Saturday, January 12, 2008

A Sad Day in Publishing

Yesterday, all of the electronic industry ‘rags’ (I guess we’ll have to come up with a new term for this) were abuzz with the news that the San Diego office of Harcourt Trade Publishers will be closed by June 30th. The news articles don’t say it specifically, but allude to the fact that most of the 65 employees who work in that office are being let go.

The news articles all go on to say that this was ‘no surprise’ considering the recent news that Dan Farley (President of Harcourt Trade) was being let go at the end of January. Well, from a pure, cold hearted, business perspective they are right, it’s no surprise. It is just how a consultant would write it up on a white board. But, from a position of knowledge, I’m shocked.

Harcourt Trade is one of our clients and has been for about seven years. This is a company that is one of the most organized and best run trade publishing operations that I have ever known. Whenever we talk to a prospective client, we use them as the example of what can be achieved in terms of operational efficiency in the publication process. They are a team of people that through their dedication to their processes and attention to detail know how to make money on lists of books that any other publisher (I know) would not be able to support. I am frankly worried that these titles will not survive very long under the new management.

Harcourt Trade was one of the first companies to realize the importance of bibliographic metadata, and to work (very hard) to improve their publishing processes so the data about their titles was excellent throughout the pre-publication life cycle of the title. When Barnes & Noble first instituted their EDRP system, Harcourt was the first to score ‘100’ on those monthly reports. Harcourt’s performance on those reports proved that the bar set by B&N for publishers with respect to metadata could be met. In a very real way, Harcourt vindicated B&N’s stance on insisting that publishers improve their metadata practices. And, by extension, as I have said many times before, this insistence has resulted in a vast improvement in bibliographic metadata in the entire book publishing industry.

My sincere hope is that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt will use the next six months very wisely, and take the time to understand the processes that Harcourt had been using. Unfortunately, processes alone to not make a better publisher. I also hope that they recognize that there are many very talented individuals working in San Diego, and work to secure them in the new company. It is through those individuals’ talents that this small trade division has become the gem that it is.

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