Wednesday, November 26, 2008

And another update to publishing's turmoil

Or is it turmoil?

Yesterday's NY Times article by Motoko Rich suggests there is not turmoil necessarily, but there is chaos. Rich juxtaposes the acquisition freeze at Houghton with news from Hachette Book Group: "Hachette is giving bonuses equal to one week’s salary to every employee in the company, in addition to the regular bonuses for which staff members are eligible." Congrats to those employees, living large in a time of such financial instability. (This calls to mind hearing about HarperCollins, I believe, in the UK, who were having a bad year while I worked for an agent there in 2000. They supposedly gave their employees a copy of a book for their holiday bonus - not any copy of any book, but one copy of the same book, left on each employee's chair.)

Ah, but in fact this is all evidence of instability, and as ever, it all seems terribly unsustainable. Hachette has some valuable product - books by Baldacci and James Patterson and of course, it-author Stephanie "bloodsucking" Meyer. But Houghton is no slouch, folks. In their backlist, they have such familiar brand names as Curious George, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Philip Roth. Okay, it's not altogether consistent, but it's all successful. So why are they in such dire straits?

Well they diversified, and they have had some serious struggles with owners, most of whom have been European... not that there's anything wrong with that. My point is not xenophobia, my point is that these literary backlists are not served by those with bottom-line, profit-driven interests. I am not convinced I want to cozy up here, but Rich ends the article by quoting agent Peter McGuigan of Foundry Literary & Media:
“I think there’s a tendency to overreact in general, whether it’s firing people or canceling submissions because we have a dip in the economy or paying $6 million for Tina Fey because she does a good impersonation of somebody we’re not
even going to know who she is in a year.”

If you're just trying to sell your first novel, I don't expect you to have the assuredness to think of these issues, to consider who will care for your book if it becomes a classic, to think about who will best manage your backlist when you eventually have one. But publishers have this responsibility. You can't leave editors to extol the virtues of their historic literary press and then sell the whole operation off to the highest bidder, regardless of where that bidder made their sheckles (see Alec Baldwin's character in 30 Rock discussing cross-promotion with GE and NBC).

I am sad for Houghton, who is now off the shelf but still open to offers for company purchase, and I'm thinking Hachette employees should proceed with caution. As someone that made little money in publishing and was always resentful of the industry's reliance on independently wealthy employees, I'm not convinced this meal ticket will pay out forever more. And as for those Hachette authors... enjoy it while it lasts!

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