That there were layoffs on Tuesday at NewsCorp’s HarperCollins was a surprise to no one paying attention to the book business, or to business in general.
But the extent and ferocity of the cutbacks? That had people in book-land reeling.
Two top executives were out: Collins president and publisher Steve Ross was fired. Lisa Gallagher, who headed the William Morrow imprint, was history.
Sales and marketing personnel were dismissed. What was left of Collins was folded into Harper proper.
Collins itself, whose concept was brought over from England by CEO Jane Friedman four years ago, is now in the past.
The moves were billed as part of a massive restructuring, which included the shuttering of the four year old Collins division.
And indeed, book publishing sorely needs a correction.
Like every other business, publishing houses managed to ignore the elephant in the room in good, or event decent, times: too-high advances, the practice of bookstore returns, the redundant staffs, among many others.
NewsCorp seems to be saying that they simply can’t do it anymore.
Harper, which saw punishing declines in 2008, had yet to make the kind of cuts Random House, MacMillan and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt made in recent weeks.
“They couldn’t just have been looking at the numbers,” said another Harper executive, since William Morrow's sales were historically good.
But HarperCollins as a whole is not doing well. In the six months that ended on Dec. 31, HarperCollins’s operating income dropped nearly 75 percent, to $26 million from $103 million.
The publishing industry is struggling, as most people know. The holiday season was one of the worst anyone can remember, and the Association of American Publishers announced double-digit declines in sales for the month of November.
Other cuts – one staffer says the total is around 20 – include long time publicist Paul Olsewski, and entire imprints as Bowen books, which only just launched a few months ago after the hiring a year and half ago of longtime children’s editor Brenda Bowen, and Rayo, which published books with Latino themes and authors. And Amistad, the African American imprint, was cut in half.
Not since a number of weeks ago, when Random House restructured, or just before that when Houghton Mifflin Harcourt was slaughtered, have so many people made so many calls and sent so many emails to lament the state of their business.
I don’t doubt that Harper’s decisions were difficult to make. The two memos from CEO Brian Murray, and General Books Group President Michael Morrison were soaked in sincere sweat and tears.
But there’s more than economics at stake here. Some are saying that decimating HarperCollins is personal, directed at someone who is no longer there.
Last fall, before things got really bad, the popular Harper CEO, Jane Friedman, was forced out of her job.
She was many things, not least a passionate cheerleader for books, and, for publishing, a forward thinker.
Friedman planted the HarperCollins flag in China. She pushed for digitization.
A few weeks before she left, she hired veteran publisher Bob Miller to start his anti-paradigm imprint, HarperStudio, which promised to address some of those aforementioned elephants.
She was also the one who decided to import the idea of a separate Collins division from the UK with business-oriented books and high-concept titles like "The Dangerous Book For Boys."
It may have performed poorly, but so have most of the rest of HarperCollins. And today that division was dismantled. Was this part of NewsCorp’s way of punishing the people and programs Friedman courted and initiated?
That might be true.
But the draconian Harper restructuring might be simpler after all: pure economics.
For a business that is always accused (often rightly) of being backward and hidebound, what Harper had been trying to do was laudable. Too bad so many good people got squashed when the world turned over on them.