Too Literary to Fail? Houghton Mifflin, Writers in Trouble

This is not good news. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, a publishing group with a literary legacy dating back to 1832, is temporarily not buying new manuscripts, and apparently no longer accepting submissions from either agents or individual writers.

What does this mean? It’s difficult to tell. Browsing online sources (including Houghton Mifflin’s oblique website), I quickly got caught in amazing accounts of the history carried by today’s Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, whose previous permutations and acquisitions include Harcourt Brace, Harcourt Brace and Javonovich, Henry Holt, Holt Rinehart and Winston, Houghton Mifflin and even the legendary Ticknor and Fields, which was merged into Houghton Mifflin in 1880. (No, not 1980. 1880.)

Books these publishers have been responsible for include Thoreau’s Walden, Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street and Orwell’s 1984. So is this company “too literary to fail”? I doubt that. I can’t possibly guess as to the business implications of today’s dramatic announcement, but the fact that a major publishing firm is closing its doors even temporarily is obviously bad news for writers, publishers, booksellers, agents and pretty much everybody else. Ironically, as we’ve pointed out here on LitKicks often, books remain a highly profitable business every year (current code word: “Twilight“), but our top executives don’t seem to be doing a good job of keeping the financials under control even with all that money (yes, money) floating around.

You know, sometimes the book game reminds me of the bank game. I just had to say that again.

Anyway, this is especially galling to me because, as I told you many months ago, I am trying to sell a book. I finished a proposal this summer — an absolutely kickass proposal for a non-fiction book on a popular topic — and a top literary agent (who I am very proud to have representing me) began approaching publishers with the proposal in August. This agent, who appears to be a man of few words, delivered a status report to me recently which wasn’t what I wanted to hear. The email contained two sentences:

not a lot of reaction to it. but i will keep trying.

I know this will be a great book and I seriously expect it to sell a hundred thousand copies, so I find this very frustrating (though I realize that it’s only been three months and I am glad that my agent is still trying). But with companies like Houghton Mifflin Harcourt slamming their windows shut and going into fetal positions, even temporarily, I am that much more depressed about my chances.

Whether we are publishing professionals, writers or readers, these business developments will affect all our lives and the lives of our children just as much as developments in the inexcusably mismanaged financial markets will. I think we’d all better pay extra close attention to the publishing industry in the next few weeks. (If you need a starting place, here’s one.) Let’s just hope we can get through the holiday season with no more dominoes falling.

15 Responses

  1. Good post! I also wrote about
    Good post! I also wrote about the same thing on my own blog. The PW daily newsletter was pretty grim this morning – very much a sign of the times we’re living in.

    I wish you the best of luck on finding a publisher for your book! That’s awesome that you were able to get an agent. That seems to be half the battle right there.


  2. I am just a reader, so I’d
    I am just a reader, so I’d like to know how this will affect both me and my children!
    Oh, wait, I’ve read the beginning of the second paragraph and feel relaxed again.

    What kind of book, never mind non-fiction, shifts a hundred thousand copies nowadays?

  3. Levi,

    You’re fortunate that

    You’re fortunate that your agent has stuck with it for three months. Perhaps a good sign is that friends’ books that were sucked up in two weeks are on the remainder pile now. Been reading your stuff since litkicks was in HTML. Keep up the good work.

  4. It baffles me when I hear how
    It baffles me when I hear how “lucky” someone is for an agent to stick with them! For God’s sake, the agent doesn’t have to write the book, just talk to people about it!

  5. There’s a simple explanation
    There’s a simple explanation for why publishers and agents couldn’t recognize literature if it bit ’em in the ass – they stupid. They looking to market pulp crap. They don’t care about the reading public or literary writers. They care about money. They similar to prostitutes and dope dealers – don’t care who they hurt, just want the greenbacks. If they go bankrupt, it is because they deserve it. Hopefully they all will, and honest publishers and agents will take their place.

  6. But Mikael, obviously you are
    But Mikael, obviously you are making a wild generalization here. Why overstate your case? *Some* publishers and agents are stupid. Some of them are not.

  7. Well… now, Mikael . . .
    Well… now, Mikael . . . let’s not piss ’em off. They may be useful to us yet.

    By the way, Frank, I’m not dissing your statement because you’re probably right. I’m just saying how weird the facts are.

  8. The smart argument would be –
    The smart argument would be – literary value or money? Carry your argument through to its ultimate conclusion, as Heidegger would say. If you can answer the question – why do people read – then you have a basis for being concerned about Houghton Mifflin. Otherwise, fuck it, give ’em an X-box and don’t worry about it.

    But if reading is important to you, then give me a list of those smart publishers and agents. I’d like to know who they are. ‘Cause I’m gonna take a wild guess and say – not one of ’em are concerned with anything except money. Go ahead, prove me wrong.

  9. Well, Mikael, I think a good
    Well, Mikael, I think a good publisher should be concerned with money. The question is, can publishers make an honest and steady buck — that is, can they earn their keep by producing books that readers truly like? If so, I consider them smart and good publishers (and agents, etc.)

    But, just as with many American bankers, current White House occupants, etc., many of our current book publishers are prone to incompetence, greed, egotism, bad judgement, etc. Those are the ones I don’t call smart and good publishers.

    If the publishing industry weren’t producing some good stuff every year, I wouldn’t bother paying attention to it.

  10. You dodge the question, and
    You dodge the question, and the reference to Heidegger. E.g., a good priest should be concerned with money, as should a good psychiatrist, and a good politician. They should primarily concern themselves with those who can pay the most money. And in their spare time, they can produce some good; just like publishers and agents.

    Makes for a pathetic society, but why should a priest, psychiatrist, politician, publisher, or agent, care about society? It’s money they’re after, so they can escape from crude society. Be far above it, quite unconcerned with…people and nature. Like Thoreau said “money is what matters; because you can always buy friends and relatives; and food harvested by migrant workers.”

  11. I think some agents are
    I think some agents are interested in literary, actually, but they want a blend of literary and commercial. I truly believe that most agents went into the business dreaming of finding the next F. Scott Fitzgerald, but the market dictated otherwise. My experience was a tale of two agents: Barbara Zitwer wanted the commercial score, and when the realization hit that I wasn’t her man, she couldn’t have lost interest in me faster. It was if she didn’t even know me, that we didn’t even have ridiculously bad coffee in her apartment in the upper West Side.
    Britta Alexander was my Maxwell Perkins, an editor and and agent, who truly wanted my literary work to be successful. But when it was obvious it wasn’t working out (read my blog’s “sob story” entries.) she got discouraged and had to concentrate on projects that would make her boss’ agency money. Zitwer was cagey — business smart…Britta was/is brilliant and idealistic.

  12. Mikael, it’s really about
    Mikael, it’s really about numbers. Millions of people submit manuscripts. Publishers and agents can’t read them all. And the ones they do read, we can all see how wildly opinions vary in the book reviews right here on Litkicks. For example, one person hated Cormac McCarthy’s The Road while someone else loved it. Both of these were people whose opinions I respect.

    One solution is to publish ourselves. The downside of that is lack of resources to promote our work. Why do we want to promote it? So a lot of people will read it, which involves not only recognition but money. Money for us, so we can continue writing. So we need money, even if it’s not the main thing in our lives. Or we can keep on learning ways to get our foot in the door, and that involves honest assessment of our own work.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m human, and sometimes I want to say fuck all those bastards in the high towers. But then I remember, everything is relative. What I mean by that is, suppose I start my own website to publish & promote writers like myself who feel ignored by the mainstream. At some point, my site becomes well-known and there are so many people sending me material, I can’t possibly read it all. The next thing I hear is, someone is calling me one of those bastards in the high tower.

    Jesus Christ, I’m starting to sound like an Ayn Rand Republican, and I am definitely neither.

    Oh, it’s a king-hell dilemma. What say we amuse ourselves by badgering Levi to reveal the subject of his book?

  13. Bill, I will reveal it in
    Bill, I will reveal it in good time. Suffice it to say that this is the “M” idea discussed in my prior post, and that I think it will be an excellent book.

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!