Monday, November 24, 2008

It's Getting Scary...

HMH Places "Temporary" Halt on Acquisitions
By Rachel Deahl -- Publishers Weekly, 11/24/2008 12:54:00 PM

It’s been clear for months that it will be a not-so-merry holiday season for publishers, but at least one house has gone so far as to halt acquisitions. PW has learned that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has asked its editors to stop buying books.

Josef Blumenfeld, v-p of communications for HMH, confirmed that the publisher has “temporarily stopped acquiring manuscripts” across its trade and reference divisions. The directive was given verbally to a handful of executives and, according to Blumenfeld, is “not a permanent change.” Blumenfeld, who hedged on when the ban might be lifted, said that the right project could still go to the editorial review board. He also maintained that the the decision is less about taking drastic measures than conducting good business.

“In this case, it’s a symbol of doing things smarter; it’s not an indicator of the end of literature,” he said. “We have turned off the spigot, but we have a very robust pipeline.” The action by the highly leveraged HMH may also be as much about the company's need to cut costs in a tight credit about the current economic slowdown.

While Blumenfeld dismissed the severity of the policy, a number of agents said they have never heard of a publisher going so far as to instruct its editors to stop acquiring. “I’ve been in the business a long time and at a couple of houses I worked at, when things were bad, we were asked to cut back,” said agent Jonathon Lazear. “But I’ve never heard of anything so public.” Lazear added that, in the past two weeks, business has been more “sluggish” than it had been all year.

Another agent who had also heard about the no-acquisitions policy at HMH called the move “very scary” and said it's indicative of an industry climate worse than any he’s ever seen.

Thus far one agent has confirmed that at least one of his manuscripts has been declined at HMH per the policy. But perhaps an editor at the house put it best; in an e-mail, the editor mentioned the policy and added, “Who knows what’s next.”


Lacey Savage said...

I've never been happier to be e-published. Thank you, ECPI!

Joanna Waugh said...

Ditto on that sentiment, Lacey!
I have noticed over the last year that, at least with Regency historicals, the print pubs have been dragging out, dusting off and re-releasing their stabled authors' backlists. Currently on the bookseller shelves is one major author's book that was originally published in 1990! Kinda flies in the face of all those NY editors telling us they want "new" historicals and "fresh" storylines.

Anonymous said...

Regardless, this is bad news for publishing. This is a move that businesses often make when they are about to put themselves up for sale or are about to close their doors. It can only presage pain for the publishing industry.

Anonymous said...

Maybe the airheads over at RWA will begin to realize intelligent writers are investing in e-futures. :)

ECPI Editors said...

In her weekly Publishers Weekly column, Sara Nelson says:

"there are a lot of opinions, chief among them the idea that HMH has merely codified what most other publishers are doing under the radar: hunkering down, cutting lists, keeping costs down."

Yep, what I've been hearing myself from editors at NY pubs is that since the financial crisis started, they've been being choosier about acquisitions, are being encouraged to buy fewer books, and talk about expanding lists has totally gone away for now.

Ms Nelson continued:
"One publisher went so far as to say he expects similar news from other houses, and that this is as much a way to slap the hands of agents who still demand big auctions and outrageous advances—something publishers have been complaining about for years—as a response to the times. Put another way: HMH (and perhaps others) have finally found a way to do what they’ve been wanting to do all along. As readers of this column know, I’ve long been a proponent of publishing fewer books, and I do think that if the ban is temporary—just a few months—it might serve us all well: publishers can focus on the books they have in the pipeline, maybe even spread them out over a few more seasons than they anticipated, and publish, well, smarter."