Publishing is a Global Business

Recently a list of the world’s largest publishers was posted by “Publisher’s Weekly.” It reminded me again of how large the publishing business really is and how easy it is to forget that fact.

Below is the top ten listed along with their sales revenue.

Rank 2017 Publishing Group or Division Parent Company Parent Country 2016 Revenue (in $M)
1 Pearson Pearson PLC UK $5,617
2 RELX Group Reed Elsevier PLC & Reed Elsevier NV UK/NL/US $4,864
3 ThomsonReuters The Woodbridge Company Canada $4,819
4 Bertelsmann Bertelsmann AG Germany $3,697
5 Wolters Kluwer Wolters Kluwer Netherlands $3,384
6 Hachette Livre Lagardère France $2,390
7 Grupo Planeta Grupo Planeta Spain $1,889
8 McGraw-Hill Education Apollo Global Management US $1,757
9 Wiley Wiley US $1,727
10 Springer Nature Springer Nature Germany $1,715

Of the “Big Five” trade publishers we think of in the U.S., note that Bertlesmann owns the majority of Penguin Random House and Pearson owns the rest. This includes their evangelical imprint Waterbrook Multnomah.

Hachette Livre owns Grand Central, Little Brown, and the evangelical imprint FaithWords.

HarperCollins (owned by NewCorp) includes their evangelical division, HarperCollins Christian (Zondervan and Thomas Nelson) which was #12 on the list.

Simon & Schuster (owned by CBS) was #23 on the list. Their evangelical imprint is Howard Books.

The other “Big Five” general market trade publisher commonly known as MacMillan, is owned by Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck (Germany) and was #15 on the list. They do not have an evangelical imprint.

In case you are curious, Scholastic was #11.


Think about this for a minute. If a publisher is selling five billion dollars of books in a year and the average net sale (the amount received by the publisher) is $10 (US) then that publisher sold 500 million individual books….a little more than 1.3 million books per day. [I am using the arbitrary $10 per book average to account for the mean between expensive textbooks and inexpensive ebooks, and so we can all “do the math” together.]

This, of course, does not account for all the indie author sales.

Then multiply that across all of these publishers and consider how many books are sold each day across the globe. The top 10 in the above list account for over 30 billion dollars in book sales. $30,000,000,000.

Then consider that not all of the books are in English. The scope of the business is truly exhilarating when you think about it. In the ranking for #11-#50 six publishers are based in Japan, five more in Germany, four more in France, three in Italy, and two in Korea.

All of the books our agency represents are published in English first. Most of the time translation rights are controlled by the publisher and they handle the licensing to publishers in other countries. However there are times where we’ve negotiated to control those foreign translation rights. This means that I have had the privilege of licensing client’s books in German, French. Korean, Mandarin Chinese, Portuguese, Romanian, Slovakian, and Dutch. My office has a full shelf of those books in non-English languages.

Even in English your books can travel the globe. Authors have told me of getting letters from exotic places where their book has been read by an entire village.

My point is this. We can forget how tiny the size of our personal writing and publishing bubble is. Take a moment to cast a much larger vision and pray that what you write can help change the World word-by-word.


16 Responses to Publishing is a Global Business

  1. Rebekah Love Dorris September 11, 2017 at 5:02 am #

    “Feather by Feather, the Goose is plucked…
    Light Gains make a Heavy Purse…
    Little strokes fell Great oaks.”

    Proverbs Exemplified, Trusler, John, 1735-1820.

    “…For who hath despised the day of small things?…”

    – From Zechariah 4:10

  2. Carrie Turansky September 11, 2017 at 5:43 am #

    Thanks, Steve, this is very interesting! I had no idea publishing was so huge.

  3. Damon J. Gray September 11, 2017 at 5:54 am #

    While I do not doubt the numbers, I am having difficulty reconciling it with the “There are only ## slots on this publisher’s roster for books in your genre,” message we hear so often. With the average coming out at 5 billion per publisher per year, it seems there should be a few more spots on the team.

    • Steve Laube September 11, 2017 at 9:13 am #


      To clarify. I’m assuming we all understand that the 5 billion number is the dollars sold, not the number of books published.

      That revenue includes frontlist (new books) and backlist (books that have been out more than a year).

      I know an author who had a book published in the 1970s that is still in print and still sells 20,000 copies per year. That kind of revenue for backlist is a critical economic engine for major publishers.

      But to your point/question.
      Imagine a publisher that publishes 100 new books a year (two new books each week). Of those 100 titles I would suggest that 90 or more of them are from previously published authors, either with that same publisher or with other publishers. This is common and makes sense. Those with a proven track record will be more likely to be contracted. Or there may be authors with multi-book deals that take up a number of “slots” for many years.

      That leaves 10% for new discoveries or 10 “slots.” If that publisher receives 2,000 proposals a year from unpublished authors…the math is obvious. One half of one percent of those proposals will be chosen by this particular publisher.

      Let’s break that down even further. If those 10 available slots are spread across an entire publisher’s catalog, that means there may be one slot for science fiction, one slot for thrillers, one slot for devotionals, one slot for books on prayer, etc. Thus the “there are only so many slots on our roster for books in your genre” is true.

      This illustration is fraught with problems because it isn’t that cut and dried. But I’m hoping it makes sense.

      Yes, it is a big business. But it is a business. Any business will have an aversion to risk and will place their resources behind those projects for which they think they can be profitable. Therefore the winnowing process can seem brutal and cruel.

      Aren’t I the bearer of Happy News? But this isn’t news. It has been this was for the entire 36 years I’ve been in the business. It has always been a challenge.

      As I am wont to say, “It if were easy, anyone could do it. That is why it is called ‘work.'”

  4. Barbara Ellin Fox September 11, 2017 at 6:38 am #

    Thanks for sharing these figures. It certainly makes a person want to consider carefully the words they are adding to the world.

    • Kristi Woods September 11, 2017 at 7:06 am #

      Amen, Barbara. Oh, the importance of pray-covered words.

  5. Carol Ashby September 11, 2017 at 6:45 am #

    This would have surprised me a year ago, Steve, but not now. My Roman history site generates a sale of one of my novels from every 8-9 views. The rate is even higher per visitor (can’t tell which visitor looks at several webpages, but the average is about 1.5 views per visitor). Some come as clickthtus from a sidebar cover image, but most do not. Customers choose to go to Amazon directly instead of linking from my site, but I was looking at site stats and got to see a South African look, link, and buy.

    On any given day, 10-30% of sales are outside the US. I can’t usually tell which country is buying. Even Australians split their purchases between the Australian Amazon site and

    • Carol Ashby September 11, 2017 at 9:04 am #

      That’s an international sale for every 8-9 international views. I haven’t figured out how to separate domestic sales from site visits and other marketing.

  6. Brennan S McPherson September 11, 2017 at 6:50 am #

    Woah. This legitimately blew me away. I’m shocked by the size of some of these publishers in smaller European countries. It just goes to show how trans-national business truly is. And just how universal the love of books is.

    When I think of writing, it’s honestly very strange for me to think of writers who labor full-time and make a living writing in any language besides English. This is a definite reminder to open my eyes a little wider–and even to dream a little more.

  7. Kristi Woods September 11, 2017 at 7:04 am #

    A book read by an entire village? My heart danced, Steve, when I read those words. As a writer of Christian nonfiction, I’ve experienced the global impact of online pieces. Praise God He knows no timezone. For some reason, however, hearing about an entire village sets my pouty, Monday, manuscript-writing feet to a new beat. To think of the impact for the cause of Christ globally – crazy good.
    Thanks for offering the numbers and especially the last two paragraphs. Happy Monday to you.

  8. Joey Rudder September 11, 2017 at 7:33 am #

    “Take a moment to cast a much larger vision and pray that what you write can help change the World word-by-word.”


    This is what your agency is doing, and I’m praying to be a partner with you in all of this.

    Thank you, Steve.

  9. Joyce K. Ellis September 11, 2017 at 8:48 am #

    Thanks for giving us the big picture, Steve. What great perspective!

  10. Linda Riggs Mayfield September 11, 2017 at 12:18 pm #

    I worked in nursing education and research for 19 years. My impression was that a majority of the textbooks and many of the research resources were published by the first two on your list– Pearson and the Elsevier component of Reed Elsevier, and by Wiley, #9. How many nursing students are there in the world, all buying textbooks year after year? Wiley says on its website, “As a leading global publisher of print and electronic products—including scientific, scholarly, professional, consumer, and educational content—Wiley is the place to publish.” Subtract the revenue from all but the consumer books these big houses publish from their totals, and it is evident that Christian fiction and non-fiction get very few slots in the big publishers’ lists. But that means if our book DO get chosen for publication by one of them, they can easily reach the world–the publishers are already there. Your advice to cast a much larger vision and pray is right on target!

  11. Karen Saari September 11, 2017 at 9:55 pm #

    That was interesting. I had no idea. I’ll tell you how I have added to the McGraw-Hill bottom line. Buying an e-book textbook. Twice!

    Last summer I was taking a class requiring a McGraw-Hill Smart Connect textbook. We had a grave family emergency and I had to leave the class. (I got an F.) Now, I’m enrolled in the class again, requiring the same textbook. And I could not use my original sign-in. I had to purchase the book again.

    Now, I’ve purchased his book twice and it’s still not on my shelf! I won’t be able to read something out it next year or check on something I ‘think’ is in there. Frustrating!

    • Carol Ashby September 12, 2017 at 7:11 am #

      That’s terrible, Karen! Especially since even the eBooks cost half an arm and leg. Had they only rented you the eBook instead of selling? If they actually sold, their customer service should have been able to reactivate your access code. I’d try contacting them now to see if a refund is available for the second purchase, assuming it wasn’t actually a rental. The worst that would happen is they’d say no.

  12. Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D September 13, 2017 at 6:25 am #

    Absolutely fascinating! Thanks for sharing this information!

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