A Better Understanding of Doubleday’s Mini-Implosion

By Neal Comment

davincicode-cover.jpgOne of the reasons we’d been so skeptical of the notion that Dan Brown‘s writer’s block caused the Doubleday layoffs is that it just made no sense to us that the publisher would continue to bank on a sequel to The Da Vinci Code turning up after the first year Brown failed to deliver. But thanks to some schooling from a high-ranking editor at another house, we’ve come to understand that it might not have made that much difference even if they had stopped counting on him:

“Remember, advance payments are staggered,” this source told us. “If they signed up books for a shitload of money in, say, 2005, that money would be paid out over a two-year period, at least, with the final payment coming due in 2007, if not later. Had Brown delivered on time, they would have had tons of cash coming in when they had to ante up the last of the money.”

“Doubleday knew what their fixed costs were and kept adding to them,” our insider continued, “but they also kept thinking the Dan Brown money would be coming in within a certain timeframe to offset those costs. The fixed costs didn’t change, but when the money didn’t show up… well, you’ve freelanced, right? Remember how it felt to have your rent come due but your last job hadn’t put your check in the mail yet?”

And while our speculation yesterday focused on the cost of launching Spiegel & Grau, largely because it’s been Doubleday’s high-profile jewel in the crown this year, this editor reminded us of an earlier venture that might be relevant to the situation: the short-lived Morgan Road Books, the imprint created for former Riverhead editor Amy Hertz in 2004 and terminated last year. “Like Spiegel & Grau, Hertz had a staff that included an associate editor, a dedicated marketing person, etc,” our source recalled. “That’s a LOT of money,” and that’s before factoring in what Doubleday was willing to pay to lure Hertz uptown—all for a string of books that, while sometimes successful, never matched the level of her Riverhead hits. “I don’t think they felt the pinch when the Da Vinci Code war chest was full,” our source speculates, “but they felt it later, and that’s a big part of why she left.”

To reiterate our comments yesterday, though, it’s easy for us to be Monday morning quarterbacks, but if you look at the books Hertz acquired at Morgan Road, you might question how much money was spent on acquiring them—yet the vast majority seem like they should have worked in the marketplace. You don’t sit there asking yourself what the heck Hertz was thinking when she bought those books, and you can imagine many of them being published at Hyperion‘s Voice, for example, if it had existed then. Heck, they aren’t that much different from what she’s been acquiring at Dutton for the last year, either. So if the books, and by extension the fundamental editorial sensibility behind them, aren’t readily identifiable as the problem—which we’d argue holds true for S&G as well—then what does that leave?

Which brings us to our experienced insider’s last thoughts on the subject, gauging the mood of Doubleday staffers: “They all felt really bad because some good, hard-working people lost their jobs, and, in the words of one person who’s still there, ‘the people who made the lousy decisions that got us here are all still in charge.'”