Friday, May 11, 2012

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt to File for Bankruptcy

One of my predictions for 2012 was that one of the major trades would fall prey to bad business decisions based on outmoded operating models and file for bankruptcy protection, and today the Wall Street Journal reports that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt have done just that.

In retrospect this is hardly surprising, given HMH's heavy reliance on the educational market, which has declined by 48% over the past four years, due primarily to cuts in school budgets, but also because of a shift away from printed textbooks to laptops and tablets. In addition, they've been struggling under a capital restructuring plan since January (their second in as many years), with a hefty burden of $3.1 billion dollars in debts that is nearly three times their total gross sales for all of 2011 ($1.3 billion before expenses). And as with all the major trades, HMH has been reluctant to transition into digital, with major list authors like J.R.R. Tolkien only recently becoming available in official ebook editions (just this February for Tolkien, in fact).

Such blundering moves by short-sighted corporate heads are not uncommon, and HMH have made their share. Just four years ago the head of the trade division resigned in protest when the company put a freeze on acquisitions of new titles, a move seen by trade insiders as a monumental blunder when faced with lagging sales. Without new books to offer sales can only stagnate and decline. In 2009, HMH was ranked the 10th worst place to work in America, according to one survey.

In truth, HMH has been operating in debt for over a decade, with new ownership or mergers occurring nearly every year since 2001. But none of the new owners or executives were visionary enough to see the shifting tradewinds, or turn about a ship clearly riding contrary to the current. Whether or not it can ride out the tide will depend on how quickly and effectively they can retool for the new digital medium, particularly with regard to taking on Apple for domination of the educational arena. But big boats turn slowly, and Apple are already heading in the right direction. If HMH simply continue to operate on the business-as-usual model that ship is gonna sink.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Comments on the Top 10 Most Read Books In The World

I saw this the other day and thought it was really interesting. First of all, it's a cool way to visualize the data, and the graphic itself is nicely done, with the font and design elements replicating the actual print editions of each title. I like graphics, and I like statistics, and I like books, so this was right up my alley.

Of course, what's most interesting is the content. What it represents is the number of copies each of the top ten titles has sold in the past fifty years. That is sold, mind you, not read. There's a big difference. Of these top 10 titles, six are works of fiction (seven if you're an atheist), with the top and bottom two falling into the non-fiction category. The top and bottom are works of an historical nature, while the second to the top and bottom fall into the "inspirational" category, at least in intent (and only if you find these subjects inspiring, of course). Six of these works were originally written in English, and all but The Holy Bible within the last century. Nearly all of the popular fiction works fall within the past fifty years, within the time frame that the statistics take into account (or very shortly before that) - only The Lord of the Rings and Gone With The Wind are older than that - while the three most well recognized by modern readers fall into the "pop culture" bin of the most recent two to three decades (these being Harry Potter, The DaVinci Code, and The Twilight Saga, the most poorly written of the bunch, and of modern literature in general).

Conversely, all of the non-fiction works are more than fifty years old, save for Mao's Little Red Book (otherwise known as Quotations from...), which was first published in 1964. Think and Grow Rich was issued in 1937 and continues to be the best-selling "get rich quick" treatise on the market, and will likely remain so for as long as there are people who want to get rich just by thinking about it (the book, of course, is not about getting rich quick at all, but that seems to be what everybody thinks it's about). After all, it costs nothing to read (if you're a patron of the local library, that is), and even less to sit around thinking about getting rich all day.

My bet is that the three "pop culture" titles will fall off the list within the next ten years, while the more well-crafted works will remain, at least until equally well-crafted and deserving works appear. The influence of The Lord of the Rings has only grown with time as readers discover its astonishing depth and complexity, while Harry Potter's influence will likely wane as the legions of fans outgrow their childhood (if not their fifth grade reading level) and The Twilight Saga becomes gradually indistinguishable from the hundred other vampire-werewolf romance novels out there. Of the "pop culture" trio only The DaVinci Code will have any lasting impact, due not only to its controversial subject matter, but also its pseudo-historical context, which proves ever relevant and fascinating for conspiracy theorists of a literary bent (and there will always be boat-loads of those). The Alchemist is a bit of a dark horse here, being a truly unique entry among these titles, as both a work of fiction and an inspirational self-help allegory. It's hard telling what a book like this will say to people from one generation to the next. It's difficult to say what it means to people today.

As for the other non-fiction works, Mao's book will disappear as soon as he does (i.e. not soon enough), and Gone With the Wind will be just that, as younger generations fail to find an interest in outdated fictional history (read: stuffy and irrelevant). Anne Frank, of course, will have a lasting impact on the history of civilization, of the type that only grows with time and perspective - up to a point, at which it becomes ancient history, and no longer poignant (after all, who reads Caesar these days?). But that won't happen in our lifetime, because for at least the next century WWII will remain recent history, all too close for comfort. What will become of The Holy Bible is anyone's guess. Religion is a fickle mistress.

What would be more interesting here, to my mind, would be a comparative statistic of how many of these purchased books were actually read. The graphic's caption makes the distinction between number of books printed and number actually sold, but more important is the number actually read, a figure unfortunately impossible to determine. My guess is that more than half the Bibles lying around have barely had their covers cracked, while nearly every copy of Harry Potter has long since become tattered and dog-eared. The vast majority of purchased Bibles are bought in bulk by churches and related ministries to give away to third world nations and stock the drawers of cheap hotels. Additionally, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of variations of the Holy Bible, from tiny pocket editions in condensed form to fully annotated comparative editions in multi-column translations. All those count as a Bible sold. Still, 3.9 billion is a lot of books in any form. Too bad the author's not around to get those royalties.