Okay, I admit it. It's hard, even with a glass of holiday cheer in hand, to summon a lot of enthusiasm and hope for the publishing business—or pretty much any other business—these days. The bad news just keeps on coming: the layoffs, the cutbacks, the raise and bonus and pension freezes. It's grim out there, all right—and that grimness is just about all anybody in Bookland is talking about.
And yet... as sure as there has been some lashing, there is now, of course, some backlashing. Just scroll through our headlines on the PublishersWeekly.com Web site this past week, and you'll see small signs that all is not lost. Nielsen BookScan reported sales up 6% Thanksgiving week (before seeing a dip the week after); Wiley reports second-quarter gains (largely due to education, not trade, but never mind); and who can forget the report that everybody at Hachette this year is getting an extra week's pay?
They're small signs, granted, and even the folks at Hachette—one of whom told me she was suffering a kind of survivor guilt, giving out raises and bonuses as the news surfaced about layoffs at Random House and Simon & Schuster—aren't taking their good fortune for granted. I'm even of a mind these days—keep those glasses of holiday cheer coming—to see the stories about pay freezes for employees over 50K at Penguin and Macmillan as almost good news: it's heartening, in a kind of backwards way, to think that such a relatively small move might be enough to stave off a much larger disaster. That, and there's something, well, communal, about it, too: employers are asking their highest-paid employees to hold back, in the hopes of saving jobs and maybe companies. That seems to me a relatively easy high road for everybody—both a small price to pay and the right thing to do. (By the way, Boss, you can quote me.)
I know it sounds hokey—and I will spare you the Chinese proverb about every crisis being an opportunity—but while the mood in BookLand is decidedly tense, it's a tension tinged with community and compassion. Look at the new AAP initiative, which joins competing publishers in a get-out-the-book campaign. Yes, we're a group of smart, ultracompetitive people, but lately, for reasons of both season and economy, we're up against each other in “combat” far less frequently. And when we meet up—at the NBA, or the Mercantile Library awards or at a memorial service for Robert Giroux—we're all the walking wounded. “Are you okay?” we ask. And then “How can we help just-laid-off so-and-so find a job?”
Small consolation, I suppose, but even if, as one publishing watcher opined, January and February may make the fourth quarter of '08 look like a mere squall before a monsoon, at least we're doing our best to shore up and stay in the business we've chosen—and to remember why we chose it in the first place: because it's about books, because they're important and because we love them, and for the most part, we like each other. In other words, all of us, even those houses and executives of whom we can't help being jealous right now, are all in this together.
Agree? Disagree? Tell us at www.publishersweekly.com/saranelson