Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who has covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

December 28, 2008


Jason Boog, Salon - The end of days is here for the publishing industry -- or it sure seems like it. On Dec. 3, now known as "Black Wednesday," several major American publishers were dramatically downsized, leaving many celebrated editors and their colleagues jobless. The bad news stretches from the unemployment line to bookstores to literature itself. . .

One of the most visible victims was Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the publisher of Philip Roth, Margaret Drabble, Richard Dawkins and J.R.R. Tolkien, among many others. Just before Thanksgiving, the publisher (actually two venerable houses, Houghton Mifflin and Harcourt, which were bought and merged by an Irish company over the past two years) had announced an unprecedented buying freeze on new manuscripts. On Dec. 3, they laid off what former executive editor Ann Patty described as "a lot" of employees (the industry trade publication Publishers Weekly confirmed at least eight), among them the distinguished editor Drenka Willen, whose list of authors included Gunter Grass, Octavio Paz and Jose Saramago.

On the same day, Simon & Schuster laid off 35 employees, and a companywide memo from Random House's CEO announced the dissolution of Doubleday (publisher of "The Da Vinci Code" and Jonathan Lethem) and Bantam Dell (Danielle Steel, John Grisham), distributing the pieces among the conglomerate's three remaining publishing groups, which ultimately resulted in lost jobs. The large Christian publishing company Thomas Nelson also announced 54 layoffs.

The bad news kept rolling in. Within weeks, Macmillan had laid off 64 employees, spreading the damage across the entire company, which includes such literary stalwarts as Farrar, Straus, and Giroux; Henry Holt; Picador and St. Martin's Press. Not only were some of the industry's most respected figures out of a job, but a tremendous number of writers had lost their editors and publicists.

Priya Jain. Salon - McSweeney's is holding a garage sale of sorts. An e-mail sent out last week announced that, "for the next week or so," the publishing house founded by Dave Eggers would be selling its new books at 30 percent off and its backlist at 50 percent off. It is also, by way of eBay, auctioning off donations from its more well-known contributors: One could bid on an original Chris Ware comics page, a personal tour of "The Daily Show" guided by John Hodgman, or a "one-sentence apology to your boyfriend/girlfriend, written and signed by Miranda July."

But the excitement stirred by the McSweeney's e-mail had less to do with the booty on offer than with the alarming news that McSweeney's needed to raise money at all. For fans, and for those who follow book-trade news, the e-mail raised the possibility that the much-beloved publisher could become another casualty of a bankruptcy saga that has engulfed the independent-publishing world for six months.

The bankrupt company in question, Advanced Marketing Services, was the parent company of Publishers Group West, which distributed books for more than 130 independent book publishers. "For us the timing was particularly bad," says Eli Horowitz, the publisher of McSweeney's Books, which has lost about $130,000 in actual earnings as a result of the bankruptcy. "We had a new Nick Hornby book and [Dave Eggers'] 'What Is the What', which was our best seller of all time.". . .


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The publishing business - from the agents, the editors, et al - has become so insular and so snobbish, it's probably better to clean them all out.

December 28, 2008 8:47 PM  
Anonymous Mairead said...

They also seem to like to produce unsaleable "gold plated" editions. Maybe that's a symptom of what you're criticising.

They brought Ross Thomas's excellent political-chicanery novels back into print after his death - but the edition wasn't mass-market paperback, it was some big-format, high-priced edition ("trade" pb maybe?) that nobody could afford and that went into remainder status almost instantly.

Had they put out a mass-market paperback edition it would have sold well - Thomas, like Gavin Lyall, was underappreciated during his life and is only now beginning to get widespread recognition outside the critical community.

They're doing the same thing with Rosemary Kierstein's superb (but painfully-slowly emerging) Steerswoman series. $15 for a paperback book?? It's practically a way to guarantee no sales.

December 30, 2008 7:45 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

I purchase very few books from the publishers mentioned in these two articles. But I do buy them from AK Press, Verso and Pluto and various university publishers. How are they doing? I wonder if they are going to weather this downturn better than the mainstream ones.

By the way, Borders closed a store in the North Natomas area of Sacramento the other day. I perused the children's book section, and was amazed at the extensive selection of commercialized crap, could it be that people are tired of being badgered by their kids to buy books produced as product tie ins to various television cartoons and inane Disney comedies?

I was able to find a few classic old children's tales, you know, the ones with developed characters and narratives, and bought those. My young, 21 month old son seems to like them, and find them engrossing. Is it any wonder that children have no interest in reading when confronted these simple minded commercial characters and story lines?

December 30, 2008 7:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree that this is probably for the best. Publishing houses have all become so insular that they are effectively shutting out any Steinbecks and Hemmingways that may be out there. They choose, instead, to publish celebrity. When the artist is shut out of the art, eventually people will lose interest.

January 6, 2009 10:43 AM  
Blogger Raym C. Hensley said...

Thank you for this bit of news.

January 13, 2009 6:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The publishing industry will survive, although literature will continue to take a back seat to the schlock that sells. I think the average reader has the intellect and attention span of a 10-year-old.

February 6, 2009 11:25 AM  
OpenID Andy_Licious said...

I don't know how long it has been since I purchased a book without it being one of the 50-75% off. I am in no hurry to read a book once I find it is good. If nothing else, I will go to the flea markets and used book stores. I guess I'm a cheap ass.

March 18, 2009 7:03 PM  

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