This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.
Worlds shudder and collapse all the time. There’s no news in that. Just ask the Assyrians, the last emperor of the Han Dynasty, the final Romanoff, Napoleon or that Ponzi-schemer Bernard Madoff. But when it seems to be happening to your world, well, that’s a different kettle of fish. When you get the word, the call, the notice that you’re a goner, or when your little world shudders, that’s something else again.
Even if the call’s not for you but for a friend, an acquaintance, someone close enough so you can feel the ripples, that can do the trick. It did for me two weeks ago, when a close friend in my niche world of book publishing (at whose edge I’ve been perched these last thirty-odd years) called to tell me that an editor we both admire had been perp-walked out of his office and summarily dismissed by the publisher he worked for. That’s what now passes for politeness in the once “gentlemanly” world of books.
His fault, the sap, was doing good books. The sort of books that might actually make a modest difference in the universe, but will be read by no less modest audiences–too modest for flailing, failing publishing conglomerates. If you were talking in terms of cars, his books would have been the equivalent of those tiny “smart cars” you see in increasing numbers, tucked into previously nonexistent parking spots on city streets, rather than the SUVs and pickups of the Big Three. It may be part of the future, but who cares? Not now–and too bad for him.
It wasn’t really him, of course. He was just a small fry, like most of us, in the bloated universe of entertainment. As with so many workers at the moment–and it doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about the downturn in restaurant hires or the cuts made by that sports titan, the National Football League (about 150 jobs) or the public radio oufit NPR (sixty-four jobs, two shows)–his firing was a byproduct of economic and funding catastrophes elsewhere.
He went down during what publishing people are calling “Black Wednesday.” On that day, thirty-five people were axed by publisher Simon & Schuster (owned by CBS), while two key figures at Random House (owned by the German multimedia giant Bertelsmann), who headed two of its largest groups “resigned” as part of a “reorganization”–a vague word that covers a multitude of sins. This will undoubtedly result in further head-rolling in the weeks or months to come.
Then, of course, there was Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. (The name is a little publishing history lesson, a fusion of two recently conglomerated houses of distinction. It reminds me of newspaper names from my New York City childhood like the World-Telegram and Sun–once the New York World, the Evening Telegram and the New York Sun.) Just the week before Black Wednesday, its owner, the Irish private-equity firm Education Media & Publishing Group Ltd., saddled with an ocean of debt, made publishing history by instituting a “freeze” on the acquisition of new books. If you’re not in the tiny world of publishing, that may not ring too weirdly, but what is a publishing house except a staff, a backlist (those books already published and still in circulation), a set of books being published (that is, a catalogue) and those signed on for the future? Without future books, there is no publishing.