What Comes After the Big 5?

Common institutional knowledge tells us that the publishing landscape is split into two tiers: the big five publishers, and everyone else. But the sustained performance of multiple companies withing the “everyone else” is beginning to stratify that category into separate tiers as well. I move that we as an industry adopt a new identifier for the middle-tier publishers who routinely rank in the top twenty for units sold and total sales.

As reported by Publishers Weekly, the publishers who ranked 6–20 in total sales in 2016 are:

(Big Five)

  1. Scholastic
  2. Disney Publishing
  3. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  4. Workman
  5. Sourcebooks
  6. Sterling
  7. John Wiley & Sons
  8. Abrams
  9. Dover
  10. Candlewick
  11. W.W. Norton
  12. Kensington
  13. Chronicle
  14. B&H Publishing
  15. Tyndale House

(Everyone Else)

There is still a lot of disparity between the total annual sales at Scholastic and those at Tyndale House, but these 15 publishers occupy a drastically different space in the publishing landscape than the thousands of independent presses currently producing books across the country. It is a slightly nebulous group, as the publishers just outside of this group may supplant members on the current list. (My subjective experience would include major indies like Grove Atlantic & Graywolf Press, as well). And It may be that defining this group by a number doesn’t make as much sense as defining it by the role it plays withing the larger publishing industry.

As far as catchy names go, “The Medium 15” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as “the Big Five” anyway. Brian O’Leary of the Book Industry Study Group recently made a fitting comparison between these high-performing publishers and the astronauts who flew the Gemini mission. Not as famous as its predecessor the Mercury mission, which sent humans into space for the first time, nor as glamorous as its successor, the Apollo mission, which reached the moon, the Gemini astronauts receive a disproportionately small share of the attention relative to their role in the success of their industry’s goals. As it is with these fifteen high-performing publishers.

So here’s my suggestion: we begin to identify any publishers not in the big 5 that nevertheless perform at high levels year over year in terms of total sales and/0r units sold as “Gemini Publishers,” officially distinguishing them from the many other indepnedent presses in operation and honoring them for the massive impact they have on bookselling and publishing.