This Week in Writing

This week two giants of the publishing world joined forces. Penguin, a subsidiary of Pearson Group, has merged with Random House to form what Markus Dohle, the chief executive officer of the newly minted Penguin Random House, has described as the “first truly global trade book publishing company.” But what exactly does this mean for the world of books?

This new mega-house will host 250 smaller imprints, with notable groups like Knopf coming over from Random House, and Plume from the Penguin side—imprints accustomed, perhaps, to competing with each other for manuscripts. Penguin Random House now has over 10,000 employees, leading some to fear sweeping layoffs. However, the company has issued a calming statement: “The continuity will far outweigh the change,” Dohle said in a telephone interview with The New York Times, “There is no need to rush.”

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Although the company will surely maintain a “same-team” policy, there remains a potential for in-house rivalries and for the consolidation of similar imprints. Random House’s Image imprint, known for its work in Catholic books, and Penguin’s Tarcher imprint, known for its books on spirituality, are two that might work more closely.

Both publishers have massive headquarters in New York City; Random House has a building on Broadway, while Penguin offices are on Hudson Ave.

While physical locations may cause headaches, Penguin’s previous efforts may help Random House alleviate pressure surrounding pricing in the online world. Before entering the merger, Penguin settled a lawsuit with the Department of Justice over ebook price fixing. In the settlement, Penguin obtained the right to price ebooks on Amazon on their own terms, with a simple “Price set by Publisher” tag to appear on the website. Forbes pointed out that, by merging, Random House imprints get to take part in that deal.

Still, much remains to be seen about the way this merger will impact those of us who buy—or even write—books. Will imprints merge and then dominate a niche writing market? Will new writers have a harder time starting out if fewer outlets remain?

The questions are particularly powerful these days, as they follow the news of Alice Munro’s retirement. Munro is 82, so her decision retirement should not come as a surprise. In her storied career, her work has earned her awards ranging from the Man Booker prize to the O. Henry Award and numerous honors in between.

Given that her decision also comes on the heels of Philip Roth’s retirement last fall, readers may begin to wonder what, exactly, retirement means for such legendary writers. When we think of writers, we usually picture someone who has a compulsion to create literature; someone willing to lock him or herself in a room and stay there until a masterpiece is finished. (Think Emily Dickinson.) Readers like to think that writing is a passion, not a job.

There are, of course, writers who have created monumental works of literature only to fade back into their own lives; writers like Harper Lee, Shirley Jackson, and J.D. Salinger. Yet, rather than detracting from their legacy, the choice to step away from the writing life seems to contribute to the awe and mystery that surrounds their legacies. They often seem more enigmatic than other, more prolific writers. But whether authors write one or a dozen novels, we readers often try to pick out aspects of the writers’ lives or personalities in their work and to wonder what happened behind the closed door of their studies.

Today, however, readers are aware of more and more of the “real-life” part of the writing life. Part of the writing mystique has disappeared. Authors travel on speaking tours. They teach at colleges. They talk about their ideas and their writing process. The writing life, at times, seems much more like a job, so perhaps it is only logical that we see writers retire.

As today’s great writers start retiring, one wonders what sort of writers will replace them. Perhaps a different sort of writing class will develop, a group less likely to stay up late and starve for days in order to finish their masterpiece and more likely to view writing as a nine-to-five job. Of course, if imprints continue to merge, it may be increasingly difficult to get hired.

Jake Bonar, a senior at Canisius College, is a summer intern at America.

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