The publishing world was caught off guard by yesterday’s announcement from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt of a temporary freeze on new acquisitions, and throughout the afternoon and evening, industry insiders tried to make sense of the situation. Our immediate speculation was that the “exceptions” HMH pre-emptively granted itself would almost certainly include legacy authors like Philip Roth or Cynthia Ozick, while “midlist” authors who’d been with the house before and were up for new contracts should probably have “a serious talk with [their] agent.”
The most serious consequences, however, will probably be in terms of HMH’s suport of new literary voices. “I’ve got a short story collection from a debut author on submission there,” one agent told us last night. “I guess I know how that will turn out.” Janet Reid of FinePrint Literary Management took a more skeptical view. “I think it’s smoke and mirrors,” she said of the announcement. “If they want something, they’re going to get it.” She pointed out that some HMH editors were known, even before yesterday’s freeze, for extremely judicious buying practices, and questioned how much less they could acquire (other than, of course, nothing). As for the reduction in the HMH frontlist, which the Wall Street Journal estimated as more than 15 books a month, one editor at a rival house told us “a lot of other houses ought to do that.”
“This is a whirlwind blown out of proportion to what it really is,” Reid continued, calling yesterday’s buzz a consequence of “the first huge economic downturn in the age of transparency.” Within moments of the announcement items had been posted to sites like GalleyCat and PW and people started talking about it on Twitter: “We were all on it in five minutes,” she noted.
Other agents expressed surprise that HMH had chosen to go public with its non-acquisition policy, speculating that other houses would probably start buying fewer books as well and just not tell anybody outside their office; one theorized that the decision wasn’t so much a reaction to the current economic climate as a way to deal with the huge debts racked up in the merger of the two publishing houses last year.