinds of deals were done – here in Canada, Global TV bought Hollinger’s newspapers and CTV took a piece of the Globe & Mail. The magic never happened. Convergence ended in tears just about everywhere.

ViacomCBS was no exception. It waited for the convergence magic through the aughts. None came. One imagines it had lost hope for Simon & Schuster sometime around the financial crisis of 2008-2009. All of its businesses were hit hard. Simon & Schuster’s profits were a slim 6% in ‘09. It scratched its way back to a respectable 11% by 2011 but its place in ViacomCBS was never the same.

Ever since, S&S has been operated just as you’d expect a book company to be operated by a publicly-owned cable and television conglomerate that no longer believes in magic.

The people at the top of cable and TV companies are cable and TV people. They don’t read. They’re insecure around literary types. They think print is dead. They’re sure as hell not going to invest in it. Instead, they squeeze the living shit out of it, demanding ever higher profits to fund things the cable and TV guys care about, i.e., cable & TV stuff.

Since 2010, Simon & Schuster’s revenues have been steady as a rock, right around the $800 million mark. All that’s changed is the company’s operating margin or profitability. By 2015, it was up to 15%. All of the improvement came from reducing expenditures. That trend got worse as the decade progressed.

It looks to me that ViacomCBS decided to unload S&S in about 2017. What you do when you want to sell a business is squeeze it even tighter, cutting every cost imaginable to make it look super profitable. Publishing companies are sold on a multiple of EBITDA, or pre-tax profits. The higher your profits, the higher the sale price.

In 2018 and 2019, with revenues still around $800 million, S&S booked profits of 19% and 18% respectively, which is almost unprecedented in book publishing. To give you some perspective, Knopf-Doubleday, a prestige imprint at Penguin Random House with a phenomenal backlist of timeless literature that sells itself year after year, no marketing required, budgets for an 18% profit margin, the highest in the PRH universe.

It’s extremely unlikely that S&S’s margins have ever been in the high teens before. And, again, it wasn’t because of higher sales. The company was fiendishly grinding costs, probably in an unsustainable manner. No one at ViacomCBS would have cared if the profits were unsustainable—that’s the buyer’s problem.

Industry observers, maybe talking to ViacomCBS, maybe talking to potential buyers, initially put a price tag of $1.2 billion on S&S. That was about eight times the company’s EBITDA of $145 million. An eight-times multiple is what you pay for a healthy business in a growing market. By comparison, a lot of newspapers were changing hands in the aughts, a time when the future began to look dicey, at four times. Given that book publishing isn’t a particularly fast-growing industry, one might consider eight times generous for S&S, especially given how it goosed its profits through vicious cost-cutting.

Along comes PRH. And pays $2.175 million cash. A multiple of fifteen. As though S&S is some high-octane tech startup.


Bertelsmann’s reasons for the purchase were almost identical to those it used to justify the Penguin acquisition eight years ago. Important to have size or scale when you’re dealing with megacorps like Apple and Amazon, and bookselling chains like Barnes & Noble. Being big makes it easier to develop direct-to-consumer book sales networks so the company is not as dependent on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Nonsense. PRH has all the size it needs to arm wrestle Barnes & Noble, and it will never be large enough to stand up to Amazon. As the New Republic noted this week, Amazon’s revenue is fifty times that of PRH, and its market capitalization is infinitely larger.

Adding S&S to PRH may so a little good here and there. Maybe a higher volume of direct-to-consumer sales. Maybe slightly better terms with Amazon. But nothing that would justify a $2.175 acquisition.

My best guess is that Bertelsmann bought and overpaid for Simon & Schuster out of fear.

Let’s look at what’s happened to Bertelsmann’s book business since it paid an even more ridiculous sum for Penguin.

Bertelsmann valued Penguin at $3.5 billion, which was about 25 times EBITDA. It bought 53% of the company in 2012, another 22% a few years later, and the rest early this year. To justify this price, Bertelsmann claimed that Penguin would bring the scale it needed to be more competitive and stand up to Amazon, etc. Also, it said that being bigger would attract better writing talent, more bestsellers, and allow it to develop new markets, offer new products, and find more efficiencies.

Did any of this happen?

Of course not. The first full year of a combined Penguin Random House was 2014. Revenues were €3.3 million (euros) and profits €452 million, for a healthy margin of 15%.

Revenues have been about €3.4 billion ever since except for a bump to €3.6 billion in 2019 on the strength of Michelle Obama’s memoir.

Profits have improved moderately to €528 billion in 2018 (and €561 in 2019, again courtesy of Michelle).

Are the higher profits due to its increased size, greater competitive muscle, better writers, new markets, or new products developed since the Penguin purchase?

Not as far as I can see. The improved profitability appears to have been achieved in the least imaginative way possible: the number of employees has shrunk from 12,812 to 10,300. Penguin Random House is exactly the sum of its parts, minus 2500 workers, almost half the number acquired from Penguin.

Bertelsmann overpaid for Penguin and has little to show for the deal. Its publishing division is not in great shape.

As a publicly held company, Bertelsmann needs to grow, otherwise its shareholders will sell their stock and take their money elsewhere. Penguin Random House has to contribute to that growth, preferably by producing more revenue. If it’s not able to grow its revenue, which seems to be the case, it has to cut costs and improve its profitability, and there are limits to how far you can cut costs without pulling down your revenues and getting yourself in deeper trouble.

I imagine that when S&S came on the market last year, Bertelsmann wasn’t so much interested in acquiring the company as it was concerned that someone like HarperCollins would buy it. The combination of HarperCollins and S&S would make a new firm, HCS&S, almost the size of PRH. That would be a real competitive threat to PRH, making its inability to grow an even bigger concern.

HCS&S, if it had happened, would have bid up the prices for the blockbusters that PRH so desperately needs. PRH’s dominance on the bestseller lists would have been under threat (a publisher’s share of bestsellers is a crude but still useful metric of financial success).

Far better to overpay for S&S than let HarperCollins grab it, setting yourself up for regular bidding wars with Rupert Murdoch.

So where does that leave us? I wish this deal had not happened. I would have preferred Rupert and HarperCollins to wind up with S&S. Two equal-sized book publishing competitors would have been better for authors and the rest of the literary food chain. The fact that the deal went Bertelsmann’s way is unfortunate but it’s not going to make the publishing industry much, if any, worse.

One thing that’s bound to happen is that a bunch of the combined entity’s 11,800 employees (S&S brings 1500 to the table) will find themselves out of work in the next few years as the cutting continues at Bertelsmann. That sucks.

In my estimation, the whole of the book publishing industry is nevertheless quite dynamic and a lot could change over the next decade or two. It was only thirty years ago that S&S was the biggest publisher in America. Just because Bertelsmann owns a lot of imprints now doesn’t mean that it always will, or that it will succeed with what it has, especially now that it will be under enormous pressure to justify two major and hellishly expensive acquisitions in a single decade.

I’ve just written a book about General Motors which in the mid-1960s had half the domestic car market in the US and one of every six jobs in America was related to automobiles. It looked invulnerable. It wasn’t. No company ever is. Down the line, buying S&S may prove to have been riskier for Bertelsmann than letting Murdoch have it.

A couple of final notes on the Canadian side of the acquisition. I promise I’ll look into this more in the weeks ahead but for now, this is all I’ve got.

The Big Five is a Big Three in Canada: PRH, HarperCollins, and Simon & Schuster. So, we’ll be going from a Big Three to a Big Two with this deal. The Bertelsmann group will become by far the larger of the remaining two, maybe with more than half the Canadian market (I haven’t been able to find good data on this today).

As a practical matter, PRHS&S will be the only show in Canada if you’re looking to sell a book for a sizeable advance (HarperCollins Canada is not especially active). PRHS&S will also have a lot of weight to throw around with agents, printers, booksellers, and everyone else in the publishing food chain. That could be unhealthy.

There is more cause for the PRHS&S deal to get regulatory attention in Canada than in the US. Our official cultural policy supports Canadian ownership. Strictly speaking, it should not be possible for Bertlesmann to purchase Simon & Schuster Canada unless the business is in financial distress, and it isn’t. Whether that’s enough to roust our sleepy regulators is difficult to say. I wouldn’t bet on it, even with a Liberal government.

Finally, Simon & Schuster has a large book distribution business in Canada. So does Penguin Random House Canada. The combination of these two entities will make them more powerful in the distribution space than the combination of their publishing operations make them in the book trade. It should be of more interest to regulators than the book part of the deal.