I came to the trade division at Houghton Mifflin in fall 2003 as senior v-p of trade sales, at the tail end of the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. The French conglomerate Vivendi had purchased Houghton a few years earlier, taken it private, and had sold it to a consortium of bankers and investors at a huge loss. Vivendi was the first, but it wouldn’t be the last disastrous foreign investor in what had historically been the highly profitable U.S. education business. Meanwhile, the trade division was coming off an outstanding three-year run thanks to Tolkien—perhaps the best in its long and storied history.
The longevity of HM (founded in 1832) isn’t unique among publishing houses, but it was certainly a source of pride inside the division and within the larger corporation. There was a deep respect for the history, close attention to the present, and a vision for the future. In other words, it was a company that knew what it was about: educating and entertaining children and adults. But dark clouds were forming on the horizon.
The education marketplace had been a cash-rich business for decades, with much higher margins than those in the consumer business. Educational spending was slowly but steadily rising in these years, which attracted investor attention. In short, the industry was ripe for takeover and consolidation. Investors began leveraging these cash-rich businesses, taking on what they thought was manageable debt and looking for synergies across their acquisitions.
In December 2006, Riverdeep Holdings purchased Houghton Mifflin. One year later, Riverdeep purchased the educational and consumer publisher Harcourt Education and created Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Both purchases were highly leveraged. In need of cash to service its enormous debt, Riverdeep sold the trade imprint Kingfisher to Macmillan, and shortly after, sold the college division to Thompson Learning (now Cengage).
It was in this environment that I was asked to take over as president of the trade division in fall 2007. A year later, the Great Recession roiled the economy and educational spending plummeted. After a tumultuous and difficult year of painful cost cutting, the trade division was put up for sale in 2009. Offers were made, but a deal was never struck. Through several debt restructurings, and a few turnovers in the corner office, the company went public in 2013.
In 2015 HMH made a cash purchase of Scholastic’s EdTech business, but the financial pressures in the education business continued. In 2018, the standardized testing division, Riverside, was sold. In fall 2020, more than 500 employees were laid off. Once HMH made the decision to transition into a primarily digital company, it was only a matter of time before what was called HMH Books and Media (Trade) was sold to continue paying down the debt.
I retired as president of the trade group in summer 2016. For all its ups and downs, the 13 years I spent at HM(H) were the best years of my career. Working with the best authors, illustrators, and the highly committed and engaged staff brought out the best in all of us. I knew, when I was asked to head up the division in 2007, that I was only the latest traveler among a long continuum of extremely talented and dedicated people who had come before me. I was no more nor less important than any of those who made up the fabric of a place like Houghton. I sensed from my first day there that this place was different. It was intangible, but you could feel it. It was special. I reminded myself daily not to screw it up.
And now, it’s gone. Yes, the HMH logo will appear on the spines and copyright pages of books and audios for a short while, but the proud and feisty trade publisher we all loved and adored is no more, with the brand to be used by the digital technology company. HMH is now part of history, another merger story, among so many in publishing.
During my 40-plus years in the book business, I’ve experienced my share of mergers and acquisitions, but this one especially hurts. For those of us who have recent experience at HMH, and those who are long gone from HM, it’s a sad day. Seeing this iconic publisher disappear—a home to so many throughout the centuries and decades—is a punch to the gut.
But wow! I am so proud of all we accomplished. What a publishing legacy HMH leaves behind. That, at least, makes me smile.
Gary Gentel was president of the HMH trade division from 2007 until his retirement in 2016.