Most readers believe there are a variety of well established and independent book publishers in the United States. Certainly, it would increase artistic and intellectual diversity if there were a lot of different publishers. Actually, there are only six. While it’s true there are many very small publishing companies, six big ones dominate the US and in the publishing industry they are known as The Big Six.
Readers often think that the “imprint” under which a book is published is the name of a thriving, independent publisher. Alas, the imprint is usually the name of a vanished publishing house — a publishing house that was bought up by an international corporation — and the name of the global corporation, which owns many such imprints, may or may not appear anywhere in the book.
The names of The Big Six may be familiar to you as distinguished old publishing houses. They are Simon and Schuster, HarperCollins, Random House, Macmillan, The Penguin Group, and Hachette. Only two of The Big Six are US companies: Simon and Schuster, and HarperCollins. The others are foreign: two are German, one is British and the other is French.
Simon and Schuster, for example, was established in 1924 in New York City by a man named Richard Simon and another named “Max” Schuster and it was one of many such unique, stand-alone publishing houses. Now the name is owned by CBS Corporation which under the Simon and Schuster name publishes over two thousand different books a year. Those books come out under 35 different “imprints.” Those imprints are what most people believe are the names of separate and independent publishing companies — which they may have been long ago.
HarperCollins looks, from its name, as if it were simply two well-known publishing houses side by side, a nice Anglo-American merger. Harper was founded in New York City way back in 1817 by the brothers James and John Harper. They prospered and in 1962, the company then known as Harper & Brothers merged with Row, Peterson & Company, and became Harper & Row Publishers, Inc. After Harper & Row went on a buying spree and acquired the publishing houses of Crowell, and Lippincott and Zondervan and Scott, Foresman, the Harper company was itself bought by Rupert Murdoch’s gigantic conglomerate, News Corporation Limited. Eventually, the company acquired the old British publishing house William Collins & Sons which was founded in 1819 by William Collins. The distinguished old name Harper was typographically joined to the equally distinguished old name Collins to make HarperCollins, a huge subsidiary of News Corp, the largest media company in the world.
Now for the foreign four:
Random House may be one of the most widely known publishers among ordinary readers in the United States. The company was founded in 1927 by Bennett Cerf and Donald Klopfer. In the early 1960s Random House acquired two other publishing companies, Knopf and Pantheon, and in 1998 it was bought by Bertelsmann, a privately owned German media business. Bertelsmann started as a publisher in 1835, was modestly large by 1939, and soon became the single largest publisher of Nazi propaganda. The company also benefited from slave labor provided to them by the Nazi party. Bertelsmann’s US Random House Division has a very long list of imprints, some of them quite well known, such as Dell, The Dial Press, Doubleday, Knopf, Modern Library, Pantheon, Vintage — all often mistaken for independent publishing companies.
Macmillan is usually thought of as a British publishing company, and in a sense it is, but it’s owned by Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck of Stuttgart, Germany. The original Macmillan was founded in England in 1843 by two brothers, Daniel and Alexander Macmillan. The company published a long list very distinguished writers. It remained an independent company until 1995 when the huge German media company Holtzbrinck Publishing Group purchased 70 percent it, and bought the remaining 30 percent in 1999. In the US they issue books under such well known imprints as Faber & Faber, Henry Holt and Company, Palgrave Macmillan, St Martin’s Press, and Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Hachette Book Group USA is owned by French company Hachette Livre which, in turn, is owned by Lagardère Publishing, the French media giant. On their US website, the Hachette Book Group says that the story started in the United States in 1837 when the firm of Little, Brown & Company was founded. In 1996, Little, Brown & Company and Warner Books merged to become, eventually, Time Warner Book Group, which in turn was acquired by Hachette in 2006. Properly, the story began not when Little, Brown & Company was founded, but in 1826 when Louis Hachette opened his book shop and publishing company in France.
The Penguin Group is the largest publisher in the world. From the perspective of the US, this story began in 1838 when John Wiley and George Putnam founded Wiley and Putnam. The company split in 1848, and Putnam went on alone. The company did well and in 1965 the Putnam company bought Berkley Books, and in 1975 the Putnam and Berkley Groups were acquited by The Music Corporation of America as their publishing division. Ten years later that division was sold to the Penguin Group which was itself a division of the British publishing conglomerate, Pearson PLC, which is headquartered in London. Perhaps the best known Penguin imprint in the US is Viking, formerly an independent New York publisher.
None of this is secret, of course. It’s just not well known outside the world of publishing.