What Makes Moguls Believe They Belong In the Book Business?

The fact that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s trade division is tacitly for sale is not a new development; such had been

The fact that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s trade division is tacitly for sale is not a new development; such had been the case, despite the reluctance of its leadership to admit it, ever since 2007, when Riverdeep completed the merger that created HMH. Other publishing houses whose owners are thought to be losing interest in the book business include CBS-owned Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins, which News Corp.’s chairman, Rupert Murdoch, considered selling last year to Random House.

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How long can these publishing houses expect to remain part of companies whose enthusiasm for holding them up has so clearly waned? Might an undoing of the corporate consolidation that seemed at one point so irreversible be on the horizon? The possibility has young publishing professionals like Mr. Wolff using their imagination, and wondering why those global giants now saddled with cumbersome publishing properties felt moved to get tangled up in books in the first place.

“It‘s hard for me to imagine a big corporation that’s not already involved in books wanting to buy a publishing company now,” said Laura Owen, who spent a year working at independently owned Skyhorse Publishing after graduating from Harvard in 2006 and currently serves as the editor of the monthly trade newsletter Publishing Trends. “I mean, it’s funny. There must have been something that was more appealing about it then.”

Thirty-two-year-old Jofie Ferrari-Adler, who works as an editor at the independently owned house Grove/Atlantic Inc., said he questions the wisdom of a business model for books based on corporate ownership and consolidation because ideas about synergy and economies of scale, which he thinks emboldened big media to pursue publishing houses in years past, have proven to be wrong-headed or short-sighted.

“I wasn’t around when it started happening, and I have never understood it. And from all the things I’ve read and all the things I’ve heard from people with more experience in the industry, nobody seems to understand it,” Mr. Ferrari-Adler said in an email. “There just isn’t any real growth in this business, at least not the kind that shareholders want.”

He added that while he has no illusions about modern financial realities, he doesn’t see who benefited from the big media companies’ involvement besides a “pretty small group of huge authors who the big groups can afford to overpay.”

“Book divisions are a fucking blip on the balance sheets of these companies. What’s the point?” he wrote.

He added that he wishes there were more good souls—“book people, not businesspeople”—who are willing to “try to raise some money and buy some of these great old houses that nobody seems to want and run them like publishing houses instead of like some kind of big-growth businesses that they’re never going to be.”

This is basically what Mr. Wolff has in mind, and while he concedes that the more commercial houses might get along fine being housed in profit-driven global conglomerates, “prestige” shops like Farrar, Straus and Giroux and Knopf “don’t belong at big corporations.”

The question now, according to Mr. Wolff, is “how many very wealthy people care enough about books to buy or support a publishing company?”

Fordham business school professor Al Greco, who is writing a book about the changes book publishing has gone through during the past 30 years, said Mr. Wolff’s vision for the future is not impossible.

“What you’re talking about is going back to the old model. Could that happen? It could,” he said, noting, however, that he hadn’t seen any evidence that the big media companies were losing interest in publishing.

“Could a Warren Buffett or a Bill Gates or anyone who’s a billionaire buy one of these companies and take it private and run it as a personal operation devoted to good books regardless of commercial success? It could happen,” Mr. Greco added.  “It would just take someone with a different vision and a lot of capital to keep the house afloat.”

What Makes Moguls Believe They Belong In the Book Business?