Since the advent of the printing press, publishers have played an increasingly important role in the transmission of knowledge. Their role in shaping society is undoubtable: from watershed events such as the French Revolution to helping elevate global literacy rates to 84.5 per cent in 2019, very few sectors influence culture as much as publishing.
Today, the impact of published materials on global audiences is controlled by a small group of elite publishers; of those, the top ten have a disproportionately large influence over their respective sectors. Many have become parent companies of other influential publishers, expanding their market share and output in the process.
At a time when information has never before been so readily available, publishers have the power to ensure the veracity of information on an international scale. How they use this power to usher in the new era of digital publishing will shape generations to come.
Below are the Top Ten Publishing Companies in the World according to revenue, two of whom are family businesses.
10. McGraw-Hill Education
Total Revenue: US$1.719 billion
Country of Origin: United States
Founded through a merger of two railway publications led by James H McGraw and John A Hill, McGraw-Hill built its empire on trade books. By 1950, the publisher began its shift to educational materials, a trajectory it would sustain over the next few decades through numerous acquisitions, including Random House Education.
Now a major global player in the field, McGraw-Hill’s digital footprint in education is indisputable, with 2019 marking the first year that the company’s digital billing exceeded 50 per cent of total sales. A planned equal-terms merger with education publishing giant Cengage portends an even broader reach in years to come.
Total Revenue: $1.742 billion
Country of Origin: United States
Scholastic is the world’s largest publisher and distributor of children’s books. As a bi-weekly publication of school affairs, it focuses on developing young readers and literary artists. The Scholastic Art and Writing Awards were an early vehicle that carried out that mission, with notable previous recipients including Stephen King, Sylvia Plath and Andy Warhol.
The company exploded onto the international publishing scene with the Scholastic Book Club. Although its first icon came in the form of Clifford, the big red dog, the company’s greatest success is thanks to a boy-wizard. The Harry Potter series has sold more than 500 million copies in over 80 different languages worldwide.
8. Springer Nature
Total Revenue: $1.956 billion
Country of Origin: Germany
Springer Nature is an educational publishing powerhouse. Majority controlled by the family-owned Holtzbrinck Publishing Group, it is comprised of Springer Science+Business Media, Nature and Macmillan Publishing. Springer’s nearly two-century-old mission of advancing science and education still remains at the core of the business.
Springer Nature divides its interests across three platforms: research, education and professional. The research arm of the publisher is its most influential thanks to internationally accessible materials, including groundbreaking discoveries and seminal articles. The next step in Springer Nature’s evolution is open-access content – with more than 100,000 open-access articles, the company currently accounts for over 25 per cent of the world’s open-access content.
7. Grupo Planeta
Total Revenue: $1.974
Country of Origin: Spain
Grupo Planeta is Spain and Latin America’s leading publisher. A family-owned business, the company offers products centred on culture, learning, news and audiovisual entertainment. With more than 170 brands under its umbrella, the company currently works with over 7,000 collaborators.
Besides book publishing, a large share of Grupo Planeta’s business is accounted for by news publications – currently, it publishes digital content through two of the three main television channels in Spain. The company’s latest project involves a learning and university division with several key institutions in Barcelona, Madrid, Paris and Morocco.
6. Hachette Livre
Total Revenue: $2.735 billion
Country of Origin: France
Hachette Livre is the world’s third-largest trade book publisher. A part of multinational media conglomerate Lagardère, Hachette Livre is a constellation of publishers itself. The company’s humble beginnings producing alphabet primers may have been the original modus operandi, but education now accounts for less than 15 per cent of the publisher’s production.
Instead, fiction and non-fiction books make up more than 50 per cent of the company’s publications. This includes a variety of materials that reinforce the company’s ethos of diversity, which encourages each of its publishers to develop and cultivate their own identities.
5. Wolters Kluwer
Total Revenue: $3.994 billion
Country of Origin: Netherlands
Wolters Kluwer’s auspicious beginnings coincide with the formation of the Netherlands. As the country was established, there was a gap of educational and informational literature that needed filling. The four entrepreneurial houses – Wolters, Noordhoff, Samson and Kluwer – each established respectable publishing companies. Eventually, they united under the current brand to stave off a takeover from the number two-ranked business on this list, RELX Group.
Wolters Kluwer stands out from other publishers due to its highly specialised products, the majority of which are digital. With much of its publications tied to the medical sector, this specialisation has allowed the company to generate 70 per cent of its revenue from online, software and service offerings.
Total Revenue: $4.240 billion
Country of Origin: Germany
Bertelsmann is the largest company on this list in many respects, as it is Europe’s biggest media enterprise. Employing more than 100,000 people in several countries, its labour impact greatly overshadows that of other publishers.
Founded as a Protestant publishing house, Bertelsmann’s first 100 years of publishing was heavily rooted in the Protestant Christian tradition. Under new leadership, it leaned on traditional roots and began publishing controversial materials during the period of National Socialism, becoming the primary supplier of books to the German Armed Forces. In spite of its ignominious past, Bertelsmann branched out into commercial television and acquired publishing giant Random House to become a major player in the publishing industry.
3. Thomson Reuters
Total Revenue: $4.941 billion
Country of Origin: Canada
Thomson Reuters is a major player in the international media sector. As a conglomerate, its products include newsprint, television media, publishing and professional solutions. The publishing wing of Thomson Reuters is focused mainly on professional information: law, tax, compliance, government and media.
Many of Thomson Reuters’ publications are transmitted through proprietary software, with its product Westlaw a primary tool of law practitioners worldwide. Onesource and Onesource Global Trade not only connect the world’s traders but also are the first fully automated global trade and management solutions. Thomson Reuters has managed to capitalise on its highly specialised products to corner several informational markets through digitalisation.
2. RELX Group
Total Revenue: $5.609 billion
Country of Origin: United Kingdom/Netherlands/United States
Much like Thomson Reuters, RELX Group, previously known as Reed Elsevier, built its success on professional solutions. It develops information-based analytics and decision tools in the scientific, technical and medical, risk and business and legal and exhibition sectors.
RELX Group’s solutions are global, serving clients in more than 180 countries, and it’s responsible for reviewing, editing and disseminating 18 per cent of the world’s scientific articles. Much of that work happens through ScienceDirect, the world’s largest platform focused on peer-reviewed primary scientific and medical research. RELX Group’s publications continue to be a cornerstone of several critical sectors.
Total Revenue: $6.070 billion
Country of Origin: United Kingdom
The world’s largest publisher, Pearson is synonymous with the education sector. The self-coined ‘world’s learning company’ has operations in more than 70 countries, where it provides content, assessment and digital services for educational institutions to governments.
Pearson’s diversification in all realms of the education sector has seen the company flourish. It performs exceedingly well at digitalising the entire suite of products, including Mastering courses, educational materials and real-time assessment tools. Pearson remains at the forefront of the industry with its innovative AI technology, such as Aida Calculus, and intends to personalise its AI experience by creating fully customisable learning materials.