When we heard last week that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt had put a ban on acquisitions, it was hard not to feel that, finally, the sky was about to fall. As disturbed as we've been for weeks about disappearing credit, tottering banks and a dead retail sector, this was the first (semiofficial) announcement that BookLand itself might be on the verge of something very bad.
It didn't take long for the panic to spread.
If a publishing house isn't buying books, decried many, then what is its purpose? If a publishing house isn't buying books, how much longer will it need editors? Even those of us heartened by the new appreciation that backlist will be accorded—Houghton and Harcourt are backlist-heavy houses, full of books by Nobel Prize winners and Philip Roth—were hard-pressed to dine out on that news. “It's the beginning of the end of publishing as we know it,” many callers and e-mailers said.
Of course, the publisher's spokespeople are downplaying the decision. It's not permanent, and “it's not an indicator of the end of literature,” HMH's Josef Blumenfeld told PW. And HMH staffers aren't talking; I was on a panel about “The Changing Face of Literary Publishing” with Houghton Harcourt publisher Becky Saletan just a few days before the ban became public, and the topic didn't come up. (One insider said, though, that Saletan had become teary in an editorial meeting earlier in the week—but wouldn't say why.) My guess is that her reticence, then and since, is less calculated than confused: no one seems to know how long such a ban will last, whether there will be layoffs and whether other publishers will follow suit.
This being publishing, however, there are a lot of opinions, chief among them the idea that HMH has merely codified what most other publishers are doing under the radar: hunkering down, cutting lists, keeping costs down. One publisher went so far as to say he expects similar news from other houses, and that this is as much a way to slap the hands of agents who still demand big auctions and outrageous advances—something publishers have been complaining about for years—as a response to the times. Put another way: HMH (and perhaps others) have finally found a way to do what they've been wanting to do all along.
As readers of this column know, I've long been a proponent of publishing fewer books, and I do think that if the ban is temporary—just a few months—it might serve us all well: publishers can focus on the books they have in the pipeline, maybe even spread them out over a few more seasons than they anticipated, and publish, well, smarter. On the other hand, a ban like this is most worrisome to me for what it says about publishing's bet on the market 18—24 months from now. Will the market just be smaller—or nonexistent? And does this move make it worse?
On that same panel last week, agent Eric Simonoff described himself as an “optimist” about the book business and opined that most people in publishing are the same. Much was said about the way agents and publishers and readers fall inexplicably in love with books. “It's like magic,” someone said.
So then, our next task is to find a way to pull a healthy rabbit out of an empty hat.
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