Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s New Chapter

One of the last publishing havens for the midlist author just went public. What does that mean for readers?


Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s corporate headquarters in the Back Bay. (Photograph by Toan Trinh)

When Houghton Mifflin Harcourt filed for bankruptcy in 2011, few imagined that the company would launch an IPO just two years later. Industry insiders suspected this Boston publisher—one of the oldest, biggest, and most venerable that still remain in a city whose publishing presence once rivaled New York’s—would go the way of the dodo. But this November, the 181-year-old publisher of textbooks, trade titles, and J.R.R. Tolkien went public, raising more than $200 million in two weeks.

While the IPO brought a cash infusion to the once-ailing HMH, it begs the question: How will the company grow fast enough to please shareholders? Generally big publishers (most now owned by multinational companies) have stemmed the tide of falling revenues with the blockbuster model, releasing pop-lit froth from the likes of Snooki and other celebrities. Yet HMH has remained true to its editorial standards, and as such is perhaps the last major publisher whose trade list boasts respected but not blockbuster names such as Alison Bechdel, Elinor Lipman, the Best American series, and Life of Pi.

“If you look at the quality of the writing and the sophistication of their marketing and sales efforts, HMH is right up there with the top publishers in the world,” says David Emblidge, associate professor of writing, literature, and publishing at Emerson College and editor of The International Journal of the Book. But when it comes to revenue, he adds, HMH can’t offer the massive advances multinationals use to entice big names, which may become its undoing.

That leaves two options for the venerable publishing house. HMH can continue releasing serious literature that will stay in print long enough to turn a profit—like the first three novels from Ann Patchett, now a literary powerhouse. But it’s not easy to predict the next Tolkien, or even the next Patchett. The other, safer option is what Emblidge calls the Harlequin romance model: genre fiction that requires smaller author advances and negligible marketing costs. Each of the Big Five publishers has an imprint that puts out these workhorse books to subsidize huge advances for trophy titles that may or may not hit it big. “Thus far, HMH has resisted that temptation, but you can see what the dilemma is: Those guys have a cash cow,” Emblidge says.