The manuscript massacre

American publishing is in turmoil as a Brit cleaves through authors at Murdoch's loss-making HarperCollins. Is Anthea Disney tabloidising books? B******t, she says. By David Usborne
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The Manhattan publishing world was once more vibrating last week with gossip about Harry Evans, president of Random House. So what's new? (This time responsibility lay with a beastly profile in New York magazine.) Much more interesting was the ferocious chatter being traded about another of the big publishing house presidents, who happens also to be a Brit and a refugee from the old Fleet Street.

Our victim is Anthea Disney. Some may still remember her as the attractive face atop a weekly column that she wrote from New York for the Daily Mail in the 1970s. Since then she has run two US magazines and been a senior editor at the Daily News. In 1989, she accepted the Rupert Murdoch dollar and has since progressed with mighty speed up the ranks of News Corporation.

Anthea Disney's greatest achievement, however, may have been to attract minimum attention to herself while making her journey. If Harry hunts for the spotlight with his literary breakfasts and his glittering book- launch parties, Anthea strives just as hard to escape it. Heaven for her is a quiet weekend at home in the country with dog and husband. But now, a little more than a year after her appointment by Murdoch as president and chief executive of HarperCollins, her relative tranquillity has been shattered.

For this, she has The New York Times to thank. Ten days ago, the paper was unkind enough to publish a page one report about the apparently brutal steps being taken by Ms Disney to pare down the lists at HarperCollins in an attempt to return it to profitability (it lost $7m - pounds 4.5m - in its last quarter). Since March, she has approved the cancelling of more than 100 titles previously earmarked for publication, 30 of them in two weeks. Tossed through the back door of HarperCollins were novels, cookery books and coffee-table jobs, one, for instance, about pets of the rich and famous.

The impact of the article was instant. For one, it focused attention on the increasingly dismal fortunes of the industry as it battles with dwindling earnings and the power of the new retail megastores. More than that, it provided proof at last of what many in the business had long suspected. This upstart woman, who had no previous experience of book publishing and whose previous assignments for Murdoch had included stints as a producer for the tabloid TV show A Current Affair and as editor of the top-selling TV Guide, had been deposited on HarperCollins to drag it down to mainstream profitability.

The disdain oozed from the article. There was the literary agent for instance - anonymous, of course - who offered: "In all the experience I have had within publishing, I have never witnessed a more cavalier disregard for the bond that exists between author and publisher. These people don't seem to care about books. They just seem to care about the bottom line." Most surprising to some was the fact that among the books killed, there were some already being pushed in HarperCollins' autumn catalogue.

The endless sniping, from agents especially, clearly wearies the 50-year- old Ms Disney. "There is all this kind of snobbery, especially about TV Guide," she says. "I feel like saying to them, `Have you read TV Guide? Do you realise that what is actually in TV Guide is often a whole lot better than the stuff your clients are writing? And do you have any idea how much TV Guide makes?'." (In fact, under Ms Disney it became the first billion-dollar-a-year magazine in the industry.)

As to the notion that she is on a mission to tabloidise - some would say Murdochise - HarperCollins, Ms Disney snorts, "such bullshit". "There is this strange conundrum. The literati go on about best-sellers in the most cynical way and the next day they come into my office and try to gouge me saying they want to be best-sellers themselves. And they grumble that publishing was once a gentleman's business that has been taken over by corporations. The truth is it was never a gentleman's business."

Nor, she insists, is an endless stream of airport mush what Murdoch wants from HarperCollins. "Rupert never said to me `Don't publish anything that has any intellectual value.' It wouldn't make sense. People like to be around books with intellectual content, including owners of publishing houses."

While Ms Disney feels she has been hurt by the Times - "I'm now seen as a crass barbarian, this woman who walks around with a smile on her face and an axe in her hand" - the reaction since has, for a large part, been kind to her. Editorialising on the HarperCollins "manuscript massacre", the Wall Street Journal intoned sarcastically: "We suspect the culture will be able to withstand the blow. We will, it appears, never see a work about celebrities at home with their pets. We will never get to read the novel - or, more precisely, latest novel - about a woman's descent into madness. Nor will anyone get to read, not under HarperCollins' imprint, at any rate, the cookbook offering Jello-and-Dole pineapple recipes."

Meanwhile, there are a number of plain truths to be considered here. HarperCollins may have been singled out by the Times (perhaps because it is Murdoch-owned), but the company is not alone in wanting to cut its lists - last year it put out 1,600 trade titles - and alter its relationships with authors. All of the industry is experiencing a frightening down-turn. Last year, net sales of adult hard-back trade books in the US were down by 4.6 per cent, according to the Association of American Publishers. Compounding that decline is the ascent of the megastores and their impatience with books that do not sell instantly. Hard-back returns were running at 35 to 50 per cent last year compared with 15 to 25 per cent a decade ago.

Thus, Random House is known to be working at cutting its list back by 15 to 20 per cent, while Simon & Schuster, owned by Viacom, has reportedly asked its legal department to find ways to toughen up contracts with writers. Peter Osnos, a former Random House executive who recently founded his own imprint, Publicaffairs, sees the same trend everywhere. "Throughout the industry, there is a definite toughening of attitudes. And, I'm afraid, all of it is absolutely necessary."

Ms Disney recalls the "heartache" that she says went into selecting each of the titles that were finally cancelled. But she apologises for nothing. "At the end of the day a publisher has to do two things: publish books and make a profit. Everyone is having to face the fact that the publishing business doesn't work the way it used to and that it to has to be changed. I am taking baby steps and suddenly I'm the lightning rod. But my fear is that I may not be doing enough"n