Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A Radical Reaction to Recession Concerns

My apologies for the boring heading. It's rainy and the morning and a short week for work... let's face it, no one wants to be in an office. But I'm just throwing in a bit of commentary on the news Christopher posted yesterday.

There's a general feeling in publishing, as in any industry, that these are tough times and if you're working, if you have a job in publishing, you're fortunate, and you hope that fortune lasts as long as possible. I spoke to an agent last week, who is also a friend, and I asked her whether her agency, a strong and productive one, was changing strategy at all to deal with the current economic crisis. She said publishers still needed books, they still had lists to fill, and they were still hoping for "the big one," so submissions were going out the same as ever. She said advances may have been down somewhat, but if they could sell an editor on a strong project, the editor could find the money for it.

But then we hear that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has suspended acquisitions for its trade and reference division "until further notice." Claiming that "they" - editors? - are going to focus on what they have already acquired, a spokesperson for the publisher explained “In this case, it’s a symbol of doing things smarter; it’s not an indicator of the end of literature. We have turned off the spigot, but we have a very robust pipeline.”

Agents are not angry, obviously, but deeply confused and concerned. Most are saying, like my aforementioned colleague, that it makes no sense as publishers need to have projects in the works, and plenty of them. I worked with a director who always explained the value in having too many manuscripts under contract: regardless of the delivery date, you can get them all in and then decide when to publish them, picking and choosing strategically. If an author had to wait 18 months to see their book in print, the editor could simply explain the value of waiting and timing it just right. This course of action creates the risk of never publishing a somewhat weak title, of course, but most hope no such titles end up in-house.

So it's hard to know how Houghton can get out of this freeze. How can they move forward? And it's disheartening to hear of such an action at the same time as all the bad news on the corporate bookselling side: shares of Borders Group dropped below $1 for the first time last Friday, down 19% by closing, notes WSJ and Shelf Awareness, and Steve Riggio at B&N has been complaining about the "significant drop off in customer traffic and consumer spending." We can take heart in this campaign and others like it to give Books as Gifts (from the good folks who brought us Book Bloggers Appreciation Week!).

I'll buy what I can from local booksellers - most likely the Harvard Book Store - whose former owner, famed bookseller Frank Kramer, was profiled here - though I'll try to get to the Brookline Booksmith as well. (RE: the Harvard Crimson article on Kramer... I believe this line contains an error: "He sits on the board of both the Harvard Square Business Association and Beacon Crafts, a local but world-renowned publisher. " I think the writer meant Beacon Press, on whose board he does sit.) As for those in Houghton... good luck? I worry for you, friends.

PS A nice round-up of not-so-nice news from the great blog Moby Lives, under the tragically appropriate headline, "Whew! For a minute there I thought we were fucked!"

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