I’ve been reading your blog on and off (congrats on becoming a Real (Published) Writer!) and I am looking at what’s going down in the publishing biz these last few months (never mind the implosion at Houghton Mifflin) and I’m wondering if I should even bother submitting a first-time novel anywhere right now? I mean, are things just too crazy what with a financial meltdown, dropping consumer sales, a lame-duck President who’s more than happy to turn over most of his duties to the current President-Elect, and no one knows if the Boy Wonder will really pull off the miracle everyone’s hoping after the takes office in January? Is any agent (and by extension, editor) going to take a chance on an untried first-time novelist rather than tried-and-true names? Or should I just say fudge it and start submitting?
So before I get to the Houghton Mifflin issue, let me answer the question.
The answer is yes. You should submit your work when it is done and polished and you think it's ready for publication. Agents are always looking for new work unless their website specifically says otherwise. Yes, it's true, it's a time of lower advances and fewer buys, but agents make their living selling manuscripts, and they can't make much of a living if they stop doing that, especially if their big earners decide not to write or write something crappy and the publishers don't buy. If you submit over the holidays, expect a longer response than usual, but the query will be looked at the same way as it would have six months ago.
Now, onto the explosion over at Harcourt Houghton Mifflin. And yes, announcing you are no longer acquiring new books does qualify as an explosion. I don't care how great their backlist is (and it is GREAT), but they are in some serious shit to stop acquiring books. Their Fall 2009 line-up is probably set, but Spring 2009, they're going to be presenting a smaller list. And there's the question of what's going to happen to books currently in the process of being bought (nothing, they said, but nobody's sure) and the senior VP of trade publishing quitting. Nobody knows the whole story, but seems the Irish company that owns them is in debt thanks to poor financial planning. Acquisitions and editorial are huge costs, in manpower and actual physical production, so if you knew nothing about publishing and were looking to shave off some costs, you might suggest halting that part of the process and living off backlist proceeds for awhile, which is a bit like living off army rations. You can do it, but it's a bad long-term plan.
It is usual in hard economic times for publishers to openly or secretly decrease acquisitions, which enables them to fire a ton of people who work on new material. Remember backlist - old material - doesn't have to be edited, copy-edited it, checked for copyright violations in references, or even redesigned in layout. Every once in a while they change the cover art, which is in the design department, but it's easy to hire someone fresh out of school for graphic design with a good knowledge of photoshop and that Mac program they all use (InDesign?) for bottom-level salary. To completely stop acquiring books is short-sited and unheard of.
You should be concerned if you work at Harcourt, in terms of job security, but I would assume if you work at Harcourt and are reading this you know more about it than I do.
Side note: I was reading the Brooklyn Daily Eagle for April 1888 for a research project in the microfilm library today, and saw an ad for a new book, I forget what it was about, published by Houghton Mifflin. The company's got history.