Notebook: Buyouts

by Ann Kjellberg, editor

Helen and Kurt Wolff, with Anne Morrow Lindbergh and William Jovanovich (right) in Venice, 1961 (private collection of Christian Wolff)

Last week, “Big Five” (soon to be four) publishing house #2, Harper Collins (formerly Harper and Row and Collins), owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, announced a deal to buy the Big Five’s runner up, currently America’s sixth largest publishing house, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. A reminder: These six publishing houses as it is comprise what were (at least) two dozen distinct major enterprises within living memory. The Big Five is already shrinking to four because the largest, Penguin Random House (until quite recently Viking Penguin and Random House), announced its intention last fall to buy #3, Simon & Schuster. The UK’s Competition & Markets Authority is investigating that merger and the US’s Authors Guild and American Booksellers Association have called on the US Justice Department to do likewise.

Many have noted with dread that the consolidation of commercial publishing will likely place a downward pressure on authors’ earnings, by diminishing competition for books, and limit leadership roles in a field that has already been widely criticized for its failures of inclusivity. It will also magnify the widening gap between big sellers and everything else, which has only been aggravated the pandemic, battering as it did independent booksellers and leveraging Amazon and the big-box stores (also here) as sources for books. We wrote in January about how storied editor Nan Talese, speaking at the Library of Congress, described succinctly the way the corporatization of book publishing over the course of her career had increased pressure on editors to base acquisition decisions on the expectation of big returns. Houghton Mifflin and Harcourt Brace (like last-standing independent, employee-owned W. W. Norton) once used their thriving educational businesses to support their trade publishing arms. The whole business decision of separating and selling the off HMH’s trade division was about severing that link.

Houghton Mifflin, for its part, began in the nineteenth century as a printer (fans of The Office take note) and stumbled into textbook publishing to make use of stereotype plates that had wound up in the office. (Erstwhile “Hurd and Houghton” were the original publishers of The Atlantic Monthly.) Historians John Kenneth Galbraith and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., contributed to a successful effort to avoid a buyout of then Houghton Mifflin Co in 1978. (Tech critic Franklin Foer recalls in a recent article about the PRH/S&S merger that the US attorney general himself was alarmed by the relatively puny 1960 buyout of Alfred A. Knopf by Random House.) The trade publishing divisions of Houghton Mifflin and Harcourt Brace Jovanovich tagged along in a series of conglomerations in the textbook market, winding up together.

The gold mine in trade publishing, to which advances and the big promotional budgets that follow anxiously from them are keyed, is the sale of hardcover books, usually for $25 plus. The more publishing depends on big sales of big-selling hardcover books the smaller is the audience on which it is making its editorial decisions, especially in a country plagued by widening inequality—a subject to which I would like to return one of these days. The New York Times sponsored a study last fall revealing the large percentage of books from major publishers that were written by white people; the study did not to my mind take account of the distorting effects of the hardcover audience and declining library budgets. Selling hardcovers at a discount in Walmart and Target certainly makes hardcovers available to a wider public, but I’m not sure that the low-wage worker shopping at Walmart becomes the target reader for hardcover acquisition and marketing decisions on that basis. I would be curious to know how discounting at Amazon and the big-box stores, which as noted take an increasing share of sales, effects publisher margins and author earnings and with them the incentives around what books get chosen and promoted.

In addition to diversity concerns, publishers have for years been expressing anxiety that the talent pool from which future bestsellers are drawn cannot be developed without a market for other-than-blockbuster hardcovers. Talese reminded her audience at the Library of Congress that when she bought Margaret Atwood and Ian McEwan’s books in the seventies it’s because she thought they were good writers, and their books sold in the thousands, not the hundreds of thousands. It’s hard to imagine that it is the expectation of the CEOs making these merger decisions that they will reduce profit margins in order to cultivate a more robust literary culture for the future. The Times quoted business professor Erik Gordon that the threat of publishing mergers is “not that I’ll pay a dollar more for a book,” the traditional bête noir of monopolization: “it’s that control of the arena of ideas gets limited” and “the variety of ideas—if the venues for people who want to challenge the mainstream ideas—narrows.”

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In touting the wisdom of their purchase the News Corp CEOs reverently invoked HMH’s powerhouse backlist, older books that still sell, which reportedly generated 60 percent of HMH’s earnings last year. “There is no other catalog like it,” said HarperCollins CEO David Murray. When I was coming up, the editor Drenka WIllen, then of HMH constituent Harcourt Brace, was a hero of the profession. Her stable included Italo Calvino, Octavio Paz, Wisława Szymborska, José Saramago, Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua, Yehuda Amichai, Edward Gorey, Harold Bloom, Stanislaw Lem, Max Frisch, Margaret Drabble, Antonio Muñoz Molina, André Brink, Luis Sepúlveda, and Claire Messud, among countless others. She had taken over the Helen and Kurt Wolff imprint from the survivor of that legendary couple, Helen. Kurt Wolff began by publishing Kafka, Joseph Roth, and Karl Krauss in the twenties in Munich, in innovative editions aimed at the general reader with snappy covers by Paul Klee and George Grosz. Helen and Kurt were smuggled out of Europe by Varian Fry and arrived penniless in New York only to scrape together enough funds from people who understood what they were about to found Pantheon and later the Bollingen series, eventually taken over by Princeton University Press. Helen herself edited the Pantheon children’s line while typing letters and doing the filing.

Helen and Kurt Wolff resigned from Pantheon in 1961, thinking to retire, but they were rehired by William Jovanovich at HBJ to start their own imprint (a novelty at the time). Jovanovich was himself a true publishing original, who, among other things, after working his way up from textbook salesman to president, created the company’s lucrative educational wing as a reflection of the public school education that brought him from a Polish-and-Serbian-speaking childhood in a Colorado coal town to Harvard. Willen herself was an immigrant from Hungary who began by translating the stories of Ivo Andric and the influential Communist defector Milovan Djilas. Like Talese, she hung on to books, for instance those of future Nobel laureate Jose Saramago, for years before their importance was recognized. She and the Wolffs nurtured the international careers of poets like Wisława Szymborska and Octavio Paz (two more Nobels) but knew their business enough to bring in big sellers: Born Free, Dr. Zhivago, The Name of the Rose. When Willen was apparently unwittingly purged, just months before her retirement, in a wave of post-consolidation corporate downsizing, Gunther Grass is said to have written a letter in protest forcing her reinstatement. Said fellow veteran Ann Patty, who was fired in the same purge, “She was what publishing used to be. She was the example of what we all went into this for.” (I seem to remember hearing at some point that the name of the bodacious Drenka of Philip Roth’s Sabbath Theater was a hat-tip to Drenka Willen, but Google and Blake Bailey provide no confirmation of that theory.)

So one asks the obvious question. News Corp may have the money to buy up the legacy of Helen and Kurt Wolff and Drenka Willen, but do they have anything like the vision to continue this work into the future? (In our next Notebook: More on editorial vision and legacy, changes and lack thereof at Paris Review, Harper’s, The New Republic.)

Before we say good-bye, an adieu to authors Beverly Cleary and Larry McMurtry. It was striking to see on my twitter feed how many hardened contemporary literary types carry a lasting flame for Cleary, whose timeless children’s books earned their longevity with their blast of honesty. I had found myself checking in from time to time to make sure she was still around. Her loss seemed to me, as it did to her fellow Portlander Dustin Kurtz, a sign of end-times. Soul-sister Judy Blume tweeted, “Beverly Cleary! My inspiration. I wanted to write books like yours. I so regret never having met you. You will not be forgotten.” Judy Blume never met Beverly Cleary? How is this possible? We note that Cleary began as a librarian, such a good librarian that when she could not find the book a kid was looking for, she wrote it.

McMurtry similarly was both a writer speaking squarely to real-world readers and a book person: his sprawling bookstore in his hometown of Archer City, Texas, is the stuff of legend. I was reminded on McMurtry’s death of another writer-bookman we lost this year, City Lights’ Lawrence Ferlinghetti (see our City Lights appreciation here). Ferlinghetti and McMurtry could hardly be more different in style and readership as writers, but both were careers in which the writers’ vocation also manifested as truly original and influential purveyers of books.


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