16 December 2006

Train Wrecks and Scapegoats

So, Judith Regan was fired. This was far from inevitable, but also far from surprising. It's been like watching a train wreck... and all that has happened thus far has been that the locomotive has gone through the hole in the bridge. The rest of the train has yet to go off the tracks, but it's only a matter of time.

On the one hand, this is good news for some sense of editorial integrity in the publishing industry. There is little doubt — make that no doubt — that the book that "justified" firing Judith Regan was inappropriate; there is also no doubt that it would have been a "best-seller."1 That links disturbingly well into my snarky comments yesterday on celebrity memoirs, overrated books, etc. Sadly, the OJ book was just the latest of a number of projects that never should have resulted in arboreogenocidal acts. Bluntly, Regan's editorial judgment stank. However, like a major-league coach/manager fired after missing the playoffs for the third year in a row — and like the Terminator — she'll be back. Her record for increasing revenues (leaving aside the means employed to do so) is strong enough to ensure that.

On the other hand, we're not going to see a change in the publishing program in question for quite some time. Sure, the imprint "Regan Books" will disappear quickly; it might even disappear from future reprintings of drivel like Ru5h's inane screed. The pipeline is full, however, and HarperCollins is probably the last of the big-five US publishers that can afford the fallout (legally and otherwise) of another round of mass contract cancellations. The last time around, the excuse used was "these books are so late that they're in breach."2 (We'll leave aside that the only time lateness seems to matter in the publishing industry is when it's the author; late royalty statements and payments are not just routine, but expected.) What's the potential excuse this time?

  • Your book is tainted by association with OJ.
  • We're going off in another editorial direction entirely. Never mind the specters of Rupert (and Roger Ailes) behind the curtain — everything is going to be different (not!).
  • We're doing a major restructuring of HarperCollins's imprints. No, it really isn't relevant that other major US publishers have done so in the last five years without cancelling contracts; we're different, because we're an integrated media conglomerate, and everything has to fit into the right hole here are NewsCorp.
  • Your book is tainted by associated with Judith, even though she was only lukewarm to it and acquired it only to keep your editor happy.

No, I'm not convinced, either. And that means that the remnants of Judith Regan's acquisition policies will be released over the next twelve to eighteen months. It might be harder to spot them once the imprint is dispersed elsewhere. But we can look forward to more porn star guides to sex from Harper Collins for a while yet.

In the meantime, sit back and enjoy the train wreck. The caboose should be going over the cliff in just about ten months; then it's just Wile E. Coyote time.

  1. Of course, this is technically only a conjecture. Unlike music and movies, "bestsellerdom" is an entirely relative and entirely unverifiable measure of sales. There is literally no single source that covers all outlets... except for publishers' royalty statements, which are notoriously inaccurate (and distorted by the returns system). It would be nice to have "gold bookmarks" for sales of 100,000 copies, and "platinum bookmarks" for sales of 250,000 copies, certified by an independent (or even only quasi-independent; the music industry manages) organization. We don't. Only the New York Times knows how many copies it takes to get onto a bestseller list in any given week — and it's not telling, particularly since that number is a statistical projection from sales from a few New York-area bookstores.
  2. I don't pretend to know what all of the hundred-odd cancellations were. I find it curious, though, that none of the ones I do know about (it's bigger than a breadbox) were for books from authors who had previously earned a "best seller" designation. Statistically, there should have been at least three in that sample size.