Thursday, March 12, 2009

Houghton on the Block!

I know we've all talked about the dire state of things with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the last few months, but the idea of them finding a buyer was speculation. Suddenly today, it all seems more realistic.

Publishers Weekly reports that a sale is "steadily moving forward." Hold onto your hat, employees!
[T]here are four serious bidders for the group, including Hachette--widely thought to have been the early favorite--Random House, a group led by a former HMH xecutive Wendy Strothman who has the backing of private equity firm, and a independent publishing house.

I'm on the edge of my seat!

Wendy Strothman is a bit of a shock. She is currently an agent here in Boston, formerly the Executive VP and publisher over at Houghton and former to that, Director of independent publisher Beacon Press (also here in Boston). She's a publishing veteran, to be sure, and has a reputation as being tough as nails. She has been openly cross about Houghton's recent struggles, telling the Boston Globe's David Mehegan:
"I think it's heartbreaking that decisions made by a series of corporate owners are decimating two venerable publishers. It was their hubris in taking on so much debt when anyone could see that the economy was weakening. The editing and marketing operations pursued quality, and were creative. It's not about the books; it's about the gross mismanagement of the owners."

This is a fair point. HMH's backlist, enhanced even more when they acquired Harcourt, is an incredible asset being wasted as corporate buyers seek out fast and big profit, with no literary taste whatsoever. This is not true of these buyers - that much can be said. And that includes Strothman.

But predictably, I'm most curious about the mysterious "independent publishing house" mentioned in this list of potential new owners. Who could it be?! Any guesses?

Grove Atlantic? That's my only thought now, but I'd love to hear suggestions or, ya know, gossip.

The other big question is what this could mean for publishing in Boston. In Mehegan's more recent piece on Houghton in the Globe, referenced by Christopher on this blog, Mehegan considers this very question: "Although it's unlikely that Houghton would disappear, default on its debt could mean a fire-sale breakup and a new owner or owners who could move all or parts of it from Boston." Notice that article, in Boston's hometown newspaper, generated 47 comments. It's been hopelessly mismanaged by people with no sense of the real value of its backlist. Now as the sale is pending, we Boston folks have reason to worry about losing this once great publishing institution.

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