The turmoil caused by the global pandemic was not enough to unseat the RELX Group as the world’s largest book publisher in 2021. Though sales fell 3% from 2020, the STM and legal publisher still held a healthy lead over second-place Thomson Reuters on the Publishers Weekly annual global ranking. For the most part, the subject areas that RELX specializes in held up well in 2021.
The top six publishers in 2020 all held their positions in 2021, and while there was some shifting among the top 10 players, no company dropped out of the group. Those 10 largest publishers generated sales of roughly $35 billion in 2021, up slightly from 2020, and accounted for 53% of all sales of the 50 companies included on this year’s ranking.
Bertelsmann remained in third place on the list despite a small revenue decline in the year due to a drop in sales in its education group that offset another good year of trade sales. Revenue at Pearson, which has reorganized itself to become a publisher of life-long learning materials rather than an educational publisher, was roughly flat in 2021, keeping it in fourth place.
HarperCollins moved up to seventh place, from #10 in 2020. HC, whose sales are from the fiscal year ended June 30, 2021, benefited not only from an overall increase in consumer book sales in the U.S. but also from acquisitions that added a total of $55 million to its fiscal 2021 revenue: $32 million came from the company’s April 2020 purchase of three children’s books groups in Europe that had been owned by Egmont, and $23 million came from the purchase of the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt trade division, which was completed in May 2021.
With its decision to sell its trade division, HMH transformed itself into a “learning technology company” and joined the growing number of former book publishers that are betting everything on moving into the digital space. In April of this year, HMH took part in another growing trend of onetime textbook publishers when it was acquired by the private equity firm Veritas Capital for $21 per share—a deal that gave HMH an equity value of approximately $2.8 billion.
In 2021, McGraw-Hill Education was sold by one private equity firm, Apollo Global Management, to another, Platinum Equity. Platinum paid $4.5 billion for MHE; Apollo bought the company eight years earlier for $2.4 billion. MHE executives said they were looking forward to working with Platinum to expand the company’s digital operations.
This phenomenon of educational publishers expanding beyond their traditional businesses is not limited to the U.S. In recent years, educational publishers in Brazil, Germany, and South Korea have evolved to become learning companies by developing more digital offerings and providing a variety of services to learners and educators.
English-language publishers weren’t the only ones that fared well over the course of the pandemic. Chinese publisher Phoenix Publishing and Media reported a 9% increase in sales, placing it in the 10th spot on the global ranking and maintaining its position as the largest Chinese book publisher, ahead of China South Publishing & Media Group (#17 on the list), China Publishing Group (#27), and China Science Publishing & Media (#38).
One place below China Science is Eksmo-AST, by far the market leader in the Russian book business. Its 32% increase in sales last year was due in part to the purchase of the country’s second-largest consumer book publishing house, Azbooka-Atticus, as well as the acquisition of the book retail chain Chitai Gorod through its own retail arm, Bukvoed.
The total sales of the publishers in PW’s annual ranking has grown consistently over the years, fueled by acquisitions of both major competitors and smaller companies. As of early October, the publishing world is still waiting to find out whether Bertelsmann and its Penguin Random House subsidiary will succeed in buying Simon & Schuster (currently #23 on the global ranking), after the U.S. Department of Justice sued to block the sale. French media group Vivendi is also working to takeover Lagardère, parent company of Hachette Livre, the world’s sixth-largest book publisher, with holdings in both trade and educational publishing—another case of high-level consolidation that’s been making headlines for over a year. In what seems to be a rare acknowledgment that consolidation has its limits, Vivendi said it would consider selling all or parts of the publisher it already owns, Editis—#24 on the global ranking and the second-largest trade publisher in France, after Hachette Livre—if it does complete the acquisition of Lagardère.