Saturday, November 29, 2008

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is not accepting submissions at this time

Poets and Writers reports that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH), one of the major players in the book publishing industry, has placed a "temporary" halt on all acquisitions of manuscripts, telling its editors NOT to accept any more book projects.

from the article: It’s been clear for months that it will be a not-so-merry holiday season for publishers, but at least one house has gone so far as to halt acquisitions. PW has learned that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has asked its editors to stop buying books.

Josef Blumenfeld, v-p of communications for HMH, confirmed that the publisher has “temporarily stopped acquiring manuscripts” across its trade and reference divisions. The directive was given verbally to a handful of executives and, according to Blumenfeld, is “not a permanent change.” Blumenfeld, who hedged on when the ban might be lifted, said that the right project could still go to the editorial review board. He also maintained that the the decision is less about taking drastic measures than conducting good business

This action has created a great deal of fear in the publishing industry. For a prominant publishing company to stop accepting submissions "at this time" is unprecedented. Plenty of smaller presses will decline submissions for a time (Medusa's Muse had to stop accepting unsolicited submissions and now has a reading period), but that usually has to do with staffing. HMH publishes an average of fifteen books a month, so to keep up that kind of volume they need a lot of submissions.

What does it mean? There are speculations that HMH is simply trying to streamline the number of books they publish each year, which in our current economy makes sense. But even when a press rethinks its strategy, never has a large house stopped accepting submissions altogether. Could HMH be in more financial trouble than anyone realizes? Is the book industry overall so close to collapse the big houses are starting to crumble?

Beyond the apprehension this move has created in the industry, imagine what it means for all those writers trying to get published. Even HMH's signed mid-list authors, those writers who have published books with the company but have had moderate sales, may have trouble getting their next book published by the press.

For the time being, there is one less major publisher accepting new projects. At fifteen new books a month, that's a lot of books not being published. Writers hungry for publication might find it that much harder to achieve.

In an article posted on Galley Cat, Janet Reid of FinePrint Literary Management has this to say.

from the article: "I think it's smoke and mirrors," she said of the announcement. "If they want something, they're going to get it."

She comments on the fact the acquisition department of HMH is extremely judicious about what types of book projects they accept and she sees the company's decision as nothing more than strategic (click above link to read full article).

Also, according to the Associated Press, the "freeze" at HMH has been greatly overrated.

from the article: "I don't work at the Harcourt offices so I called to find out if the story was true," Otto Penzler, whose Otto Penzler Books specializes in mystery books and releases 6-8 titles per year, said Wednesday.

Penzler was referring to media stories alleging that Harcourt Houghton Mifflin (HMH) had temporarily stopped acquiring new books.

"I was told that it had been blown out of proportion and that there was simply some belt-tightening going on. I asked, `Does this mean I can keep buying books?' `Absolutely,' I was told.

Should we in the book industry start panicking? Probably not.

Time will tell what exactly the acquisition freeze at HMH implies about the financial health of the company. What it tells me about the book industry is that we all need to take a look at our strategies and business plans and make certain we are adapting to the changes in the industry. No one can afford to do business as usual, or stick our heads in our piles of books and think it can't happen to us.

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