Publishing News: Issue 36
Department of Justice Blocks Simon & Schuster Purchase
By Megan Whitlock
In an unexpected act of intervention, the US justice department has sued to block Penguin Random House’s proposed purchase of Simon & Schuster. The $2.2 billion deal, which has already faced scrutiny from the UK competition watchdog earlier this year, has now been criticised by both publishing individuals and governments alike for giving Penguin Random House unrivalled power and influence within the industry. In a statement, Attorney General Merrick Garland warned against giving one publisher “unprecedented control,” citing risks such as “lower advances for authors and ultimately fewer books and less variety for consumers.”
Simon & Schuster is famously the home to several high-profile authors, from Dan Brown to Stephen King, and publishes well over 2,000 titles annually, making any merger a lucrative opportunity. The acquisition would mark yet another step in Bertelsmann’s consolidation over the publishing industry, having already successfully merged Penguin and Random House in 2013 –creating the largest trade book publisher – and having bought out the last of Pearson’s shares of the company in late 2019. Furthermore, the reduction of the Big Five into four would mean that options for authors become increasingly limited, as well as create even more power imbalance in an industry that is already overwhelmingly dominated by heavyweight companies. Despite Bertelsmann’s claims to the contrary, the US Author’s Guild have reported that the merged Simon and Schuster and Penguin Random House would account for around 35% of book units sold in the US, figures that have been backed by their UK counterpart, the Society of Authors.
These figures certainly support the Department of Justice’s concern about Antitrust laws, which are designed to limit the market power of any individual company and thus encourage competition. Yet even beyond concerns for the market, giving unprecedented power to a singular publishing house appears to be a large step backwards in publishing’s current efforts to promote diversity and inclusion within the industry. In having such a large stake in the market and wide-reaching control, any potential merger runs the risk of shutting out more marginalised voices, damaging smaller independent publishers and de-incentivising risk taking.
It is important to note that both companies involved have claimed that their imprints will continue to compete and bid against one another for books even after the deal goes ahead, leading Penguin Random House lawyers to argue against the Department of Justice’s block on the grounds of competition.
First Senegalese Author Wins France’s Prix Goncourt
By Malachi Martin
At 31 years old, author Mohamed Mbougar Sarr has made history becoming the first Senegalese author to win the Prix Goncourt, a French literary prize given to “the best and most imaginative prose work of the year,” becoming the youngest winner of the award since 1976. Mbougar Sarr’s recent title, La Plus Secrète Mémoire Des Hommes (The Most Secret Memory of Men), is a novel written in the French language and has garnered a positive reception from critics.
But, what is the prize-winning story about? The story centres a young Senegalese writer living in Paris who aims to solve the mystery of an author that mysteriously went missing eighty years prior to the story’s events. La Plus Secrète Mémoire Des Hommes was published by both the French publishing house, Philippe Rey, and the Senegalese publishing house, Jimsaan.
Son of a physician, Mbougar Sarr was born in Dakar, Senegal and raised in Diourbel. He attended the Saint-Louis Secondary School Prytanèe Militaire de Saint-Louis. Following the completion of his education in Saint-Louis, in a case of art imitating life, Mbougar Sarr moved to Paris to continue his studies, similar to the main character of his prize-winning novel. The author studied at the School for Advanced Studies in Social Science, however, his thesis was left unfinished as Mbougar Sarr developed an interest in writing and decided to go into fiction writing.
As of now, Mbougar Sarr has published three novels prior to his win of the Prix Goncourt. His debut novel titled Terre Ceinte (Encircled Earth), his second, Silence du Choeur (Silence of the Choir), and the third, De Purs Hommes (Pure Men) were published in 2015, 2017 and 2018 respectively. Terre Ceinte received three prizes: the Swiss literary prize, the Prix Ahmadou-Kourouma, the Grand Prix du Roman Métis, and the Prix du Roman Métis des Lycéens. Mbougar Sarr’s second novel acquired a Prix Littérature-Monde and another Prix du Roman Métis.
Although Mbougar Sarr only receives a symbolic €10, the prestige that comes from winning the literary prize is historically known for boosting the sales and reputation of other books having won the prize. Mbougar Sarr receiving the Prix Goncourt is an important moment for literature, as it shows African literature being recognised and celebrated by other cultures, especially since it is so rare for an author of African heritage to receive this kind of recognition.
Marcus Rashford Announced as FutureBook’s 2021 Person of the Year
By Naomi Churn
Manchester United and England footballer Marcus Rashford MBE has been awarded FutureBook’s Person of the Year accolade ahead of the physical conference later this month. The award offers tangible recognition of Rashford’s tireless advocacy for children’s literacy, as well as his wider campaign work around children’s poverty and free school meals.
Rashford joins a list of publishing heavyweights in receiving this award, including publisher Sharmaine Lovegrove, author Kit de Waal and Managing Director of the Bookseller’s Association, Meryl Halls. As Philip Jones, editor of The Bookseller states, “The FutureBook Person of the Year award is for change-makers, people making a real and marked difference in the book publishing community and beyond.” Rashford has made waves in the industry during the pandemic by partnering with Macmillan Children’s Books to release his first book, You Are a Champion, which aims to foster positive thinking and a resilient mindset in the nation’s children. He also set up the Marcus Rashford Book Club, a reader-recommends programme that seeks to inspire a love of reading in children and champions the work of young writers from all backgrounds.
In his own words, Rashford’s aim is to get “great books in the hands of the children who truly need them,” children who would otherwise not have access to said reading material. To this end, he and his publisher, Pan Macmillan, have partnered with the likes of The National Literacy Trust, Magic Breakfast, BT and W H Smith to donate books to schools and children across the country.
Outside of the publishing industry, the award acknowledges Rashford’s work to alleviate some of the struggles of children in poverty, such as his campaigning for free school meals and his efforts to hold the current UK government accountable for their decisions that adversely affect the children most in need. It also recognises his ongoing struggle with the racism he and other players have faced and continue to face throughout their football careers.
In an interview with The Bookseller, Rashford said, “Success is representation. Success is knowing that any child can pick up my book and think it was written for them.” Rashford is a powerful voice for representation and diversity in an industry that can and needs to do more to achieve this, and the FutureBook Person of the Year award stands in recognition of this fact.
Rashford will make a video acceptance speech at the FutureBook conference, which takes place live and online on 19 November 2021.
John Agard Wins BookTrust’s Lifetime Achievement Award
By Naomi Churn
The BookTrust has awarded Afro-Guyanese poet John Agard their Lifetime Achievement Award, in a ceremony that took place in London on the 9 November. Agard will be a familiar name to many of today’s school children. He has been a stalwart of the UK GCSE curriculum since 2002 with his poems Half-Caste and Checking Out Me History. He is also the author of more than fifty books for both adults and children.
Born in Georgetown Guyana, Agard wrote his first poem when he was still in sixth form, notably on the back of an exam paper. While he subsequently failed the exam in question, the poem was later published in a magazine. The poet moved to England in 1977, where he worked as a teacher, librarian and touring lecturer for the Commonwealth Institute after completing his education. During his eight touring years, he visited more than 2,500 schools, aiming to promote a better understanding of Caribbean culture and he eventually began to devote more time to his task by writing poetry for children.
The BookTrust’s Lifetime Achievement Award is intended to celebrate authors who have made an outstanding contribution to children’s literature. Agard joins some of the biggest names in the business in adding this accolade to his shelf, including last year’s recipient David McKee and previous winners Raymond Briggs and Shirley Hughes.
Speaking about the charity’s decision to give the award to Agard, judge and author Piers Torday said “John Agard is not just one of our greatest poets and writers for children, but one of our greatest writers period. […] his contribution to children’s love of literature in this country is immeasurable and this recognition is long overdue.” Fellow judge Frank Cotrell-Boyce added, “John Agard has been telling stories that need to be told and singing songs that need to be sung for decades. It’s great to have this chance to tell his tale and sing his praises.”
Agard himself was particularly delighted with the fact that he is the first poet to win the award, saying he sees it “also as a mark of recognition for poetry,” as very often “poetry is marginalised,” while other forms of fiction are favoured. He added that he still “finds joy” in reading his poetry to people. This award recognises the same joy that his poetry has brought to countless children and the work he has done to make this medium accessible throughout the decades he has been writing.
General feeling among Agard’s peers in children’s publishing is that the award is well deserved. In the wake of the news, Benjamin Zephaniah said, “There is no one like him on the page, or on the stage. BookTrust’s Lifetime Achievement Award was made for him.” Malorie Blackman, author of the hugely popular Noughts and Crosses series, added, “John Agard's poetry has always been a beacon of humour, insight and identity.” For those interested in discovering more about the work of this poet like no other, the BookTrust have put together a John Agard book list here.