For an industry long accused of perpetual inertia, publishing sure has undergone its share of changes. Some are so common as to pass almost unnoticed—the closing of yet another bookstore, the consolidation or, occasionally, reinvention of a bunch of imprints. When there’s a big executive shift at a conglomerate, of course—where is Judith Regan, anyway?—or an event that affects the whole industry (the rethinking of weekly book review sections, the demise of AMS), there’s always much to dissect and discuss. But still, we’ve become inured to all this (unless our own jobs or books or people are specifically affected); it’s just the everyday goings-on of a business in flux.
So I was a little surprised to find myself so interested in and, well, affected by the Counterpoint/Perseus/Avalon hirings and firings, rampings-ups and cutbacks that occurred last week.
On one level, they’re part of that business-as-usual zeitgeist; on another, they signal a fundamental change.
First of all, Perseus—which, five or so years ago, was a good, medium-sized, successful but not glamorous publisher—is on the verge of becoming a behemoth, at least in the distribution business. Its CEO, David Steinberger, is a relative newcomer to book land—he had a career in government and in “real” business until about a decade ago—which, despite how laid-off employees may feel about him this week, is basically a good thing; it’s high time we had some new blood.
Further, his selling Counterpoint to Charlie Winton, to merge with Shoemaker & Hoard and create a literary imprint under the direction of the smart and energetic Richard Nash of Soft Skull, might mean that good, small, literary publishing is not dead quite yet. (And we still have MacAdam/Cage, Copper Canyon, Coffee House, Akashic and a host of other good ones.)
Yet, these changes come at a price, both the human and publishing variety. While it’s always disturbing when editors/publishers/etc. are suddenly out on the street, these losses are particularly worrisome. Bill Strachan, the veteran editor who just took over Carroll & Graf and Thunder’s Mouth in January, is gone. Ditto Counterpoint’s Amy Scheibe, a smart young editor who has to her credit the discovery of such writers as Myla Goldberg, Haven Kimmel and Jenny McPhee. These and many others who were let go will surely find jobs again in the business if they want them. But here’s the rub: they may want to work again with the kind of imprints of which there are now two less.
Losing brave, independent-minded imprints is just as upsetting as losing the brave and independent-minded people who ran them. It’s a tough business, and always has been, as Thunder’s Mouth founder Neil Ortenberg points out (p. 22).
In a brighter mood, I like to think that in some way publishing is like Hollywood: the bigger the big studios get, the more there’s room for and interest in boutique outfits. Maybe somebody will start a Thunder’s Mouth 2.0 or Carroll & Graf & Sons, and that’ll be great. But for now, I think book land should take a break from the business announcements, the hirings and the firings, and observe a moment of silence for the little imprints that could, and did, and are no longer with us.
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