Sara Nelson Laid Off From Publishers Weekly

By now the news has pretty well made the rounds, but the morning after it’s still damn sad that Sara Nelson, editor in chief of Publishers Weekly since 2005, was laid off yesterday, the very day her editorial “Change I Believe In” signaled for continued hope that the layoffs that have been a hallmark of the publishing industry these last few months would come to an end. She and fellow staffers Daisy Maryles, Kevin Howell, Rachel Dicker and Elizabeth Devereaux lost their positions as part of a restructuring plan by the parent company, Reed Business Information, that also produced massive layoffs at Variety, changes at Broadcasting & Cable, freezes salaries and new hires across the board and now installs School Library Journal editorial head Brian Kenney as PW’s EIC – and raises questions as to whether PW, LJ and SLJ wll end up merging into one big trade mushball publication.

David Ulin calls Nelson’s layoff “an inexplicable decision, shortsighted and flat-out wrong.” Dave Worsley comments that firing Nelson “is a bit like firing John Lennon (and only John Lennon) from the Beatles.” Leon Neyfakh observed that for many (even if some of the comments to his piece and to Motoko Rich’s in the NYT beg to differ) Nelson “has come to serve as something of a den mother for an industry that, on its worst days, seems to be crumbling.” Ed Nawotka quotes an unnamed book editor shocked at Nelson’s firing: “I all but thought her job was assured,” he wrote, “It’s starting to

feel like we work in a World War I tranch, just kind of waiting for the

shell to hit.”

And Bookbrunch’s Liz Thomson provides some additional perspective from the UK:

PWs predicament is no different from that which afflicted Publishing News,
eventually bringing it down last summer: an evaporation of advertising,
as publishers' budgets are redirected to co-operative marketing with
retailers and, of course, to ever-larger discounts. And with readers'
gradual desertion of print in favour of online now exacerbated by the
need to find ways to save money, subscription bases are also being
eroded. Early this year, as the New York Times put
advertising on its front page for the first time in its history,
commentators were asking quite seriously if the paper could survive.
For the moment, President Obama appears to have thrown them a lifeline,
his inaugural having given a boost to newspaper sales. It may not
extend to B2B publications.

Obviously we’ll see where all this sturm und drang leaves PW and its sister publications, but what’s bad news for Sara Nelson, editor-in-chief may turn out to be the best thing for Sara Nelson, reporter. Her columns at the Observer were among the first things that got me to pay attention to the ins and outs and the scuttlebutt of the publishing industry, and I wonder if, freed of the day to day aspects of running a trade magazine whose mandate covers all aspects of book publishing, Nelson add back some of the snap and crackle to her voice that was smoothed out over the last few years. I suspect we’ll find out, and very soon at that.

Also, in the wake of Nelson’s firing, Jason Pinter’s starting an online symposium to best answer the following question: What is one thing you would you do to change book publishing for the better? Look for answers from a variety of corners over the next few days…