Lit picks

HarperCollins begins cutback chapter

Despite investing a great deal of News Corp.’s fortune in satellites and other high-tech media delivery systems, topper Rupert Murdoch told execs at the June 26 Forbes CEO Forum that he was “optimistic for the future of newspapers, magazines and books.”

Surprisingly, the next morning’s New York Times brought news that HarperCollins — News Corp.’s publishing division — is downsizing its book lists by canceling publication of 106 books.

The move comes as little surprise to wags who have been following the industry’s, and the publisher’s, recent woes. The company lost $7 million its last fiscal quarter, has trimmed staff, and boarded up its Basic Books and HarperReference divisions. However, despite rumors to the contrary, insiders at the house say this is in no way part of a News Corp. strategy to position HC for a sale.

Nor is it unique for a publisher to cancel contracts of books. Usually the move comes with the changeover in the executive suites or during times of industry recession, such as now. In 1992, Bantam, over the course of several months, canceled contracts for a few dozen books. And Random House CEO Alberto Vitale was quoted earlier this year as saying that for 1997, his house has “basically cut our trade list about 10% to 15%. … And that is in addition to the cuts we’ve made over the last few years.”

All publishers are suffering through a rugged time — particularly the adult trade press: The problems include unprecedented levels of returns, flat or declining sales, and a general funk about the industry’s future. That’s why many applaud HC for moving so aggressively. The publishing vets say the company is merely taking an aggressive step that the entire industry will have to copy to some degree if it wants to emerge from this current recession.

“If others aren’t doing it now, they had better do it quickly,” an industry vet says. “They have to tighten up their lists and lay people off, and only then will they recover.”

Still, the insiders also point out that HarperCollins is taking its knocks on the publishing street and in the press — not for making the decision to cut the books, but for the way it handled the cutbacks.

“They stand indicted for having canceled a very large number of books in a very short period of time, in such a clandestine, unprofessional way,” says an exec at a rival publisher.

In March, the publisher began notifying agents who represented writers to be cut, but the Times reported that publisher Anthea Disney began an aggressive approach about two weeks ago, targeting books that were late for delivery.

Although the canceled books represent less than 10% of the 1,600 books the house published last year, some wonder if, in an industry where perception is as important as talent, agents will look upon the publisher as less reliable than its competitors, and restrict the material they send.

Perhaps those satellites don’t look like such a bad investment for Murdoch after all.

Kingdom’ comes to naught

On another cutback front, a New York paper claimed recently that a book chronicling dubious deeds within the Walt Disney corporate empire has not found a publisher willing to print its claims.

Although Kathleen Harkey-Smith’s “Tragic Kingdom: Inside Michael Eisner’s Disney” appears in Birch Lane Press’ fall catalog, and was scheduled for a December publication, the publisher said it has dropped the tome from its fall list.

In the book, Harkey-Smith, a five-year employee of Disney, promised to discuss the dark underside of the company run by chairman Michael Eisner. The catalog promised that the book would describe “the bizarre bureaucracy and cultlike atmosphere, infused with sexism and homophobia, which nurtures employees’ devotion to Disney despite low wages and inhumane hours.”

According to a source, the decision to drop the book didn’t come from any pressure from the Mouse Kingdom, rather from the tome’s own literary weakness. The book had been dropped previously by Dove Books.

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