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April 15, 2024
By Brooke Warner
Layoffs and consolidation boost indie publishing.
Corporate publishing has an interesting complex. Think Jessica Rabbit meets Debbie Downer for the way it struts around like the hottest chick in town, with bragging rights to big-name authors and strong sales when things go well, but stuck in a sky-is-falling mentality as its default.
My time in corporate publishing was short-lived. I was executive editor at Seal Press when the imprint got acquired by Perseus Books Group in 2009. I lasted three years under the new guard before I decided I had to pack up and leave. As I had come of age in publishing working for independent publishers, corporate publishing felt like a body blow. 
So in 2012 I started She Writes Press, a nontraditional hybrid publishing company that set me on a path to do what I wanted to do, which in my case was to acquire books from a solely editorial perspective. No more author platform considerations. No more marketing people in the acquisitions room telling me all the reasons the books were bound to fail. It was wonderful and freeing, and it still is.
For years, indie publishing has been the new big tent of publishing. It includes authors who self-publish; creative new models that encompass hybrid, partnership, and co-publishing; and more classically independent publishers experimenting with nontraditional arrangements such as crowdfunding, zero advances, higher royalty payouts, and more. This is the most author-centered place you’ll find in book publishing, because it’s full of authors and traditional publishing defectors.
For anyone reading up on book publishing, the news of layoffs may seem grim. Last summer, Penguin Random House rolled out “voluntary separation” agreements for employees over 60 years old with 15 or more years of experience, followed by layoffs. In January, Arcadia Publishing laid off a good portion of its staff.
Media, our cousin industry, has had a rough go of things, too. Since November, there’s been a steady stream of layoff announcements, farewells, and even protests. G/O Media (which owns Deadspin, Gizmodo, Quartz, The Root, and The Onion), Vice Media, and Vox Media all announced layoffs, while 400 Condé Nast staffers staged a walkout to protest layoffs. The Los Angeles Times laid off 20% of its newsroom, and Time magazine laid off 15% of its editorial staff. The online music magazine Pitchfork was folded into GQ. And now G/O Media is for sale.
The publishing and media sector often gets rid of or pushes out its best and brightest, and top workers tend to land on their feet. One man’s loss is another man’s gain, the saying goes, but, in the case of traditional publishing and media, collective loss has been reshaping the entire landscape for years. 
The negative ripple effects of industry vets’ leaving traditional publishing and media are well-known. Notably, the people who stay have to take on more work. I’ve heard from agent friends that it takes longer than ever to hear back from editors on projects. Consolidation means fewer editors to pitch to, too. Buyout packages also exist to eradicate big and unsustainable salaries, and new blood comes in not only for less money, but also with far less experience. Publicists I work with also fear the outcome of media consolidation and layoffs because fewer outlets mean fewer opportunities for coverage.
That said, there are positive ripple effects, too. Ten years ago, who could have imagined how influencer culture would affect book sales? This past year has witnessed a flurry of creativity rising from the ashes of layoffs and buyouts and Twitter burnout. Consider how many journalists and editors have fled to Substack, which is much more than a newsletter platform. It’s social media, too, and monetizable! In a 2020 New York Times article about Substack, Hollywood columnist Richard Rushfield wrote, “It’s a lifeboat for people off the wreck of Old Media—or New Media, for that matter.”
Seasoned professionals are also finding other lifeboats. In March, publishing was abuzz with news of a new publishing company, Authors Equity, a “new model” publisher with an author-centered approach. Two of its founders, Madeline McIntosh and Nina von Moltke, took last year’s Penguin Random House buyout. Former Los Angeles Times and Condé Nast and Pitchfork editors are finding work as ghostwriters and freelance editors and writers.
The indie space is enticing, not only because it’s teeming with creative and passionate people, and for its freedom, flexibility, and possibility, but also because it’s not constrained by the way things have always been done. Legacy book publishing is hindered by its inflexibility and nostalgia for a golden era that was eclipsed at least 20 years ago.
As a hybrid publisher, I work with many authors who grew up dreaming of being traditionally published. To step into their power as independent authors takes letting go of an old dream to make room for a new one. Usually, people find the new dream is just as good, maybe even better. For professionals leaving traditional publishing and media, a similar reckoning occurs. The hierarchies baked into the industry are tired, and publishing professionals are looking for their own new dream. Out of this comes more varied models and an entire ecosystem that’s more open to new ways of publishing than ever before. The future of publishing is indie, and the skies look sunny from over here.
Brooke Warner is publisher of She Writes Press and SparkPress, president of Warner Coaching Inc., and author of six books.