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How the Big Five Publish Genre Fiction

Booksellers are often tasked with ensuring the shelf a new book is placed on aligns with the marketing the publisher is going for. Is The Handmaid’s Tale science fiction or dystopian fiction or “speculative fiction” as Margaret Atwood herself would have it? Ursula Le Guin famously countered Atwood’s definition, calling this categorizing “arbitrary” and “restrictive.”

Regardless of what you call them, fiction books as a whole sell more copies than nonfiction books—and thrillers, mystery, romance, science fiction, and fantasy are the most read. And while pop culture critics lament the downfall of our supposed literary culture, what are writers and publishers alike to do in creating, acquiring, and publishing books to cater to the growth in genre fiction readers? Since the Big Five have the most publishing power, the best way to investigate the popular fiction they make is to dive into their genre fiction-focused imprints.

Penguin Random House

Starting out with original adaptations of Star Trek, Bantam Books (and science fiction subdivision Bantam Spectra) has put out works by modern genre heavyweights like Danielle Steel and George R. R. Martin. Though they no longer publish manga, the Del Rey imprint specializes in science fiction and fantasy books, publishing novelizations of video games along with classics like Anne McCaffery’s Dragonriders of Pern series and the “weird fiction” of China Miéville. Not to mention numerous digital imprints such as Alibi (mystery), Loveswept & Flirt (romance), and Hydra (horror and scifi)—or the semi-independent DAW Books distributed by Penguin Random House.

Ballantine Books’s move away from early pulp fiction acquisitions conflicted with rival Ace Books, as they squabbled to get rights to The Lord of the Rings. They now both sit under the same Penguin Random House umbrella, and Ace Books boasts a backlist of Dune, The Once and Future King, and Neuromancer and shares that same editorial team with fantasy imprint Roc Books that published the Discworld series and The Dresden Files series.

Macmillan

Tor Books is the jewel of Tor Publishing Group, formerly Tom Doherty Associates, publishing almost three thousand works since just 1980 and known as the imprint that published Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series and Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series and The Stormlight Archive series. The Tor/Forge blog and Tor.com website are renowned for their insight into the speculative fiction publishing world too.

Housed under Macmillan’s St. Martin’s Press, Minotaur Books is one of the only imprints focused on mystery, thriller, and suspense novels. The Cassie Dewell novels of C. J. Box (which would become the TV show Big Sky), the gothic whodunnit The Bone Orchard by Sara A. Mueller, and works by Louise Penny (who recently published State of Terror, co-written with Hillary Clinton) were all Minotaur books.

HarperCollins

The entire Harlequin branch of HarperCollins nearly monopolized the romance market for decades, including everything from erotica to paranormal and historical love stories. After acquiring Avon Publications, many early “cheesecake” paperbacks were folded into HarperCollins, and newer releases include tie-ins to the TV show Bridgerton. Early works by Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle now fall under Harlequin. However, ebooks and self-published works have started to outpace the popularity of formally published romances.

Harper Voyager was originally Eos Books, but now publishes science fiction, epic fantasy, and especially urban fantasy. Voyager boasts work of tabletop role-playing game legend Gerald Brom, military sci-fi writer William H. Keith (as Ian Douglas), and speculative fiction writer and poet Beth Cato.

Hachette

Forever and Forever Yours are Hachette’s romance imprints, but the big dive into genre fiction is through science fiction and fantasy imprint Orbit. Popular reads from Orbit include The Witcher series and The Broken Earth Trilogy. Acquisition of Gollancz also means Hachette oversees the out-of-print ebook collection website, SF Gateway.

Simon & Schuster

Still a separate entity, at least for now with the merger court case pending, the only real genre fiction imprint left at Simon & Schuster is the speculative fiction Saga Press. Mostly featuring up-and-comers like Catherynne M. Valente, Rebecca Roanhorse, Ken Liu, and T. Kingfisher, it’s no surprise they still market the works of Le Guin.

Publishing works of popular genre fiction is no small task—Ooligan Press’s first fantasy title in its twenty-year history, Court of Venom, was released April 5, 2022. However, it’s easy to see that walking up to the dystopian fiction shelf in your local bookstore may not just be the work of an attentive bookseller, but the work of an entire imprint intent on bringing a love of genre fiction all the way from the top of the editorial team to the hands of those ready to be swept away to another world.

empty conference room with chairs

Choice May Favor Smaller Presses over the Power of the Big Five

In general, many people view publishing as a monolith, a pillar made up of the Big Five publishers that we all work with and rely on to produce the books that people are used to hearing about. This is true in some ways: the larger publishers tend to have larger marketing budgets, so we are bound to hear about some of the most funded upcoming titles, and celebrities with existing fanbases can receive higher advances from the larger publishers because they have the economic capacity to pay these high prices. However, as the Big Five (Penguin RandomHouse, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, and Macmillan in no particular order) continue to acquire and merge, smaller publishers can expand into the niches and the spaces that are left behind by the Big Five.

One of the side effects of being a part of a large company—at any level, imprint or otherwise—is working with people who make decisions that you might not agree with socially, ethically, or morally. In addition, there are so many people involved in the production of books that there is no way for readers to know who is behind them without a deep dive into the inner workings of a whole industry. This makes it even more noticeable when people take actions or stage protests against co-workers or clients of the same publisher, editor, or literary agency.

Some movements within the publishing industry as a whole address problems in traditional trade publishing such as #BlackoutBestsellersList and #PublishingPaidMe, which both address different problems with how Black authors are treated. Employees at Little, Brown and Company, an imprint of Hachette, staged a walkout to protest the publication of Woody Allen’s autobiography. In addition, a variety of memoirs and biographies have been have been canceled at some point during their production, including Blake Baily’s biography of Philip Roth, as well as his own memoir, due to claims of sexual misconduct.

In 2020, four authors represented by the Blair Partnership, a literary agency founded to work with J. K. Rowling, resigned after the agency refused to issue a statement in support of the transgender rights following a series of transphobic tweets by Rowling. In addition, Hachette UK employees attempted to convey that they didn’t feel comfortable working on Rowling’s 2020 kids book because of her transphobic views and were met with a statement from Hachette which said, “We will never make our employees work on a book whose content they find upsetting for personal reasons, but we draw a distinction between that and refusing to work on a book because they disagree with an author’s views outside their writing, which runs contrary to our belief in free speech.”

It’s not exactly the support one would hope for in an employer, but it is the response most would expect to come from a larger company that prioritizes the economic payoffs over a social issue that doesn’t affect most, if not all, of those in power. This is where small publishers may have the advantage. If consumers want to support people and businesses that they believe in, it is not feasible to fully support larger scale businesses. However, even though small publishers are also bound by some financial considerations as their larger counterparts, they have the unique ability to dedicate themselves to specific issues or people that traditional large publishers often leave behind and they can do so in a more mission-oriented way.

Although efforts have been made to create a publishing culture in which everyone can be represented, sometimes that leads to voices that cause damage to others being headlined. If you are someone who attempts to know exactly where everything you consume comes from, smaller publishers may provide an opportunity for this knowledge. Smaller publishers provide authors and publishing professionals with spaces in which they can truly believe in their message and the people they work with, which may be the future of book buying.