On the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Acquisition Freeze

It’s the news heard ‘round the publishing world (so of course, it happened while I was traveling.) There’s lots of panic and teeth-gnashing, but Colleen Lindsay also advises some necessary caution on the whole Chicken Little atmosphere, since this sort of thing has been happening all the time, just without the fanfare:

Look, when two large publishers like Harcourt and Houghton Mifflin
merge, it only makes sense that they'd put a temporary hold on further
acquisitions until they've had a chance to assess all of the properties
they already own. After all, they've just doubled their editorial
inventory. One thing a newly-merged publisher is going to try very hard
not to do is to cancel
contracts; canceling contracts leads to a lack of confidence in the
publishing company and that's never a good thing.

So if canceling a lot of contracts isn't an option, then what?

smart solution might be to just slow down or stop buying for a while.
Take a fiscal breather, as it were. Because the truth is that – right
now – there's probably no room for new manuscripts in Houghton Mifflin Harcourt's inventory.

  And if the rumor's true that this moratorium <a href="http://the-wad.blogspot.com/2008/11/update-on-houghton-mifflin-harcourt.html">will be lifted after the first of the year</a>, perhaps panicking is overrated.

  Except that let's be honest: if there was an acquisition freeze on at, say, Wiley or Rodale, there wouldn't be nearly as much chatter (consider that <a href="http://www.forbes.com/2008/11/04/magazines-publishing-advertising-biz-media-cx_jea_1104rodale.html">Rodale's layoffs</a> hardly registered on the book front, more as <a href="http://www.foliomag.com/2008/rodale-lays-111">a footnote to the ongoing magazine die-off</a>.) But Houghton Mifflin and Harcourt merging meant squashing together two houses of literary merit with authors whose names are recognized by common people and literati alike. They already went through <a href="http://www.boston.com/business/articles/2008/01/31/publisher_laying_off_employees/">some brutal rounds of layoffs</a> and presented a cheery face just last month, both publicly and in private conversation. So the freeze sends a bad symbolic signal, even if it probably only means taking stock of what's already in play for the next year.

  So no, we're not in panic mode, not yet. But as long as Riverdeep, HMH's parent company, continues to take a bath and the economy stays moribund (or worsens in the first quarter of '09), the gloom feels rather warranted, even if it's only a metaphorical sign of what may well come in other places.