When the German conglomerate Bertelsmann swept all 100-plus imprints of its publishing division, Random House, into one corporate mothership in late 2002, bookworms were marched from all over town and installed in cubicles in a gleaming new skyscraper with a lobby lined with books and a corporate logo outside announcing the company’s one-big-happy-family status.
A publishing consolidation of a very different sort is currently underway in downtown Manhattan: Holtzbrinck Publishers, the U.S. subsidiary of German media giant Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck and the parent of St. Martin’s Press, Henry Holt and Co., and Farrar, Straus and Giroux, among others, is quietly taking over the historic Flatiron Building. According to company sources, Henry Holt and its imprints Metropolitan Books, Times Books and Owl Books will be moving from their current location at 115 West 18th Street into six recently vacated floors in the Flatiron in mid-April. They’ll be joining St. Martin’s, science fiction and fantasy publisher Tor Books, the edgy 10-year-old literary imprint Picador USA, the independent press Bloomsbury (which is distributed by Holtzbrinck), as well as Holtzbrinck’s own New York headquarters, which is already located there.
Contrary to Bertelsmann’s swaggering style and tendency toward large-scale corporate announcements, Holtzbrinck seems not to mind if no one notices; executives at Henry Holt declined to comment on the move, and Holtzbrinck chief executive John Sargent had only this to say:
“We’ve been in the Flatiron Building. We love the Flatiron Building. I don’t need to comment any further.”
The famous entrance at 175 Fifth Avenue still reads “Flatiron Building,” not “Holtzbrinck.” Here, the understatement continues: If you squint hard at the building’s directory, you can read the names of the cluster of German-owned publishing houses that reside upstairs. Inside the lobby are framed archival prints of the landmark building, with historical information about its turn-of-the-century construction, as opposed to gawdy promotional posters for Jackie Collins’ next book.
After signing a new lease last June that gives the company 157,500 of the building’s 180,000 square feet and immediate occupancy of every floor but the seventh and eighth, Holtzbrinck executives can continue loving the Flatiron for the next 15 years. Holtzbrinck has two options in the lease to take over the remaining two floors in the future; the first can take effect in July 2007, the second in July 2009. The hodgepodge of 15 companies that currently occupy the seventh and eighth floors-including Gardner Nelson and Partners, Robert Mondavi Corp. and the oldest current tenant, Gramercy Typewriter-have leases that expire in June 2007. The commercial spaces on the two floors range from 500 to 5,000 feet, but can certainly be combined or altered to cater to the expansive publishing types. However, if Holtzbrinck declines the potential 2007 takeover, the current tenants can possibly sign new leases for two additional years.
“It’s a very prestigious building and prestigious tenant,” said Newmark chairman Jeff Gural, who owns the property along with Newmark principals James Kuhn and Barry Gosin and other smaller shareholders.
Renovations have been underway for several months at St. Martin’s, which has occupied a portion of the building since 1959. The result is a complete transformation of the building’s interiors; one rumor making the rounds of the elevators suggested that ancient safes had been unearthed in the building’s crumbling walls.
Steve Cohen, the executive vice president and chief operating officer of St. Martin’s Press, explained that when the Flatiron was built at the turn of the 20th century, it was designed to hold many separate businesses-the offices of entertainment agents, doctors, lawyers and the like. The result was that the floors contained “lots of pockets” and separate rooms, creating a warren-like atmosphere. The new space is open and airy, with the racetrack configuration that has become a staple in modern corporate design.
“In addition to renovating the place, we’ve completely upgraded all the technology and communication infrastructure with new wiring, new systems,” said Mr. Cohen. “All the windows have been replaced. It’s a much more comfortable building than it has been for the last 100 years.”
As for the fate of the two floors which will be under option to Holtzbrinck, Mr. Cohen said: “Depending on what the company’s needs are in the future, there will be the option of moving some other part of Holtzbrinck into those floors.”
The question of what other unit of Holtzbrinck could possibly be slotted into those two stories in the future suggests that Farrar, Straus and Giroux, the publisher of heavyweights like Joseph Brodsky and Tom Wolfe, might be a candidate (along with other, less literary Holtzbrinck properties like Scientific American magazine). The tiny, tweedy publishing house founded in 1946 by Roger Straus is currently nestled in at 19 Union Square West-one of the last holdouts among the many high-minded publishing shops that have been pried from their dusty old homes in recent years. Even the editors at Knopf succumbed in 2002, with cigarettes in tow, to cubicle culture at 1745 Broadway.
“This option was discussed early on, and it was mutually decided that F.S.G. should stay separate,” said Farrar, Straus and Giroux president Jonathan Galassi via e-mail from the London Book Fair. “We have been in our Union Square location for over 40 years and certainly have no desire or intention to move. Two floors of the Flatiron would not accommodate F.S.G. in any case.”
Maintaining the company’s independence was a priority when Roger Straus negotiated F.S.G.’s sale to its German owner in 1994, according to staffers and press reports.
“F.S.G. is part of the Holtzbrinck Group, needless to say, and we are in daily touch with the other members of the group and rely on central services for many functions,” said Mr. Galassi. “But one of the principles of the group worldwide is the importance of autonomy for the individual publishers, and this is certainly something we appreciate and subscribe to.”
For those toiling away at F.S.G., the idea of leaving the company’s Union Square enclave triggers shivers of horror.
“A lot of people would be very upset,” said one F.S.G. staffer who requested anonymity, referring to the possibility of a move. “It’s kind of unfathomable.”