In what is just the latest in an ongoing series of body blows to the traditional book business, venerable book publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has recently announced it has entered into U.S. bankruptcy protection.
If you’re interested in the morbid financial details of this sad story, check out this article in the May 21st edition of Bloomberg Business Week.
I’m more interested in what this has to say about the present — and most importantly, the future — state of publishing.
The venerable Houghton has been publishing books since 1832. Over the past 180 years, the company has represented an impressive stable of authors, including the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson, J.R.R. Tolkein, and Mark Twain.
Hell, they even published one of my all-time favorite children’s series, ranking right up there with Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstockings books, and Herge’s Tintin series…
HMH, as is the case with many other traditional book publishers, simply became too big for its britches. Like many a currently beleaguered major house (and plenty of medium and small ones as well), there are lots of very bright, very talented editors, designers, and marketing folks at HMH who are probably wishing they’d majored in something useful back in college, like electrical engineering or basketball.
I encourage them — and all you shocked and dismayed authors out there — to take a deep breath. Industries, just like the civilizations that spawn them, come and go, and with them, specific business sectors — like traditional book publishing — to be replaced by… something else.
It’s what comes next that matters. Will it be indie publishing or a new wave of old publishers wearing new (and several sizes smaller) hats? Will ebooks or just-on-time, on-demand physical books win the day?
It’s all very Tolkeinesque. Just as the withdrawal of the elves from Middle Earth left a vacuum (who would fill it, orcs or humans?), creating a demand for seasoned “sellswords” like Strider, the hard-won skills and sensibilities of the best of all those soon-to-be-looking-for-another-job publishers will be increasingly sought-after.
HMH may be bound for Mordor, but the rest of us may well end up in Rivendell.
For those of who you are even the slightest bit Tookish — don’t you just love a good adventure?