Last week was not a good one along Publishers' Row.
- Random House USA announced a major reorganization, laying off staff, consolidating imprints, and axing the heads of two of its largest groups.
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which previously suffered firings, staff departures, and a temporary freeze on acquisitions (though there are indications that the freeze may be more of a slushy than an ice cube), announced massive staff layoffs (probably in the hundreds) as part of sweeping reorganization plans aimed at streamlining its K-12 publishing divisions.
- Simon & Schuster eliminated 35 positions. PW reports that "the cuts came in all areas of the company, including S&S’s publishing divisions, operations and sales departments and international division."
- Thomas Nelson initiated the second round of job cuts this year, laying off 54 workers--approximately 10% of its workforce.
- Penguin Group announced that it would freeze pay raises for staff earning $50,000 or £30,000 or more.
- HarperCollins will defer all raises until after July 1, 2009.
One major exception: the Hachette Group, home of the Stephanie Meyers juggernaut, not only doesn't appear to be laying anyone off, but plans to give bonuses to every employee in the company.
All of this is certainly grim news. No doubt the coming weeks will bring more. Still, given the atmosphere of dread bred by daily reports of economic chaos, I can't help wondering how much of the rush to slash staff and expense is driven by actual planning for the future, and how much by simple fear. In an article about the staff cuts, the New York Times notes that according to Nielsen Book Scan, book sales are actually up slightly through the third quarter of 2008. Will they fall precipitously enough in October, November, and December to make the retrenchment frenzy look timely rather than panicked? The fourth quarter figures will tell the tale.
I also wonder whether all the downsizing and cost-cutting will have any impact on advance bloat. I've seen discussion over the past few months to suggest that midlisters have been feeling advance contraction for some time--but that's not where it needs to happen. It's the over-hyped debut novels, the celebrity children's books, the fad-of-the-moment projects where there needs to be some scaling back. And how about cutting lists? While it seems crazy to put a hold on acquisitions altogether, as at HMH, there are far too many books being published. The publishing industry has been shedding jobs since the 1980's, when the conglomeration trend began, yet the number of books published has continued to rise. This logic-defying trend damages authors--who must struggle for visiblity in an overcrowded marketplace--and publishers, which toss out books like spaghetti, hoping that at least some will stick to the wall.
The news isn't bad for all segments of publishing. TeleRead reports that US wholesale ebook sales soared in the third quarter of 2008. Even with steady increases over the past few years, ebook sales numbers are still a tiny fraction of p-book sales numbers--but it's an interesting trend.