What are the Big Five Publishers? And why does Penguin Random House’s purchase of Simon & Schuster matter?

Front Edge Publishing team standing in front of “READ”-shaped bookselves
Front Edge’s David Crumm, John Hile and Dmitri Barvinok attending an Ingram Lightning Source Indie Days conference in Nashville along with publishers from across North America.

When we founded our publishing house in 2007, we were determined to rank among the hundreds of mid-sized “independent publishers” in the U.S.—because our staff and our authors wanted the freedom to publish books that might never climb over the hurdles set up by the Big Five publishers. We also understood the strict limitations the Big Five place on authors from limitations on royalties to limits on an author’s ability to help shape the design and production of their books. Our approach to publishing involves hands-on collaboration with authors whose books we know will make the world a little better.

After studying the industry, our Front Edge Publishing company decided to join the trade association known as the Independent Booksellers Association. Just take a look at the IBPA’s standards and you will see some of the distinctive values shared by leading indie publishers. Those include a commitment to special ongoing relationships with our authors (the Big Five tend to promote authors’ books for about six weeks and then move them to their “backlist”)—and a commitment to diversity and inclusion in publishing.

So, why should our community of authors and readers even care about the Big Five?

Because those “five” publish more than half of all books bought in the English language. Those “five” have oversized clout in the entire publishing and bookselling industry. And those “five” may soon become “four,” further increasing their power to influence access for authors and retailers.

What portion of books are sold by the Big Five?

No one knows for sure. Publishers traditionally safeguard their sales data and only share partial details with news media. Some industry estimates in recent years (including the estimate cited by Wikipedia) have placed Big Five book sales at “60 percent” of all English-language books sold; other industry observers place the percentage at higher than 70 percent. 

Considering that between 750 and 900 million books are sold each year (and that number has been rising during the COVID pandemic years)—that means hundreds of million books are sold each year by indie publishers. But remember, please: These are general estimates based on impartial data. The Big Five prefer to keep their full sales data private.

What are the Big Five publishers?

In American news media, “The Big Five” often are described as if they were American publishers, but they are truly global media giants, today. 

The rankings below are based on sales of English-language books. 

The biggest of the Big Five is Penguin Random House, the result of a 2013 merger. This giant is itself owned by Bertelsmann, a multinational media company based in Germany.

Second, based on sales, is HarperCollins, owned by News Corp.

Third is Simon & Schuster, which was owned by ViacomCBS until that company reconfigured itself as Paramount Global in February 2022.

Fourth is Hachette, owned by the French media giant Hachette Livre.

Fifth is Macmillan, which has deep roots in Great Britain (Macmillan published the original Alice in Wonderland), but now is owned by the German Holtzbrinck Publishing Group.

What is the Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster merger?

In November 2020, ViacomCBS agreed to sell Simon & Schuster, the third largest book publisher in the United States, to Penguin Random House for more than $2 billion. Some news stories today continue to describe this sale as involving ViacomCBS, which is the company that initiated the deal, although that company now is Paramount Global.

In the approval process that unfolded, the U.S. Department of Justice intervened. In November 2021, the Justice Department filed a civil antitrust lawsuit to block Penguin Random House’s acquisition, The lawsuit alleged that the acquisition would create a publisher with too much influence over the publishing industry and author revenues.

How will the Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster merger affect publishing?

This is the heart of the unfolding news story in the summer of 2022. Strong opinions have been expressed from all sides, but no one can accurately predict the outcome at this point.

Many of our readers first noticed this news story when best-selling author Stephen King added his famous name to the ranks of opponents. When we began seeing emails from our readers and our authors, we decided to compile this helpful column.

So, to dive into current news, here are some of the most important news reports. First, on Stephen King’s involvement:

The New York Times: Stephen King Testifies That Merger Between Publishing Giants Would Hurt Writers

Fast Company‘Fantastical claims’ and Stephen King: Penguin Random House and DOJ face off for antitrust battle

Associated Press: Stephen King testifies for government in books merger trial

Then here are a couple of other important overviews published this week:

Forbes magazine has taken a similar approach to this column you are reading right now. Media writer Alison Durkee boils down this merger into key points and central questions, then she offers her own half dozen links for further reading.

The NYTimes tech and media writer Shira Ovide wrote one of the most insightful columns, published under a very long headline: The Books Merger That’s About Amazon—The U.S. wants to stop Penguin Random House from buying Simon & Schuster. The elephant in the room is Amazon.

In that column, she writes in part: 

The elephant in the room is Amazon. Book publishers want to become bigger and stronger partly to have more leverage over Amazon, by far the largest seller of books in the United States. One version of Penguin Random House’s strategy boils down to this: Our book publishing monopoly is the best defense against Amazon’s book selling monopoly.

Whatever the outcome, we’re committed to publishing books that make the world a better place.

One thing is certain: Whether we wind up with a Big Four—or the merger is blocked and the Big Five remain dominant in publishing for the time being—indie publishers are the gateway for thousands of authors.

Got a book proposal? Contact us.

About David Crumm

David Crumm is founding Editor of Front Edge Publishing. Nationally, he is known as a veteran journalist—a top writer and editor—with experience both in the U.S. and overseas. He is based in Canton, Michigan, where he also serves as Editor of Read the Spirit online magazine. His columns on trends in media appear twice a month on our Front Edge Publishing website.

Sign up for Front Edge Publishing blog updates!

Please refer to our privacy policy (written in plain English) for information on how we handle your personal data. The section on subscription forms applies to this form.


Thank You!

The Front Edge blog discusses new developments in publishing and technology every Monday morning. Grab a cup of coffee and join us! Make sure to add info@frontedgepublishing to your address book to stay up to date.

Check out the authors and publishers powered by Front Edge Publishing in our bookstore.