Worlds shudder and collapse all the time. There’s no news in that. Just ask the Assyrians, the last emperor of the Han Dynasty, the final Romanoff, Napoleon, or that Ponzi-schemer Bernard Madoff. But when it seems to be happening to your world, well, that’s a different kettle of fish. When you get the word, the call, the notice that you’re a goner, or when your little world shudders, that’s something else again.
Even if the call’s not for you, but for a friend, an acquaintance, someone close enough so you can feel the ripples, that can do the trick. It did for me two weeks ago, when a close friend in my niche world of book publishing (at whose edge I’ve been perched these last 30-odd years) called to tell me that an editor we both admire had been perp-walked out of his office and summarily dismissed by the publisher he worked for. That’s what now passes for politeness in the once “gentlemanly” world of books.
His fault, the sap, was doing good books. The sort of books that might actually make a modest difference in the universe, but will be read by no less modest audiences — too modest for flailing, failing publishing conglomerates. If you were talking in terms of cars, his books would have been the equivalent of those tiny “smart cars” you see in increasing numbers, tucked into previously nonexistent parking spots on city streets, rather than the SUVs and pick-ups of the Big Three. It may be part of the future, but who cares? Not now — and too bad for him.
It wasn’t really him, of course. He was just a small fry, like most of us, in the bloated universe of entertainment. As with so many workers at the moment — and it doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about the downturn in restaurant hires or the cuts made by that sports titan, the National Football League (about 150 jobs), or the public radio oufit NPR (64 jobs, two shows) — his firing was a by-product of economic and funding catastrophes elsewhere.
He went down during what publishing people are calling “Black Wednesday.” On that day, 35 people were axed by publisher Simon & Schuster (owned by CBS), while two key figures at Random House (owned by the German multimedia giant Bertelsmann), who headed two of its largest groups “resigned” as part of a “reorganization” — a vague word that covers a multitude of sins. This will undoubtedly result in further head-rolling in the weeks or months to come.
Then, of course, there was Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. (The name is a little publishing history lesson, a fusion of two recently conglomerated houses of distinction. It reminds me of newspaper names from my New York City childhood like the World-Telegram and Sun — once the New York World, the Evening Telegram, and the New York Sun.) Just the week before Black Wednesday, its owner, the Irish private-equity firm Education Media & Publishing Group Ltd., saddled with an ocean of debt, made publishing history by instituting a “freeze” on the acquisition of new books. If you’re not in the tiny world of publishing, that may not ring too weirdly, but what is a publishing house except a staff, a backlist (those books already published and still in circulation), a set of books being published (that is, a catalogue), and those signed on for the future? Without future books, there is no publishing.
On Black Wednesday, Education Media completed the deal by decimating Houghton’s staff. Its publisher had already resigned, assumedly in protest or dismay. Evidently, sooner or later, the “house” will go on the auction block, the assumption perhaps being that, in the present economic environment, a distinguished publishing house with a long history is more saleable as a valuable backlist than as a living, breathing entity. Houghton-Mifflin (Harcourt) R.I.P.
A friend (and author) called me recently after visiting a large bookstore in Northern California and, his voice suitably hushed, told me that, on a weekday, he had been the only customer in sight. That’s typical of the nightmarish tales about traffic in bookstores and book sales now ripping through my world as 2008 ends.
So it goes, the late Kurt Vonnegut might have said.
Publishing houses are certainly bleeding and those that haven’t yet started to take staff and books out to the woodshed, axe in hand, are going after end-of-the-year bonuses, raises, and who knows what else, while management girds its loins for “the inevitable.” After all, in malls across America, the chain bookstores are getting mauled (just like other retailers). Traffic at many bookstores nationwide has evidently slowed to a trickle. Book orders have reportedly fallen off a cliff. It’s now being said that, in this Christmas season, no popular book is selling so well as to be unavailable. In other words, if you want it, it’s going to be at your local Barnes & Noble. For publishing, that’s like an obituary.
Think of those auto showrooms that were selling a couple of cars a week and are now lucky to sell a couple a month, then think books. And it’s not just that books aren’t selling, comparatively speaking, but that they’re winging their way back to publishing houses in startling numbers and, evidently, even more startlingly to university presses. Rumor has it that some academic publishers are experiencing unheard of return rates that can go as high as 90%. (A unique aspect of the book business now guaranteed to add up to hell-on-Earth for publishers is that bookstores can return unsold product to manufacturers without penalty.)
Think of it this way, those book versions of SUVs and pick-ups, all those Ford Explorer-type volumes, often so costly to put under contract but churned out so confidently for so long by the oversized giants of the publishing world, are now mostly sitting in their mall lots idling — or, as you read this, they’re winging their way back to publishers’ warehouses…
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Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project (Metropolitan Books), runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. He is the author of, among other works, a novel fittingly entitled The Last Days of Publishing.
Copyright 2008 Tom Engelhardt