After more than six months without a publisher, the trade division of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt announced today that Bruce Nichols, late of HarperCollins, has been hired for the position. Mr. Nichols, who is on vacation and could not immediately be reached for comment, replaces Becky Saletan, who resigned in December and joined Penguin’s Riverhead imprint in January as editorial director.
Mr. Nichols has been at sea at HarperCollins ever since the company’s painful reorganization five months ago forced him to take a job he never wanted, reporting to a boss who hadn’t hired him, and working on a team of editors who would always consider him an outsider.
Before the reorganization at HarperCollins in February, Mr. Nichols was in a position of great authority as the general interest non-fiction publisher of HC’s now-defunct Collins division. With a star-studded staff of editors working for him and a seemingly bottomless budget at his fingertips, Mr. Nichols spent about a year and a half turning Collins into a destination for big ticket non-fiction and competing for the most sought-after books on the market.
When Collins was shut down in February, Mr. Nichols was absorbed into the Harper imprint, where he was given the title of executive editor and head of the unit’s reference list under publisher Jonathan Burnham. Though Mr. Nichols might have taken comfort in the fact that, unlike most of the other people who had tossed in their lot with Collins, he still had a job to speak of, the demotion could not have been easy. Furthermore, joining up with the Harper crew, with whom Mr. Nichols had repeatedly competed for books in his previous capacity, was undoubtedly awkward.
Mr. Nichols has been rumored to be leaving HarperCollins for Houghton since last month. Select colleagues in the building were told of his imminent departure during the week of July 6th. He announced the move formally this afternoon in an email to colleagues and literary agents.
Though sales at Houghton during the past several months are said to have been strong, the heavy debt load that the once-proud publishing house’s struggling parent company is currently trying to pay down makes Mr. Nichols’ move look like a risky one. But Mr. Nichols, a widely-admired editor with a reputation for doing high-caliber books on politics, history, and current events, allowed himself to be recruited for Collins in 2007 precisely because he wanted a bigger job than he could get if he’d stayed at his longtime home at Free Press.
Several publishing insiders said in the wake of this afternoon’s announcement that, considering Mr. Nichols’ situation at Harper, the risk involved in taking the Houghton job is outweighed by the opportunity it offers. If he can turn the place around, the thinking goes, Mr. Nichols will be regarded as its savior.