Henry Holt’s flagship imprint has a new editor in chief. Who it is we don’t know yet, nor will we for two or three more weeks unless the wrong person hears about it and sings. Apparently, whoever it is hasn’t quite gotten up the nerve to give notice yet at his or her old job, and Holt’s publisher, Dan Farley, promised to keep it close until the bed was made. That, or Holt’s just running out the clock until after Labor Day, so that colleagues in the publishing industry, many of whom tend to spend the month of August unapologetically summering, actually get the memo.
The announcement cannot come a moment too soon, seeing as the editor-in-chief seat has been cold since January 2007, when Jennifer Barth went to work for Jonathan Burnham at HarperCollins.* And this past February, publisher John Sterling also departed abruptly. He had been head of Holt for nine years.
To this day there is no consensus on whether Mr. Sterling quit or was fired as a result of that ill-fated Hail Mary he threw in 2006 with The Interpretation of Murder, a novel he unwisely bet big on as the next Da Vinci Code, but regardless, it was a trauma for Holt when he left, and it contributed to the sense, inside and out, that the house was in a precarious spot. Though Dan Farley, Mr. Sterling’s successor, has been a steadying force these past few months, the place is nevertheless brittle right now, and it’s going to take an expertly choreographed comeback to restore its reputation among literary agents and editors at rival publishers.
“Whatever name he announces, the goal is for that name to be met with, ‘Ooooh, I didn’t think he could get that person! Oh, interesting!’ As opposed to, you know, ‘Weird choice,’ or something,” said one former Holt staffer. “[That’s what they need] in order to stop, once and for all, this ‘Holt is the fat kid in dodgeball and everyone is calling it names and throwing stuff at it’ thing. It needs to be someone that makes them go, ‘All right, Farley! Good work! I don’t know how you landed that fish, but way to go!’”
Perception isn’t everything, though, and while it’s true that a signal does have to be sent to the publishing community, a big hire is also essential for morale inside the house. This is partly because Mr. Farley spends half his time in San Diego with his family—an arrangement that might work just fine for veteran Holt editors Sara Bershtel and Paul Golob, who run their own imprints (Metropolitan and Times Books, respectively) and, according to publicist Claire McKinney, won’t report to the new EIC anyway, but not so well for the editorial staff of Holt proper. To be sure, Mr. Farley is reliably reachable by phone and e-mail, but that doesn’t change the fact that they have to pipe him in through a speakerphone whenever they have a meeting.
A new, energetic editor in chief who comes in every day will go a long way toward motivating the people who go to those meetings. The trouble is, after the recent brain drain, there aren’t that many of those people left: Since last summer, two full editors—in addition to Ms. Barth—have bailed, and neither has been replaced. That leaves just three full editors on deck, one of whom started at Holt two years ago and another who started last summer. Both are thought gifted, but not experienced enough to carry the imprint into the new era on their shoulders. Consequently, whoever has been chosen to lead them is expected to add one or two bodies to the roster as soon as possible.