Thursday, May 24, 2012

Major Publisher Goes Bankrupt: Shocking But Not Surprising

Houghton Mifflin field for bankruptcy earlier this week. If successful, it will wipe out $3 billion in debt. But that means someone will lose a lot of money. Perhaps it is an unpaid vendor, such as a printer or shipper, that is absorbing big losses. Maybe the employees are taking it on the chin.  It’s always an ugly mess to go this route, but sometimes it is necessary.

The publisher of Mark Twain and JR Tolkein is bleeding in red ink because it cannot seem to sell enough of the black ink. It was sad and shocking to hear of the publisher’s implosion and yet it is not surprising given the publishing industry’s struggle through both the Great Recession and the transition to an e-book economy.

One wonders what type of consolidation may take place within the book industry over the next two to five years. Houghton, one of the oldest publishers in the world, is well known for its textbooks and children’s books, but what happened to them can happen to any publisher.

The question is: What will happen next? How long will it take to clean up this mess and get the company back on its feet?

Not all companies make it out of bankruptcy, such as Blockbuster and Borders. But many do survive, and actually thrive once the albatross of debt is removed, such as Trump International and General Motors.  But one wonders what the publisher will do to make sure it doesn’t go down the same path that led it to rack up three billion bucks of unmet obligations. That is a huge sum for publishing. You don’t just accumulate that kind of loss over night – unless you are JP Morgan.

In any case, I wish the publisher well. When one of our brothers falls, we all take a hit.

What Advice Would You Give To A Struggling Writer?

Literary Agent Barbara Casey says:

To begin with, if you as a writer are serious about wanting to get published, you need to approach writing as a job.  Carve out a specific time during each day when you can focus totally on writing.  Then close the door, write with no one looking over your shoulder, and write with complete abandon.  You can edit it later.  The important thing is to capture your ideas as they present themselves, uninhibited and uncensored.  For me, early morning is my time to write—before I get busy with being a literary agent.  My mind is clear then, I feel creative, and I love the stillness that comes with being alone with my thoughts.

Once you have completed your manuscript, and this is true whether it is a novel or a magazine article, you want to put it out of sight for a few days and let it live in your conscious and subconscious thoughts.  You will be amazed at the new ideas that will spring forward and the changes you will want to make to improve what you probably thought was already perfect.  Even after you make those changes, you want to edit and re-edit, making your manuscript as perfect as possible.  Next to having something interesting to say, editing might be the most important thing you can do to help insure that an agent and/or publisher will read what you submit.  First impressions definitely count, and you usually get only one chance to get your manuscript read.  If your manuscript is full of typos or grammatical errors, or it simply lacks style, an agent or publisher won’t bother to read it.  There are too many others in the stack of unread manuscripts that are better prepared.

When you are ready to submit your work, do some research and identify specific editors or agents within specific publishing houses or literary agencies who work with the type of manuscript you have written. Also find out what the submission’s policy is for the editor or agent you are targeting. In addition to following those guidelines you will also want to send an informative cover letter that includes the title, word count, type of manuscript (children’s or adult, fiction or nonfiction, science fiction or romance etc.) relevant information about your background, previous publishing credits, a brief synopsis of your work, comparable works already in the marketplace, and who you think will want to read it.  Another thing that has become increasingly important over the past several years is for the writer to include a marketing plan with the submission.  

It isn’t good enough to say you will do whatever the publisher asks of you.  You need to list those things which you can do to help sell your book should it get published.  Today’s economy has taken a toll on all businesses, and publishing is no exception.  Gone are the large publicity and marketing budgets.  Rather, authors—especially new authors—are expected to do most of the marketing themselves.  This requires a great deal of hard work and time as well as creativity. To prepare for this, it helps to work out a realistic budget of what you think you can afford to spend on marketing your book.

Finally, if you don’t get an offer of a contract on the work you have submitted, close the door, write with no one looking over your shoulder, and write with complete abandon.  In other words, don’t give up.  Remember, this is your job, so keep working at it.  Take solace in the fact that you learn and improve from each and everything you write.

Barbara Casey, president of the Barbara Casey Agency, is the author of several award-winning novels, and numerous articles, short stories, and poems. More information can be found on her web site:

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Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels more important when discussed in the third-person.

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