Insights from Penguin Random House CEO

Recently, the New York Times featured Madeline McIntosh, CEO of Penguin Random House. Wondering what such an influential member of the publishing industry had to say, I read the article twice.

Some  takeaways for me:

  • “The big [publishing] houses aren’t competing just against one another; they’re vying for the public’s attention against TikTok, Netflix, and Facebook.
  • “The company has grown even more dominant in recent months in part because Ms. McIntosh … foresaw a future in online book sales would vastly outstrip physical retail, but print books would continue to be a popular and lucrative format.”
  • The company invested in warehouses and distribution centres and ships seven days a week, which enables them to react to “upticks in demand for particular titles” – in other words, more of a just in time distribution model, which also cuts down on returns
  • “Penguin Random House has built what is probably the most sophisticated direct-to-consumer online marketing and data operation in the industry.” “This spring, the company upgraded its ability to sell directly from its own website.” Decisions are based on data, not hunches.
  • Alexandra Alter, author of the article, says that the industry has become “more profit focused, consolidated, undifferentiated, and averse to risk”. All of these factors have shifted dollars away from mid-list and debut authors and toward what publishers believe are ‘sure things’ like already proven authors of best sellers and proven topics like WWII. Expect more homogenization of what books are offered.
  • Publishing has “become increasingly reliant on blockbusters.”
  • Publishers have “less control over what readers see online”. Algorithms dominate the market. I wrote about the dominance of Amazon’s own imprints in that online retailer’s top sellers lists. You can check out those articles here and here.
  • Data and marketing control publishing houses, not editors. I encountered the same sentiment when working with senior editorial staff at Lake Union, one of Amazon’s publishing imprints.
  • Digital audiobooks are the fastest growing format in books.
  • “People are buying so many books, that the two biggest printers in the United States can’t produce enough copies.”
  • “The company’s best-selling novel of 2020 is Where the Crawdads Sing — which came out in 2018.” Other top 2020 sellers for Penguin Random House include Little Fires Everywhere (2017) and Becoming (2018). “Every dollar plowed into printing and marketing  older titles comes at the expense of discovering and promoting new writers.”

The turmoil and concentration within the publishing industry is a daunting challenge for authors hoping to break into the market. In some ways, it makes self-publishing seem like the best way to go.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website

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6 Responses

    1. Thanks for your comment, Sharon. At least Penguin is taking a run at Amazon’s monopoly. And as a friend and fellow author pointed out, disruption in the industry opens a window for indies and self-subbed authors.

  1. Thank you for this, Mary.
    Homogenization… such a good term for what I’m seeing in the bricks and mortars stores I frequent.
    Also, if audiobooks are the fast growing sector of the industry, do you think it will drive the production price down?

    1. Interesting question about audiobooks … I suspect the largest cost is for the narrator and the technical team supporting her/him. But that might not be right at all!

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