If Banks Are Failing, Could Books Be Far Behind?

Retailers across the United States sold 16.2 million books during the week of Thanksgiving, up 6 percent from a year ago, according to the latest figures from Nielsen BookScan. But despite that news, this was a bad, bad week in the book publishing business, as one publishing house after another announced layoffs and salary freezes in anticipation of a tough year ahead.

On Wednesday alone, Simon & Schuster eliminated 35 jobs, Thomas Nelson cut 54, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt laid off several senior editors and reportedly confirmed plans for further downsizing, and Random House announced a big reorganization that has everyone in the industry wondering what's what -- and who's out.

The harbinger at HMH was its announcement at the end of November that there would be a freeze on all acquisitions of new manuscripts. That's a bit like telling a meat packing plant that there will be no incoming shipments of beef. Within the week, Rebecca Saletan, the head editor of HMH's trade division, turned in her resignation . But the subsequent firings came as a complete surprise. Among heads that rolled were established legends: Ann Patty and Drenka Willen, for instance, of Harcourt. These are formidable quantities in the field of publishing. In her 28-year career, Patty has published Steven Millhauser, Laurie Colwin, V.C. Andrews, Michael Moore, Clive Barker and many others. Over the course of three decades, Willen [PDF] published more Nobel Prize-winning authors than any other editor alive.

Publisher's Lunch, an industry newsletter, dubbed it "Black Wednesday" and called it one of the grimmest days in book publishing history.

Also this week, the chairman and CEO of Penguin Group, John Makinson, sent a memo to employees calling the current economic environment "the most challenging ..... that any of us has ever experienced." In 2009, he announced, Penguin will not raise the salaries of anyone earning $50,000 or more. It goes without saying that a move like this could stunt the future of the company.

HarperCollins said it would delay pay raises increases until after July 1 but has not yet decided whether to eliminate jobs, Bloomberg reported.

At Random House, Wednesday's reorganization has sown great confusion. The great empire of Bantam Doubleday Dell has been dismantled, its chief executives spun into the void. With Markus Dahle's ascent to CEO, two titans of the industry--Irwyn Applebaum (publisher of Dean Koontz and Danielle Steel) and Steve Rubin (publisher of the wildly successful Da Vinci Code)--have been dislodged. As we understand it: Doubleday will now be folded into Knopf. One of the independent grand dames of publishing Nan A. Talese will report to Knopf editor in chief Sonny Mehta. BDD's business and religious publishing divisions will be folded into Crown. And everything else will be tucked into Random House.

The cutbacks come as the National Bureau of Economic Research confirmed what everyone has long suspected: the United States is in a recession. And cutbacks topped off a year in which many large publishers and booksellers already had made substantial retrenchments. Scholastic, for example (a publisher you might have thought would ride out rough times with phenomenal earnings from J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books), eliminated approximately 110 positions through early retirement packages as part of a broad cost-cutting program. Thomas Nelson got rid of about 115 jobs this year, or nearly 20 percent of its workforce. Borders slashed 274 corporate jobs.

All in all, it's a hard time for the industry. One more click in the falling cascade of dominoes.

-- Alan Cooperman and Marie Arana

By Alan Cooperman |  December 7, 2008; 1:38 AM ET Alan Cooperman
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Publishing performed by the industry is a thing of the past. Oh! they will continue to publish junk, written by BIG names, about a topic that is simply fashonable at the time, and hippies from the 60's will be published by the Universities, because they are expected to write books every few years. But any one worth their salt will put up a few bucks, and publish their book themselves, and slam it onto AMAZON.

Posted by: publishingink | December 5, 2008 11:43 AM

"I suppose I should go out and buy a book this weekend," says the man who feels guilty for not reading as much this year without the excuse of finances.

Posted by: prokaryote | December 5, 2008 11:56 AM

"At Random House, Wednesday's reorganization has sewn great confusion."

As you sew so shall you be confused?

Posted by: lynnj1 | December 5, 2008 7:53 PM

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