Columns > Published on January 12th, 2015

The Big Six: A Glance Back at the History of Publishing

The world’s first movable type printing technology was born in China in 1040, the Gutenberg press created its first Bible in the 1450s, and books have been symbols of status and wealth since the days of ancient Rome. Desktop publishing, on the other hand, has had since the early eighties to make its mark on the world, but digital technology has revolutionized the way words and ideas are consumed by the public. Publishing houses founded as far back as the early nineteenth-century have moved like tectonic plates ever since, colliding and merging to form new structures.

The “Big Six” (technically now five after the Random House-Penguin merger) need little introduction to anyone who follows the bookselling or publishing industries. Composed of Hachette, Macmillan, Penguin, HarperCollins, Random House, and Simon & Schuster, this handful of companies wields a great deal of influence over the written word. But how did they begin, and how did they get to be so big?


Hachette as it stands today formed when Time Warner Book Group (now Grand Central Publishing) was acquired by global publisher Hachette Livre in 2006. The company includes Little, Brown and Company as one of its divisions, a business that began in 1837 and has undergone innumerable changes since its foundation in post-Revolutionary Boston. An original publisher of Daniel Webster and Benjamin Franklin, misters Little and Brown hardly could have predicted the ugly eBook price wars that 2014 brought (now finally drawing to a close).   

Publishers have changed as much as they’ve remained the same, constantly restructuring in order to adapt.


The Macmillan Group, currently owned by the global giant Georg von Holtzbrinck Publishing, was started in 1843. Early volumes to come off the presses include titles by the likes of Lewis Carroll, Rudyard Kipling, Alfred Tennyson, and Cristina Rossetti. Eventually, the company sold its U.S. division, which now operates out of the Flatiron Building in New York. Tor, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Henry Holt, St. Martin’s Press, and Picador all operate under the Macmillan umbrella. 

Penguin-Random House

When the ink dried on the Penguin-Random House merger on July 1, 2013, the world’s largest publishing entity was created. The long anticipated melding of the two brands is expected to take place gradually over the next several years, moving towards an end result that many hope will offer greater leverage against the digital might of Amazon. Penguin got its start selling quality paperback editions through department stores like Woolworth’s, where Agatha Christie mysteries and sixpenny romances sold like hotcakes before World War II. They have a very snazzy timeline showing the full length of both company histories on their joint website.


As is the case with many large corporations that have weathered changing markets and decades, HarperCollins is a patchwork of acquisitions and mergers. The roots of the modern company lie with brothers James and John Harper, who began J. & J. Harper in 1817. The two went on to start Harper’s Weekly in 1857, and the business eventually merged with Row, Peterson & Company in 1962. The William Collins & Sons acquisition didn’t come along until 1990. Today, HarperCollins has been working to step up its digital subscription services by signing with Oyster and Scribd.

Simon & Schuster

According to Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s, Simon & Schuster began when Richard Simon’s aunt wondered aloud whether anyone had ever made an entire book of crossword puzzles. Simon and M. Lincoln Schuster began the company to bridge the perceived puzzle gap and do exactly that. One can only picture the conversation that must have followed. Something along the lines of: “By golly, Mr. Schuster, I know how we shall make our fortunes— crossword puzzles!” 

And it worked. Simon & Schuster went on to focus much of their early efforts on reaching new, untapped markets, and were the driving force behind the introduction of the mainstream paperback and affordable children’s books.

If there’s a trend to be found by studying the “Big Six” (or five), it’s that most of them have been around for a very long time. Publishers have changed as much as they’ve remained the same, constantly restructuring in order to adapt. The future will certainly bring new hurdles and challenges for publishers, but the struggle itself is clearly nothing new.

Image is public domain.

About the author

Leah Dearborn is a Boston-based writer with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in international relations from UMass Boston. She started writing for LitReactor in 2013 while paying her way through journalism school and hopping between bookstore jobs (R.I.P. Borders). In the years since, she’s written articles about everything from colonial poisoning plots to city council plans for using owls as pest control. If it’s a little strange, she’s probably interested.

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