Simon & Schuster Acquisition

The New York Times had an interesting article on Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp’s bid for Simon & Schuster on November 17 and this was followed by yesterday’s article in the LA Times that Simon & Schuster was actually bought by Penguin Random House. In any case, the number of ‘big five’ publishers has decreased from five to four. Each of these articles has some worthwhile insights.

First, the NY Times article written by Edmund Lee who covers the media industry for The New York Times. He has reported on major changes at news and entertainment companies, including 21st Century Fox, Comcast and The Walt Disney Company, as the industry grapples with challenges from Silicon Valley.

Edmund Lee

Mr Lee’s article says, in part:

“Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp is making a play for Simon & Schuster, the venerable home to best-selling authors like Stephen King and Hillary Clinton that raised a ruckus this year after releasing a string of hit titles critical of President Trump.

The powerhouse publisher was put up for sale by its owner, ViacomCBS, in March, and the company has since fielded more than half a dozen inquiries, according to three people familiar with the process who declined to be named because the matter remains confidential.

“In addition to News Corp, which already owns HarperCollins, a leading bidder is Penguin Random House, according to the people. Penguin Random House, the largest book publisher in the United States, is owned by the German media giant Bertelsmann. The French firm Vivendi, a minority owner of Hachette through the publisher Lagardère, has also made a bid.

“At least one of the offers has topped $1.7 billion, far above the minimum ViacomCBS had set, according to two of the people. Several financial firms, after lobbing offers below that range, are no longer in the running. Final bids are due before Thanksgiving, and ViacomCBS could announce a winner some time after that. A deal may not materialize.

“Publishing has become a winner-takes-all business, a circumstance brought on by Amazon’s aggressive pricing, and now a publisher needs size to survive. Tent-pole titles can better offset losses from weaker books. A bigger inventory can generate more data on the habits and interests of book buyers.

“Those dynamics underpin the wave of consolidation that has swept the business in the last decade. Penguin and Random House merged, Hachette Book Group acquired Perseus Books, and News Corp bought the romance publisher Harlequin.

“Founded as a publisher of crossword puzzle books in 1924 by Richard L. Simon and M. Lincoln Schuster, Simon & Schuster expanded into a major house with 50 imprints, including Charles Scribner’s Sons, the publisher of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe. The company now has 1,350 employees and publishes roughly 2,000 books a year.

“The company has proved durable, even during the recent downturn. Simon & Schuster’s revenue rose 8 percent to $649 million this year through September. Profit before tax during the same period rose 6 percent, to $115 million.

“Any merger agreement would also have to undergo regulatory scrutiny. A combination with either Penguin Random House or HarperCollins, the two largest book publishers in the country, could raise questions in Washington. Penguin Random House’s sales exceeded $4 billion last year. Annual sales at HarperCollins, which reports its fiscal year at the end of June, were about $1.7 billion.

The Los Angeles Times article is written by Christi Carras and Ryan Faughnder.

Christi Carras is an entertainment reporter at the Los Angeles Times.  Ryan Faughnder is a film business reporter for the Los Angeles Times’ Company Town, covering the major Hollywood studios, including Walt Disney Co.

Christi Carras
Christi Carras
Ryan Faughnder

It says, in part:

“On Wednesday, ViacomCBS announced plans to sell Simon & Schuster to Bertelsmann’s Penguin Random House for a whopping $2.18 billion. The merger, set to be finalized in 2021, will see S&S continue to operate independently as part of the Penguin Random House publishing empire.

“It’s the latest step in the long-term consolidation of the publishing industry, in which book houses are looking to gain bargaining power when dealing with online retailers such as Hachette Book Group in 2016 bought Perseus Books, following the 2013 merger of Penguin and Random House and News Corp.’s 2014 deal for HarperCollins to buy romance novel publisher Harlequin. Critics of such deals worry that bigger behemoths in publishing wield increasing power over authors.

“C. Kerry Fields, a professor of business law and ethics at USC’s Marshall School of Business said he doubts the Department of Justice will quash the Penguin Random House-Simon & Schuster deal. Antitrust authorities, he said, focus their attention on potential harm to consumers, rather than authors. In a dispute between the publishers and Amazon, the Justice Department sided with the latter, charging the largest publishers with collusion to control prices. The suit was settled in 2012-13, and the merger of Penguin and Random House soon followed. Supporters of the latest acquisition will probably be able to argue that consolidation levels the playing field.

“In a Wednesday letter to his staff, Penguin Random House Chief Executive Markus Dohle hailed Simon & Schuster’s ‘distinguished legacy of publishing notable authors, perennial bestsellers and culture-shaping blockbusters’ as a ‘natural complement to our publishing programs and catalogs around the world. As we have demonstrated, we can successfully unite company cultures and prestigious publishing teams while preserving each imprint’s identity and independence. Simon & Schuster aligns completely with the creative and entrepreneurial culture that we nurture by providing editorial autonomy to our publishers, funding their pursuit of new stories, ideas, and voices, and maximizing reach for our authors.'”

Booker Prize 2020

There is an article in today’s Telegraph which tells the story of this year’s Booker Prize very well. It was written by Cal Revely-Calder.

Mr Revely-Calder’s website is cryptic. It says that he is ‘writing in books + art + culture’, that he is ‘commissioning editor, the telegraph; contributing editor, minor literature(s)’ ; ‘2017 frieze writer’s prize + 2014 guardian student critic of the year’ and ‘ bylines in artforum, frieze, the TLS, the spectator, apollo, the white review + others’.

Culture: Music, TV & radio, books, film, art, dance ...
Cal Revely-Calder

In the Telegraph article he says, “This year’s Booker Prize was unusual: we approached it with suspicion. Last time, it was a shambles. All the judges must do is pick one outstanding novel. It was thus historic, and tedious, when they failed in 2019. Of their two “joint winners”, one was Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments – a lifetime-achievement award in disguise – and the other was Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other, which was merely, if complexly, bad.

“Thirteen months on, you might have feared the worst. (Would they let everyone win, as with the much-maligned Turner Prize?) So what a relief that, this evening, the Booker regained its ruthlessness, and sense. Douglas Stuart deserves the £50,000: his debut novel, Shuggie Bain, was the standout book of the year.

“Only his second published work, it drew on Stuart’s own Eighties youth. A little boy in Glasgow’s filthy tenements, he’s beset by his mother, an alcoholic, and his burgeoning sexuality. It’s a searing story of Special Brew and vomit at dawn, and the steadfastness of a child’s love. Few novelists can write a woman like Agnes: wretched enough to break your heart, but with a drunk’s grim selfishness. Built on this harrowing portrait, Shuggie Bain has excoriating power.

“Of the six novels on the shortlist, four were debuts, and none of the novelists was a “household name”. Good: the purpose of the Booker is to broaden the public’s taste. This year’s group had a psychological bent, with narrators tussling with their own dreams, and their societies’ and families’ demands. There were the usual silly complaints: Stuart was the only Briton shortlisted, for example. So what? The list was the strongest for years: quality won out.

“The absent giant, if you believe the headlines, was Hilary Mantel: with The Mirror and the Light, her Cromwell trilogy might have won three Prizes from three. But that decision was right: the novel was prolix, and Mantel doesn’t need publicity. (Atwood said the same of herself last year; Evaristo, she argued, might have won for that reason alone.) 

“I had a few doubts about the longlist, admittedly. It left out Actress by Anne Enright, a haunted, heartbroken work – if not quite as rich as The Gathering, for which she won the Prize in 2007. Strange, too, was the lack of Ali Smith’s Summer, the end of her ‘seasonal’ quartet; one of Britain’s most playful novelists has been overlooked again. 

“But these are trivial gripes. With the exception, perhaps, of Diane Cook – The New Wilderness is a poorly-plotted dystopian tale – I’d recommend any of the final six. Stuart’s victory is a just reward, but all of them will benefit; book sales were flying already, with a public confined by police to the couch. There’ll be no champagne flowing in Bloomsbury, but festivities or no, this marks the Booker’s return to form. Shuggie Bain is an extraordinary novel, which will scramble your heart and expand your mind. Buy it, read it, and weep.”

6 Misconceptions About Writing, No. 3

Continuing with Rebecca Maclanahan’s essay of writing, as follows:

Rebecca Maclanahan

Writers know in advance exactly where they’re going,
and they get there.

“Some writers claim to carry whole books in their heads the way Mozart
carried whole sonatas, releasing the finished composition in one swift, turbulent flourish. Some say they know, even before the first word is written, exactly how the story will open, the plot thicken, the theme develop, and all the loose ends tie together on the last page.
“As for me, and for dozens of writers I know personally and hundreds whose journals, letters, interviews and memoirs I’ve studied, writing appears to be an ongoing act of discovery, or, as John Updike says, “a constant search for what one is saying.” Some writers begin in the dark, with only a word, a phrase, a cloudy image or emotion to guide them; they feel their way to the light. Some, like Katherine Anne Porter, who said she always knew where she was going and how her stories would end, write the ending first and then, in Porter’s words, “go back and work towards it,” thus making a kind of backwards discovery. Still others map out a plan but quickly discard it when the road unexpectedly veers off in a more intriguing direction.
“The idea that writers always know in advance exactly where they’re going is linked to the first idea we discussed—that writing gets done without writing.
“Since most writers publish only their final, edited version of a piece of writing, if indeed they publish it at all, readers are rarely able to glimpse a writer’s path towards a completed draft. We can’t see the crumpled pages, the cross-outs and deletions, the discarded chapters that were fed to the fire or used for lining the parakeet’s cage. Because we see only the finished product of a writer’s labour, it’s easy to assume that everything happened according to plan. Thus, the myth is perpetuated: Writers know exactly where they’re going, and they get there.”

I can’t imagine having a complete story in mind when I begin a novel. For me, a novel is an organic creation which develops as one creates it. Yes, I have an idea of the plot, the characters and the setting, but I reserve the right to make changes – additions and deletions – as I write. The point is that as the characters interact on the pages, new and more interesting events begin to emerge. And while I agree with the point made in a previous post that it is good practice to prepare an outline of the novel, and I usually write an outline of each chapter, I almost always deviate from the outline. In fact I have killed off a character for the sake of the emotional response of the other characters, and to strengthen the point of the novel. (Though I did cry every time I had to deal with his death.)

What They Don’t Teach You in MFA Programs: 5 Rules for Writing Stories That Work

There was an article by Chris Mooney in Writer’s Digest on September 1, 2020, with the above title, that caught my eye.

The Harvard Extension School says this about Chris Mooney on its website: “Hailed by Lee Child as one of the best thriller writers working today, Chris Mooney is the critically acclaimed and international bestselling author of twelve novels, including The Snow Girls, the ninth book in the bestselling Darby McCormick series. In 2006, the Mystery Writers Association nominated Mooneys third novel, Remembering Sarah, for an Edgar Award for Best Novel. Remembering Sarah went on to become one of the top 100 bestselling books in the Netherlands. He has sold over two million copies.”

Chris Mooney

In the article, Mr Mooney says: “I was never a fan of academic creative writing courses. The ones I took in college and graduate school were, shall we say, less than desirable (more on that in a moment), and the classes were run by professors, some of whom were published writers, who loved to talk about what made great writing but couldn’t (or wouldn’t) explain what made a great story. Story, more often than not, was secondary.

“I’ve been teaching creative writing at Harvard’s Extension School and their Summer Writing Program, on and off, for the past two decades, to mainly graduate students, and I’m always struck by just how little many of these great, promising writers know about story. Whether you’re writing romance, young adult fiction, or the great American novel, it all begins with story. You have to know story structure, how it works and how to work it, before you write a single line.

“And this is how you do it.

“Rule #1: What Story Do You Want to Tell?

“You have to start here. And this is where many writers fail because they don’t take the time to ask themselves the question. Even when they do, they often come up with an idea that isn’t clear or specific.

“Let’s say you want to write a coming of age story about a boy. That’s a starting point, a germ of an idea, but it tells you absolutely nothing about the actual story. Saying you want to tell a story about a thirteen-year-old boy from Kansas who undergoes a spiritual awakening while in a six-month coma—that’s more specific.

“When I began drafting my crime thriller novel Blood World, I started with the idea that one of the things we struggle with in life is the effects of aging. It’s a premise, but it’s not a story. 

“Once I sat down and experimented with ideas, I came up with a better preliminary idea for Blood World: There are people called carriers who have a certain gene that allows their blood to operate at maximum efficiency. They live longer, are healthier, and look young. When a “non-carrier” gets a full-body blood transfusion with carrier blood, along with a mix of certain medications, the results are amazing—fat melts away; skin looks young and supple; increased energy and muscle mass—oh, and as an added bonus, you’ll have the sex life of your dreams. The younger the carrier, the cleaner—and more powerful—the blood.

“Interesting, right? The idea is also specific and clear.

“Once you have a solid idea that excites you, then you move onto the next important question:

“Rule #2: You Must Have Conflict.

“No matter what story you write, no matter what scene you write, conflict is your best friend. This isn’t just the realm of thrillers. The same principle works in every story, whether it’s literary fiction or a summer rom-com or the latest Disney Pixar movie.

“Your job as the writer is to create lots of conflict, and you do that with your characters. Your characters have to want something—a goal or desire—and you, the writer, need to set up interesting obstacles. The characters have to struggle against these obstacles, and when they overcome them, not only does the experience change your characters in some way, they must take what they’ve learned and apply them to new obstacles, with greater stakes. This is what creates not only drama and suspense but also creates story.

“To put it simply, your protagonist wants something, and the antagonist will go out of his or her way to prevent your protagonist from getting it. Their actions and decisions create conflict, which creates story and also moves the story along. John Truby, in his excellent (and highly recommended) book The Anatomy of Story says it best: “Create an opponent … who is exceptionally good at attacking your hero’s greatest weakness.”

“There’s one caveat: The story must feel natural—meaning, the story comes about because your characters are making their own decisions. The writer is invisible. The reader must never feel you’re forcing your characters into decisions and choices in order to serve the plot. Story isn’t a machine.

“Rule #3: Always Start With Action.

“You always—always—want to open with the “big” event—the inciting incident—because this is what your overall story is about. Don’t work up to it; throw the reader right into it. Yes, it’s tough, because you need to weave in backstory and some other matters, but you have to do it. It takes time and practice.

“Let’s say that’s not your creative process—that you’re the type of writer who needs to write his or her way into the story first. Okay, fine. Do that. Then, when you’re done, your job is to identify this “big event” and figure out a way to start the story there. You have to get the reader into that scene as soon as possible. This rule applies not only to the opening scene but to every single scene you write.

“Rule #4: Always Increase the Stakes … and Don’t Let Up.

“Most beginning writers have an idea of a scene that starts with conflict. Where they often stumble is by not taking the time to ask themselves what the stakes are.

“I always approach story this way: You place a noose around your character’s neck. Each decision the character makes tightens the noose just a little bit. But as the story evolves, as your character makes tougher decisions, that noose is going to get tighter and tighter. It’s at its tightest right at the end—the climax of the story—where your character encounters his or her greatest obstacle, the one that is going to allow your character to finally “breathe” again. When this happens, however, your character is changed in some way by the experiences and the choices he or she made.

“And what if you don’t want your character or characters to change? That’s fine too because that says something about them and the overall story you’re trying to tell—but we still need to see and know why they don’t change.

“Rule #5: Prepare Yourself in Advance.

“I’m the type of writer who knows how a book is going to open, and how it’s going to end. I might have some vague ideas about what happens in the middle, which is why when I start writing, the beginning part flies … and then comes to a grinding halt. Why? Because I have no idea what happens next. Not only that, I’m usually paralyzed by indecision.

“When I first started out, I would write draft after draft of a book. That process doesn’t work out so well when you have to write a book a year—and, most important, it’s draining and demoralizing. What’s a writer to do?

“You outline.

“Now, if you’re of those writers who says, “I can’t do an outline, it will kill my creativity,” know that I, too, thought that way. But consider this: TV writers get into a room to first hammer out ideas. Then they work on the overall themes and character arcs, then individual episodes and then scenes. So I decided to try it.

“By sitting down and outlining your book, figuring out its structure ahead of time, wrestling with the big dramatic choices your characters are going to make, how you’re going to increase the stakes—trust me when I tell you that doing all these things upfront, before you write, will free you up creatively.

“How? Because you’re creating a roadmap of where you want to go. When you sit down to write, you already know where you’re going, which puts you into a more relaxed state. You’re focusing on the scene in front of you. You’re not worrying about what comes next, if it’s the right or wrong decision. The more relaxed you are, the more your imagination will work, offering you more ideas. Some of these ideas will be very exciting, and if you get one that you fall in love with one, guess what? All you need to do is take a look at your outline and see how to best incorporate it. You won’t have to throw out 100 or more pages labored over for weeks or months and start from scratch.

“The outline is a guide. That said, the more locked down the idea, the more pleasant—and creatively fulfilling—the writing experience. I’ve had students fight me on this, and while not all of them enjoyed it, they all said the same thing at the end: They’re glad they tried it. The process allowed them to engage in their story on a deeper level because all the “big-picture” stuff was already out of the way.

“Do yourself a favour and follow these guidelines. They’ll make you a better storyteller. You’ll create deeper, more fully formed characters that readers will fall in love with and a richer, more compelling book that readers won’t be able to put down. At the end of the day, isn’t that what you want?”