Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Breakdown: Everybody’s Hurt

By Neal Comment

hmharcourt-logo.jpgWe got an email last night from somone describing themselves as a senior level Houghton Mifflin Harcourt staffer who was affected in this week’s layoffs, along with nearly 200 hundred others. Our source is confident about that number: “I counted the others listed on ‘Exhibit B Disclosure under title 29 US Code 626 (f) (1) (H) Personnel Eligible for Severance Benefits’ which was included in my severance packet.” Here’s what this former HMH employee has to say about what’s happened:

“The adult trade division has been crippled to the extent that books in production cannot be attended to and are now ‘frozen,’ something that I’ve never heard of before (and this is my third layoff in a twenty-year publishing career). Many here are surmising that the adult trade division is rapidly being dismantled and discarded. Among those laid off were a 79-year-old acquisitions editor who had signed [four] Nobel Prize-winning authors in her career [Drenka Willen] and a senior designer with over thirty years of stellar service. We who worked at HMH are heartsick at the gutting of these two prestigious and respected companies, Houghton Mifflin and Harcourt.”

We also spoke with an author who had been published by HMH in the past and had delivered a new nonfiction manuscript—dealing with a subject matter similar to the earlier work—just before the “freeze” on new acquisitions. “They took a look at it, but I think they’re just overwhelmed,” this writer told us. “I’m sort of happy that it all happened now and not a month later.” As it is, the early warning has allowed this author’s agent to show the material around town, and we’re told there’s some interest, but it’s worth noting that the HMH editor who published the earlier work was widely regarded as one of the industry’s best editors dealing with this particular subject matter. Yes, we could think of several editors who would be just as right for this book even before we turned to Publishers Marketplace to look through the deals made in this category—the point is this editor (who is still at HMH as far as we and the author knew yesterday afternoon) has through no fault of her own been forced into a position where her ability to build upon the strong portfolio of books and authors she’s cultivated over the years has been severely crippled.

And, in the long run, multiplied by the number of other editors whose critical acumen has been similarly stymied, that’s not just bad for the book business, it’s bad for everyone. “I hate to be doom-and-gloom about this,” the author worried, “but when one of the great American literary publishers isn’t taking books, that’s a blow to the culture.” The worst case scenario for writers? “You make decisions about your career based on what you love to do,” the author explained, “but when it gets to the point that you can’t make a living writing… Maybe writing books will become just the hobby of rich people, or people who can live very cheaply.”