Callisto Media, a nonfiction publisher based in New York and Emeryville, Calif., laid off 35% of its workforce last week. Reports about layoffs at the company had been circulating for days on social media, but emails to company management went unreturned and no executive from Callisto has yet to comment. In a recording provided to PW, CEO Benjamin Wayne addressed all staff via Zoom on July 12. Wayne told the company that significant cuts would be necessary for the 12-year-old company “to meet the criteria investors expect in the current market” and demonstrate “a clear path to profitability.” He revealed a plan for “reducing our annual spend by at least $20 million, which is not a small number for Callisto.”
The downsizing resulted in the firing of approximately 140 staffers, ranging from longtime editors and creative directors with several years of service to new hires recruited only weeks before. In at least one case, a manager reportedly quit in solidarity, joining the exodus.
In the past, Callisto has set goals to publish 1,000 or more titles per year in categories including health, cooking, and education. Their business model involves tracking data on popular categories, developing and managing original content in-house, assigning freelancers to specific projects, and owning the final products outright. Looking ahead, “we’re going to reduce title production to four to five hundred titles per year, instead of our current production levels,” Wayne told the group. “We’re going to reduce our spending on contractors and consultants. We’re going to reduce capital expenditures and spending on enterprise software. And lastly, and unfortunately, we are going to be forced to reduce head count.” Saying that "all other viable options have been exhausted," Wayne laid out a plan to "act swiftly and decisively."
The next day, July 13, employees braced themselves for the notification. Those slated to be laid off received calendar invitations to meet via Zoom, for 15 minutes each, with an executive and an HR representative. They were informed about termination of employment and learned about one of two severance packages (either four or six weeks). Because most if not all were working remotely, they made arrangements to return company laptops, and their access to secure sites ended promptly at 5 p.m. Pacific Time on July 15.
Commenting on the cuts, one individual, wishing to remain unnamed, messaged PW saying that they were “only shocked by the number of people, but not the names who were among them that I knew." Some people laid off, this person added, had been hired a couple of months ago with one only three weeks prior. The staffer believes some executives lost “the core Callisto value of consumer-focused publishing and data governance,” particularly after an earlier round of layoffs in August 2021: "The cancellation of hundreds of excellent books three times in two years was demoralizing and wasteful from a creator relationship and from a revenue one," this person said.
Wayne, along with Matt Oesterle, founded Callisto in 2011 and the company was named PW's fastest-growing independent press in our annual look at fast-growing publishers with sales of between $2 million to $10 million in 2014. In that year, the number of employees jumped to 24 from 6 in 2012 and new title output rose to 56 from 17. The scale and suddenness of last week's cuts came as a shock to staffers. Callisto’s Rockridge Press imprint earned recognition as a rising publisher of children’s nonfiction during 2020 with its My First Learn-to-Write Workbook, which was one for the biggest hits of the early pandemic. Since its release in August 2019 it has sold more than 1.3 million copies, according to NPD BookScan. With that hit and other books selling well, Callisto continued to hire at a steady pace. In retrospect, brake lights were flashing. According to former staffers, projects were put on hold or cancelled in 2022, and CEO Wayne forecasted turbulence and cost-cutting during his regularly scheduled biweekly address on July 6.
A jaded staffer noted that execs dubbed the severance “Project Mercury,” perhaps in reference to the Roman messenger who “guides souls to the underworld.” The process, like Mercury, was indeed swift. Yet Callisto’s job-seekers have significantly better options than Mercury might portend: On Twitter, insiders were quick to flag promising positions elsewhere in the industry.