Who the Big Six are and why it matters

books in bookstore
Without a Bix Six publisher, you’re unlikely to see your books stacked in the local store.
Photo by Bitterfly Media Inc.

Publishing pros often speak of the “Big Six,” that is, the top companies currently dominating the business. Each of them encompasses many subsidiaries, and each subsidiary may have a large number of imprints. Altogether, the Big Six encompass dozens, if not hundreds, of imprints. Getting published by any imprint at one of these big houses usually requires an agent. The exception would be if you met an editor at a conference. Or if you’re already famous.

Hachette Book Group. Formerly known as Warner Books. A subsidiary of Hachette Livre, which is based in France. Its U.S. imprints include Little, Brown & Co. and Grand Central Publishing.

HarperCollins. Part of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. empire. Parent company of both Zondervan and Thomas Nelson, which makes it the dominant player in the Christian submarket.

Macmillian. A conglomerate of publishing firms owned by Georg von Holtzbrinck Publishing Group, a German company. Macmillan’s subsidiaries include St. Martin’s Press and Tor, a major player in the science fiction and fantasy genre.

Penguin Group. Owned by England-based Pearson, Penguin is the second-largest trade publisher in the world. It has dozens of imprints, including Viking, Dutton, and G.P. Putnam’s Sons. It also owns Author Solutions, one of the most reviled book production vendors in the business.

Random House. A subsidiary of German conglomerate Bertelsmann, Random House is the biggest publisher in the world, which makes its proposed merger with Penguin particularly scary. It’s subsidiaries include some of the most well-known publishing firms in the country, including Doubleday, Alfred A. Knopf, and Waterbrook Multnomah.

Simon & Schuster. Based in New York, a subsidiary of CBS Corp. Its imprints include Scribner and Pocket.

Note that every one of these is part of a bigger media conglomerate. That so much of the volume of the American publishing industry has been consolidated in so few multinational corporations is one of the problems with the business. These six companies—five, if the Penguin/Random House merger is consummated—control most of what is available in bookstores. And despite the rise of Amazon and the fall of Borders, bookstores are still the primary way Americans buy their books.

UPDATE: Now it’s the Big Five.

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