The economic uncertainty caused by both the pandemic and the presidential election limited merger and acquisition activity in 2020, but there were still a number of significant transactions. The most dramatic move, of course, was Penguin Random House’s November 25 announcement that it had agreed to acquire Simon & Schuster for $2.175 billion—the biggest trade book deal in American publishing history. PRH expects to complete the acquisition sometime around the middle of this year.
ViacomCBS announced early in 2020 that it was looking to sell S&S, but it paused negotiations when the pandemic hit in March. Discussions heated up in early fall as ViacomCBS looked to close the deal before the end of the year. That pattern can be seen in overall deal announcements in 2020: a smattering of acquisitions were announced early on, while the summer saw a dearth of deals before transactions picked up in the fall.
The only book-publishing-related acquisition that was completed in July and August was CJK Group’s purchase of a printing plant that Quad/Graphics had put up for sale after its agreement to buy LSC Communications was terminated. Quad completed its exit from the book printing business in November with its sale of two other facilities to Bertelsmann Printing Group USA. The pandemic contributed to the challenges the country’s largest book printer, LSC, faced after the merger with Quad was called off, and in April LSC filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. In September the private equity firm Atlas Holdings was named the winner in the auction to buy LSC’s assets, and that deal was completed in December.
The biggest transaction in the digital area was investment firm KKR’s purchase of OverDrive from Rakuten USA, a subsidiary of Japan’s Rakuten Inc. The deal was announced the day after Christmas in 2019, but the closing, originally scheduled for the first quarter of last year, did not occur until June. Last week OverDrive reported that 2020 was a record year for digital audio and e-book lending in public libraries and schools. In addition to OverDrive, KKR owns RBmedia, one of the largest independent publishers and distributors of audiobooks. RBmedia made its own mark in 2020, getting into the audio dramatization business with the purchase of AudioGraphics.
Among the more significant transactions between publishers in early 2020 was Hachette Book Group’s purchase of more than 1,000 children’s titles from the Disney Book Group. The combination of bestselling and award-winning titles, including backlist and new books, became part of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, which is overseen by executive v-p and publisher Megan Tingley.
Shanghai-based Trustbridge Global Capital increased its presence in the worldwide children’s book market with its purchase of Walker Books, the U.K. parent company of Candlewick Press. The Walker purchase was Trustbridge’s third significant acquisition involving American children’s publishers, following its 2018 purchase of Peachtree Press and its 2016 acquisition of Holiday House.
Covid-19 delayed some deals last year, but Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s announcement in November that it is placing its trade group up for sale guarantees that at least one major acquisition will take place in 2021. How active M&A will be in the year depends on the course of the pandemic and the economy. David Lamb, partner at Book Advisors, said he believes the market will be quiet in the early going but should pick up in the second half of the year as the different players get more clarity about where their businesses are headed.