The global pandemic stirred up lots of things in the publishing industry in 2020, but RELX Group remained #1 on the Livres Hebdo/Publishers Weekly ranking of the top global publishers. With its strong position in STM, legal, and business markets, the British-Dutch publisher had revenue of $5.89 billion, up 4.5% over 2019. Thomson Reuters stayed in second place, though it had a 2.7% decline in sales last year. A combination of divestitures and sluggish spending on educational materials in some of its biggest markets dropped sales at Pearson 9.1%, allowing Bertelsmann to move past it into third place. Bertelsmann benefited from an increase in sales at Penguin Random House and growth in its still relatively new educational publishing division.

Overall, 55 publishing groups with combined reported revenue for 2020 of $67.74 billion are included in this year’s ranking. The total is down about 6% from 2019. A signification portion of that decline, however, was the result of currency fluctuations between original reported currencies and the euro and U.S. dollar, with companies reporting in Russian rubles and in Brazilian reals particularly hard hit by shifts in exchange rates. Similar to previous years, the combined revenue of the top 10 companies topped that of the rest of the companies in the ranking (comprising 53% of total revenue in 2020, and also 53% in 2019).

In the top 10, half of the listed companies in 2020 focus on scientific or professional publishing (RELX, Thomson Reuters, Wolters Kluwer, Springer Nature, and Wiley); the main business of three groups is trade or general consumer books, with each of these also having educational divisions, albeit of limited scope (Bertelsmann, Hachette Livre, and Phoenix). Only Pearson is fully focused on education.

In a year of economic uncertainty, acquisitions did not have an outsize impact on the global ranking. Rather, market segments were key to many companies’ financial performances. In addition to Pearson, other educational publishers that had revenue declines last year included Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Cengage, while Scholastic’s revenue fell due to a combination of a small decline in its education group and a plunge in revenue from its school book fair business. Santillana had a decline in its educational revenue in the year, and last fall its parent company, Prisa, sold its Spanish educational publishing business to Finland’s largest media company, Sanoma, for $544 million. The deal deepened Sanoma’s presence in the book publishing field, with revenue jumping 62%, moving it into the 34th spot on the global ranking, from 42nd in 2019. With the sale, Prisa will focus on its publishing properties in Latin America.

Two other acquisitions will have a notable impact on the ranking next year. HarperCollins completed its purchase of the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt trade group in May, and $23 million in revenue was recorded in HC’s fiscal 2021 results. (HC’s place on the 2020 ranking is based on sales from fiscal 2020; its revenue for the 2021 fiscal year, which ended June 30, 2021, was nearly $2 billion—a figure that will likely put the company well inside the top 10 largest publishers in the next ranking.)

The bigger acquisition, of course, is the pending purchase of Simon & Schuster by Bertelsmann/PRH. When completed, the deal will add about $900 million in sales to PRH and could make Bertelsmann the world’s largest publisher, while removing 2020’s 25th-largest publisher (currently owned by ViacomCBS) from the global rankings.

The pandemic seemed to reignite the public’s interest in reading—and book buying—and that in turn has kept large publishers interested in getting bigger. This summer, Hachette Livre, the sixth-largest global publisher, agreed to buy Workman for $240 million, in a deal that will add $134 million to Hachette’s Hachette Book Group’s revenue. And Hachette Livre and its parent company, Lagardère, may themselves get swallowed up by Vivendi, which seems poised to take control of Lagardère in the near future. A major reason for Vivendi’s interest in Lagardère is to add size and scale to its own book publishing business, Editis, which was the world’s 26th-largest publisher in 2020.

And while some educational publishers struggled last year, that did not cool private equity firms’ interest in the field, as Platinum Equity agreed to buy McGraw Hill for $4.5 billion in June 2021, eight years after Apollo Global Management bought the company for $2.4 billion.

Top Global Publishers by Revenue 2020

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