When it was announced last week that Houghton Mifflin Riverdeep, the parent company of Houghton Mifflin, would buy Harcourt from Reed Elsevier (which happens to be PW's parent company), you would have thought the book world would have been abuzz. What does this mean for us? goes the common thinking when somebody else opens or closes of changes something. And yet, it was quiet out there—almost too quiet: eventually, I realized why: not everybody immediately understood that “Harcourt” meant Harcourt Trade—home of one of the finest backlists in publishing, including such authors as Umberto Eco and Günter Grass—not just the bigger, richer and thus more financially desirable Harcourt Education.
Soon, though, the word leaked out, and opinions flowed right after it. This could be good for trade, some insiders at the two houses—many of whom must be worried for their jobs—insisted: the lists are so similar, conjoining them is a no-brainer. “Disaster for literature,” said many others, most of them agents, citing the idea that the merger will surely mean consolidation (read: reduction) both of lists and good, literary houses. Obviously, according to everyone, Riverdeep really wants the education division and trade is merely a few-hundred-million-dollar add-on; but whether that means Riverdeep will hold on to either or both trade divisions is debatable. The company has taken on debt, and the best way to pay off debt is to generate income (publish books that sell), some say. Further, say Harcourt trade president and CEO Dan Farley and others, HM Riverdeep CEO Tony Lucki is a real book guy: he was once an editor, he worked for years for Harcourt, and he's responsible for the heartfelt, if awkward, press release declaration that Houghton Mifflin's Longfellow and Harcourt's T.S. Eliot “would truly be proud” of the merger. Still, others suggest that trade will be the first division to go.
But how will the day-to-day work? Will sales staff and back office of the two imprints be merged, for example? The smart answer: Who knows?—but probably. Will Farley and H-M v-p and publisher Janet Silver be co-heads, or will one stay and one go? Farley knows no details, he says, and Silver didn't return a call and an e-mail requesting comment. On the subject of upcoming fall and spring lists, representatives of both houses say they've been told to go ahead; as for what to do with the slot just left by editor-in-chief Eamon Dolan (who took Scott Moyers's spot at Penguin Press) there is consensus: Why would that job go to someone from outside when you have a whole new crop of storied editors (viz. Harcourt's Ann Patty, finder of, among many others, V.C. Andrews) joining your ranks?
But here's the biggie: Will the merger work? This being publishing, everybody has a theory; my favorite is from agent Andrew Wylie, who took client Philip Roth to Houghton with great success. He told me he thought “a good merged company could be made out of Harcourt, Houghton Mifflin, plus one,” the one being a strong frontlist house that would jibe nicely with the other two publishers' fine backlists. “There are some available,” he said, slyly.