Apparently not all literary agents agree with Jennifer Rudolph Walsh. The William Morris Endeavor super-agent, who appeared as an expert witness for Penguin Random House in the case of U.S. v. Bertelsmann and said that she felt if Simon & Schuster were to be acquired it would not affect competition, seems to share the opposite view of a potential acquisition than many of her peers. An anonymous survey released by the Association of American Literary Agents has found that 87% of respondents oppose the acquisition, citing, among their chief concerns, that the deal would result in “less competition” for titles and “lower advances.”
The survey, active for five days, was issued because, as AALA president Jennifer Weltz explained, the organization was “keen to understand what our members think about the case and what implications the eventual ruling might have for our authors and our roles as literary agents.”
Only 4% of respondents, who are members of the largest professional organization of literary agents, said they supported the acquisition, while 8% expressed ambivalence.
Beyond fears about less competition and lower advances, agents cited concerns about how the bidding process for books would be conducted at a combined PRH-S&S, as well as how this upgraded corporate entity might push for large-scale contractual changes that would adversely affect authors.
One agent commented: “The Big 5 are already extremely restrictive (and opaque) in their rules regarding submissions between editors and imprints. PRH and S&S merging would limit the amount of reputable imprints a project could be submitted to, and lower the chances of auctions or competitive buying situations.”
Losing leverage in negotiations at large was a pressing concern for respondents, some of whom worried what a PRH-S&S could do in terms of dictating wide-scale changes to everything from rights withholding to royalty payout schedules. (Though each book contract in publishing is individual, standards do exist and, in the past, the largest houses have been able to insist on lasting changes to so-called boilerplate language in contracts.) Citing one example, agents responding to the survey said they were still smarting over PRH’s decision to change its royalty payment structure during the pandemic, moving it from the one-time standard three payments to four, or more. That move has not been shifted since pandemic restrictions have eased, and some agents pointed to it as destructive indicator of what an already-large publisher can do.
Among the minority of agents who either expressed uncertainty or support for the acquisition, the threat of what might happen to S&S if PRH doesn’t acquire it looms large. As one agent put it: “S&S is for sale no matter who buys them. Better an established publisher with systems and distribution in place than a sale to a hedge fund or non-publishing entity who can potentially sell off assets and cause a venerable and profitable publishing house to disappear.”
For some, the potential purchase of S&S by PRH is, ultimately, the lesser of two evils. “I don't want S&S to be sold to private equity or a company that doesn't understand publishing (see: HMH),” said one agent. “And I don't want S&S to be absorbed into a big house just for the backlist (also see: HMH). If PRH will truly let S&S operate independently, I don't hate it. I still don't like it though.”