The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?*


There has been relentless torrent of grim publishing news coming out of New York the last few days.

It has, at times, been hard to keep up with it all, and I don’t know the people involved well enough or understand the machinations sufficiently to offer much in the way of trenchant analysis. I hope that a summary of ‘Black Wednesday’ and the rest of this week’s events — with appropriate links — will, at least, offer some kind of context.

The details are sketchy, but Houghton Mifflin Harcourt acknowledged that there would be further changes at the company, including job-cuts. According to Publishers Weekly, at least eight people have been let go including executive editor Ann Patty, senior editor Anjali Singh and legendary editor Drenka Willen. GalleyCat has spokesman Josef Blumenfeld’s full statement about the changes.

Personally I’m stunned that the recipient of the 2007 Maxwell E. Perkins Award Drenka Willen, the US editor of Günter Grass, José Saramago and Umberto Eco, has been let go by HMH. PW profiled Willen in 2002, and, after pointing out that she has edited four Nobel Prize winners, MobyLives asked, pertinently, “do the proprietors of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt really know what they’re doing?”

I think my favourite quote, however, came from an unnamed ‘publishing veteran’ who told GalleyCat:

“Those fuckers have destroyed two venerable publishing houses in less than a fucking year.”

Elsewhere things are not much better.

Earlier in the week, Christian publisher Thomas Nelson announced it would be laying off 54 employees, or about 10% of its workforce. CEO Michael Hyatt said in a statement on his corporate blog From Where I Sit :

This was the second round of reductions this year. Unfortunately, this one was no less painful. We did the first round after significantly cutting our SKU count. However, this second round was purely a result of the slowdown in the economy.

According to GalleyCat , Hyatt apparently first made the announcement by Twitter. Stay classy Michael, stay classy…

After Doubleday cut 16 jobs in October, the “long anticipated” restructuring of Random House was announced on Wednesday. Maud Newton offered some bleak analysis and reprinted the full memo from Random House CEO Markus Dohle. Sarah Weinman has questions. Kassia Krozser at BookSquare thinks it’s all irrelevant:

“Who really cares if Crown or Knopf or Ballantine or Bantam Dell survives? I’m serious. Who. Cares… Focusing on imprints is focusing on the wrong problem.

The hyperbole-prone New York Observer called it “The End of an Era”.

In addition to the upheaval at Random House, Simon & Schuster announced it was eliminating 35 positions on Wednesday. Publishers Weekly reported that the Rick Richter, the president of the company’s children’s book division, and Rubin Pfeffer, senior v-p and publisher of the children’s group, would also be leaving.

On Thursday, Penguin Group chairman and CEO John Makinson announced the company will not give pay raises to anyone earning more than $50,000 in the new year. PW quoted Makinson as saying: “I cannot of course guarantee that there will be no job losses in Penguin in 2009. In this financial climate that would be plain foolhardy.”

And, according to a recent wire story from the AP on this week’s events in publishing, pay raises at HarperCollins have been delayed until next July. Spokeswoman Erin Crum says that “no decisions had been made” on job cuts, whatever that means…

All in all, it’s been quite a week. Thursday’s New York Times had a thorough summary and postmortem, and Andrew Wheeler has been keeping a running tab of the changes on his blog if you want more details.

Do I see a silver lining? Well, my hope is that all the talented, smart people who got unceremously dumped this week will stay in publishing (but who could blame them if they don’t?) and take their brilliance and vast experience to smaller more flexible companies and deliver a resurgence of creativity in New York. That would be nice wouldn’t it?


Ron Hogan has posted some that trenchant analysis that I was talking about over at GalleyCat.

Also, what are the implications of all this, if any, for Canadian publishers? Anyone…?

*Thanks to Pete for the best blog post title ever.

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