Penguin SOLD: Publishing, Change & Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Oh MY!

Penguin Books, Penguin Publishing, Penguin Publishing Sold, Kristen Lamb, traditional publishing, authors

Penguin Books, Penguin Publishing, Penguin Publishing Sold, Kristen Lamb, traditional publishing, authors

This past week, Pearson, the owner of Penguin for the last half-century, jettisoned its remaining stake in Penguin Random House—the book publishing joint venture it formed six years ago with Bertelsmann, the German media group.

According to an article in MSN Money, End of an era for book publisher Penguin:

The company originally owned 47% of Penguin Random House when the joint venture was set up in 2013.

It sold a 22% stake in the business to Bertelsmann, its joint venture partner, for $1bn in July 2017.

Today it sold its remaining 25% stake in the publisher, again to Bertelsmann, for £530m.

Ian King, Sky News

With Borders dead and Barnes & Noble brought to its knees, Amazon is stronger than ever, and indie bookstores and mom and pop bookstores are coming back to life. We are, indeed, living in strange times.

Or are we?

Why So Quiet?

Penguin Books, Penguin Publishing, Penguin Publishing Sold, Kristen Lamb, traditional publishing, authors

Penguin Books, Penguin Publishing, Penguin Publishing Sold, Kristen Lamb, traditional publishing, authors

First of all, forgive me for this small segue. Maybe it’s I’ve been a bit off the grid. I’ve been very ill with pneumonia and my grandfather who raised me passed away unexpectedly right before Christmas.

I only knew about this article because one of my followers was thoughtful enough to pass it onto me via Facebook.

Thus, if my analysis is off the mark, I’m blaming it on the drugs. That aside, when I first began blogging, everyone was talking about THE BIG SIX. BIG PUBLISHING. If any major house did anything there was at least some article somewhere.

Yet, when I tried to do further research on this Penguin sale, the ramifications, what ripple effect this shift would have for authors, readers, the market….

Nothing. Not a blog or a blip or a boop. I even subscribe to The New York Times and couldn’t find anything.

ONLY ONE ARTICLE. The one I’ve linked to on this post. Otherwise?


So this is why I am confessing AHEAD of time to being on A LOT…A LOT of drugs, because if y’all have seen the flurry of activity and I missed it, please pass it on to me and accept my mea culpa ahead of time.

I don’t believe I’ve missed anything, though. It’s a sign of how much the industry has changed since I began blogging a decade and a half and almost two thousand blogs ago.

That, and excuse the tinfoil on my head, but the multimedia conglomerates had a LOT of egg on their faces with the whole nasty Barnes & Noble thing. Now that these staple houses are toppling like the proverbial house of cards?


Not good optics. Maybe just me. Or blame the NyQuil.

Penguin Chic

Penguin Books, Penguin Publishing, Penguin Publishing Sold, Kristen Lamb

Penguin Books, Penguin Publishing, Penguin Publishing Sold, Kristen Lamb

Yes, Bri. Yes I did.

Without a flurry of activity to derive a brilliant analysis from—gets cramp patting self on back—I went a different direction. If you read the article I linked to regarding the end of an era (apropos for ending the teens, I suppose) there is a very interesting history behind the creation of Penguin.

Thus, do we ever really END anything? Or is it as the book of Ecclesiastes tells us?

There is nothing new under the sun.

A young director at Bodley Head, Sir Allen, came up with the idea of publishing books for the same price as a package of ten cigarettes after waiting on a platform at Exeter St. David’s station for his train back to London.

Much to his chagrin, he had too much time and nothing to fill it with. No cell phones back then.

He lamented at the paltry selection of magazines and Victorian novel reprints. During that time, books were prohibitively expensive. About 8 shillings or almost $37 in modern currency.

Not only were the books during that time mostly inaccessible to the public, the publishers had to sell at least two thousand copies of any book to break even. Sir Allen had a BOLD idea. He wanted to offer more books at a MUCH lower price to a FAR LARGER audience.

Sounding familiar?

To offer the books at Allen’s comparably rock-bottom price, the publisher would have to sell almost twenty times the volume. BUT, everyday people would finally have better access to a vast catalogue of titles they’d never before imagined outside of a lending library.

Fancy that.

Penguin Breaking the Trends & Rules

Doesn’t fit blog…but Baby Yoda, y’all.

Penguin’s early catalog included Agatha Christie and Ernest Hemingway. Penguin’s gamble, like Amazon’s, paid off big, because Sir Allen, just like Jeff Bezos, saw a gap in the market and he filled it.

Despite protests of renowned authors like George Orwell publicly decrying publishers having anything to do with this new venture—claiming that cheap books would only devalue them and people would cease to read and all of publishing would collapse—Sir Allen plunged ahead with his plan.

Penguin sold three million books the first year in business.

Apparently Sir Allen wasn’t the only one bored wandering train stations with nothing to read.

Penguin launched a non-fiction division, a children’s division, and, with the meteoric rise to fame and success, even made the bold decision to publish DH Lawrence’s banned title from 1928, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, uncensored.

Fifty Shades of WHOA dass crazy!

This decision, of course, landed Sir Allen in court for breaking the Obscene Publications Act 1959. He (Penguin) was acquitted, the publisher sold a bazillion copies, and the rest is history (pretty much repeating itself).

Blogging Across Three Eras

I’ve had the unique challenge/blessing/curse of blogging about publishing since before the rise of digital. I began blogging in the aughts, then into the teens and now will continue into the twenties, assuming I don’t lick any light sockets in the next couple days.

My blogging adventure began on a site called Gather (probably now gathering cyber dust somewhere), then on MySpace. Then, that crashed and burned and I moved to the free WordPress blogging platform, then finally learned my lesson and moved to blogging on my own website.

***Take my blogging class. It’s on sale. Seriously, I did all the dumb stuff so you don’t have to. I will save you YEARS of stupidity.

I blogged about being an ‘aspiring author’ when our prime goal, our ONLY path, was to pass gatekeepers. There WAS no Kindle or Amazon.

Self-publishing was vanity press and meant plunking down over ten grand and all your self-respect and any respect from fellow authors forever and ever AMEN.

Vanity publishing was a death sentence in our industry, unless some stroke of John Grisham luck won you an appeal.

But I blogged on Gather and MySpace that social media WAS going to change the world as we knew it. I asserted that, for the first time in history, novelists had a way of creating an audience BEFORE a novel was even finished, thus vastly increasing odds of success (and was laughed at and y’all know the story).

If you don’t, pick up a copy of my author branding book Rise of the Machines: Human Authors in a Digital World. It’s evergreen.

Platforms change, people don’t. Look up your ex if you don’t believe me 😉 .

Into the Teens

Again, doesn’t fit but made me laugh. I love this cat.

I kept yelling and howling that authors NEEDED to be on social media and was shut out. Kept telling the Big Six to PLEASE listen, that I could HELP them, help their authors.

As of 2011, I even had one of the most legendary agents in NYC representing me for Rise of the Machines, and even HE couldn’t talk reason into them. But, his guidance is part of why that book is so good—OUCH! CRAMP!—so there’s that.

No matter how much I blogged and begged, every prediction came true. Cassandra Syndrome seriously sucks sometimes. And no, I don’t really take pleasure in being right. It would have been nice for the right people to listen (though Amazon tweets my blogs)…sigh.

I don’t begrudge Amazon anything, because if people are going to do dumb business? Bye Felicia. It isn’t good for their authors. Dean Koontz saw that, which is why he signed with Thomas & Mercer.

It really wasn’t until a a few years after Borders closed that the New York publishers seemed to even wake up out of the fugue state and recognize that the Internet might exist (still weren’t ready to admit there was a threat).

In the aughts, we were dealing with the fallout of the burst, the disintegration of Web 1.0 and the rise of Web 2.0 out of its remains.

Web 2.0 was like a cute pet people fed but no one believed might one day bite back (despite many bloggers warning not to feed it after midnight).

Throughout this past decade, I’ve battled the FREE book boom, the exposure dollar debacle, the blog tour dystopia, and algorithmic alchemy. I’ve spent most of the teens on the front lines.

It’s been…exhausting.

In the aughts, there was the challenge to get writers to stand up for themselves, to realize they were a business. Now? I’ve spent the past five years reminding them they are WRITERS, not advertising agencies.

A decade and a half dedicated to educating us as artisans. Knowing enough about business to be effective, but remembering why we are here…THE ART.

Penguin is a Footnote, So What Now?

Penguin Books, Penguin Publishing, Penguin Publishing Sold, Kristen Lamb

Penguin Books, Penguin Publishing, Penguin Publishing Sold, Kristen Lamb

Plan B?

If there is anyone who can grieve Penguin or the change or loss of any of the publishers, I suppose it’s me. I’ve dreamed of being an author since I was a little girl who spent every cent of babysitting money at the closest B.Dalton.

My father loved books, my grandfather, my entire family. I have a first edition copy of Animal Farm I inherited from my Great Aunt Iris.

I started writing my first novel before I even knew how to spell any words. Too bad Amazon wasn’t around then, LOL.

My grandfather has died. In fact, I’ve lost now fifteen members of my family in just over five years (downside of an aging family). A family so large I couldn’t fit them into a picture in 2009, I can now count on one hand.

So I know how hard change and letting go can be. How tough it is to wrap your head around what the future will look like without the staples of the past you’re so accustomed to. What it is to be unmoored.

But, we grew used to a world without the mom-and-pops, the B. Daltons, the Waldenbooks and other small chains and gradually became accustomed to the giant stores. Then they started becoming too much of a hassle as we began shopping more and more on-line.

As more small Amazon stores open and the small indie bookstores boom back to life, we will recalibrate to a new normal. We’ll browse the used bookstores and see those bright (or faded) orange Penguin spines and smile with nostalgia just like when I find a picture of my grandparents and me from back when I was in high school.

Nothing remains the same, which is good. But some things never change, which is also good.

Markets, trends, what people want, tastes and preferences and buying patterns? Those change. It was the publishers JOB to pay attention to that. They owed that to the readers and most of all to the authors they had a contractual obligation to protect and make their product profitable.

The publishers (or rather the multi-media conglomerates who owned them and called the shots) had a duty to shareholders, and they failed.

That’s why they’re falling like a line of dominos. Mergers, sales, and acquisitions are happening far faster now that Barnes & Noble has been sold to a hedge fund because that sale decimated their cash flow.

Large preorders from B&N have been all that’s been keeping the lights on for years…and I have blogged until I am BLUE about how dangerous that was (so that’s enough on that).

Roaring into the 20s

Penguin Books, Penguin Publishing, Penguin Publishing Sold, Kristen Lamb, traditional publishing, authors

Penguin Books, Penguin Publishing, Penguin Publishing Sold, Kristen Lamb, traditional publishing, authors

We are writers, thus we tend to be on the nostalgic side. Much of the past fifteen years has been experimentation, growing pains and figuring out what works and what doesn’t, what we like and what we don’t.

Paper isn’t dead. But digital is alive and well. Sir Allen didn’t ditch the luxurious volumes that cost $37, he just made it where those weren’t the ONLY reading option.

People riding a train could get a small pulp copy of Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms to read on a trip.

They had OPTIONS.

Same today. We can buy hard cover, paperback, audio, digital, etc. Maybe we have too many options, but that’s where quality writing and platform come into play.

Modern authors do face many unique challenges, but one major threat—I believe or rather pray—will soon fall away. Profiteers have invaded our profession en mass. There are far too many who are more interested in advertising and marketing than actually learning about story and craft.

This makes discoverability a nightmare, since—with over a million self-published books being released per year—the readers are being buried in Hell’s Slush Pile.

But, if history is any indicator, they will get weary and move on.

There is only so long one can churn out crappy books, work fifteen-hour days juking algorithms, toss out two grand a month only to make back three before you turn in your chips and move on.

I’ve been in this profession a LONG time…which is a lot to say these days. I’ve seen all the scams, all the grifts, all the types come and go. Writers—those of us who are here because we LOVE books, LOVE stories, LOVE to read and the written word and honor and respect the art? We’re hard to get rid of.

Contrary to popular belief, storytelling is the oldest profession 😉 .

We’ve been around since the cave days and we aren’t going anywhere. If we’ve made it through the invention of cave drawings, hieroglyphs, papyrus, the quill, the Gutenberg press, the newspaper, the radio, T.V., movies…Ms. Pac Man?

We will survive and thrive.

So raise a glass, toast to a new adventure, commit to your profession and to doing it honor with your work. Have some fun and ROAR into the TWENTIES!

***Since I have been very ill, I am extending all the holiday sales so y’all can go wild and treat yourselves!

I love hearing from you!

What are your thoughts? Looking forward to the 20s? New Year’s Resolutions? Thoughts on Penguin and the eery similarity to our modern adventures with Amazon?

Makes it all seem not so scary to me. I love hearing from you, especially since I have been sick and away so long. I MISSED Y’ALL!

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of JANUARY, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages (5K words) of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or fewer). 

***I will announce December’s winner once I feel better.

In the meantime, PLEASE treat yourself to a class! We have a TON of classes that we will be deleting or putting into cold storage come mid-January (I’m extending the sales to January 15th since I haven’t been around to tell you about them during the holidays).

These will no longer be available after January 15th, so STOCK UP while you can.

NEW Year, New YOU! ROAR into the TWENTIES!


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***I will add more classes, especially from Maria Grace, in the coming days, as I get stronger.

Kristen Lamb

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Kristen Lamb