How to Publish in a Recession: New Directions’ Declan Spring

I’ve seen a lot of coverage in newspapers and magazines regarding the economic woes of major New York publishers like Random House and Houghton Mifflin, but I haven’t heard much about what’s happening with our many independent and/or small presses. Are they hurting too? Have they cut staff? Has anyone else taken Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s drastic (and now recanted) step of cutting off new manuscripts?

In order to get some a picture of how publishing beyond New York’s giants is faring, I’m going to be conducting interviews with presses and publishing them here. I’ll be interested to see if they’re feeling the pain every bit as much as the big guys, or if their different publishing models are yielding different results. I’ll also want to see what they’re doing to stay competitive in this market and if they think the recession is going to shake up publishing at large.

First up, Declan Spring, senior editor at New Directions. To see all interviews in this series, click here.

Scott Esposito: Since November, newspapers have been full of reports of layoffs and cutbacks at large New York publishers, and the general mood one gets from reading these reports is gloom. Would you agree or disagree that things are gloomy for publishing right now?

Declan Spring: I’d say pretty gloomy, but like many industries, publishing’s only starting to see the results of the economic collapse. What’s nerve-wracking is the uncertainty. I believe book sales have fallen industry-wide 7 to 12% since October.

The big eye-opener for us was the Houghton/Harcourt merger last summer, and their announced buying freeze in November. I’ve been hearing about lay-offs at all the big New York houses, places like FSG and Henry Holt; and it’s not just the publishers. Barnes & Noble reported a big drop in Christmas sales, and everyone knows Borders is in big trouble. The really strong independents, the big ones I mean, that have always managed to show profits saw major losses this fall. The closing of Stacey’s in San Francisco is an indication of bad times for bookstores as well as publishers.

Coupled with the economy is at least MY rising fear of the digitization of text and the popularity of downloading books on computers, ipod,s and digital readers like the Kindle and the Sony Reader. Riding the subway to work, I see less people reading and more listening to their ipods. Fewer of my friends are reading in the evenings, more are emailing friends and surfing the Internet.

SE: The recession was officially declared a couple of months ago, and many economists have backdated its beginning to early 2008. Over this time what has business been like–better, worse, or about the same?

DS: We’ve seen drops in sales throughout 2008, but especially in the spring and early summer. This was due to a number of factors: lower sales, a gap between lead titles, and returns (many of which came in from Borders). Things picked up at the end of the summer and early fall because some big books came out and the college orders were coming in. (New Directions is required reading for so many literature courses.)  We did see much higher than usual returns in October from booksellers. (And I hear publishing sales were down 20% overall in October.) The national accounts (meaning the chains) were returning many books. You could say that our autumn drop was due to bookstores getting nervous more than an actual drop in net sales, at least that was the case with our books.

The biggest factor for us hasn’t been so much big drops in actual sales, but the enormous amounts of returns from booksellers, primarily the chains.

SE: What’s your outlook for 2009? Have you made any significant changes to your plans for 2009 in response to the shifting economy?

DS: Our outlook is “to try and hold steady,” that’s pretty much everyone’s. We’re relieved because it looks like Borders, which we thought might collapse in January, will have a respite, and also books aren’t cars or real estate. You can buy a book for $12 and that’ll keep you pretty busy for a few days, and if it’s great, lend it to a friend. What’s frightening isn’t so much the anticipated drop in the market, it’s the total uncertainty about when the bottom will appear and things will begin to pick up again. We have made significant changes: we are absolutely making sure that on each list we have important backlist reissues that will have a guaranteed sale; while making sure we have plenty of stock of our backlist, we are being careful about excess reprinting; we’re needing to cut back a little on acquisitions and costs so we can pay our basic expenses and royalties; every meeting we’re brainstorming how we can cut costs on every level, from editorial to production, publicity, and marketing.

New Directions is famous for publishing unknown, experimental authors that don’t sell at first but catch on over time. We follow Ezra Pound’s dictum that a book that’s truly new could take twenty years to become recognized. We’ve always taken risks and kept our books in print, even if sales are minimal at the beginning. Now while we’re still true to that, and we’re still publishing new, important groundbreaking authors, we find we do need to be a little careful about many new titles we do take on, and, in addition,  having to rethink what advances we can afford and how lavishly we can produce the books. (Do cloth books make sense in this climate? Would a series of short, very inexpensive books by really great writers fare well in this market?)

We are holding on to our staff, but implementing thrift measures (even little things like not sending so many things via express mail help).

SE: How well do books hold up in a recession? Is publishing more recession-proof than other industries? Before Christmas there was some speculation that there would be renewed interest in books as an economical gift-choice, but that seems not to have panned out.

DS: You can look at BookScan, the computerized system that shows actual sell-through of books to see how they’ve been selling since the beginning of the collapse. The last I heard, there were significant BookScan drops in December compared to December 2007, but I don’t know what they’ve been total since the summer. But that tells you something: not the emotional reaction of booksellers, whether or not they’re scaling back on their purchasing, but how many books are actually selling over the counter. My guess, and this is just personal, is that everyone’s nervous, the overall anxiety about the poor economy just effects everyone’s buying habits. Plenty of people don’t own stocks, but they’re not going out for dinner, or as quick to buy presents, or make that impulse buy at Amazon they would have before. I’m sure there are plenty of people who may have bought two hardcover books for their mom for Christmas, and this year, they only bought one.

SE: Do you think there’s something about your business model (i.e. that of a smaller, more independent press) that will allow you to get through the recession with less crisis than a place like Houghton Mifflin is experiencing right now?

DS: Definitely. We’re not beholden to stock owners, our overhead is pretty small, and we always count on just a pretty small profit every year anyway. Our staff has worked here for many years, mostly the same folks for twenty years, who are devoting much of their lives to the mission of ND. We see it as a profit-making business, but we are also realistic and dedicated to the cause. That makes it easier in this climate. Most important, while we always expect people to get excited about the new books we publish—many of the most innovative and exciting foreign authors, and some of the foremost avant-garde American poets—we have always had the luxury of being able to count on the steady sale of our luminous backlist. James Laughlin started New Directions in 1936 and since then, ND has built up one of the great literary lists in American publishing. Those books are essential texts in any worthy bookstore and are adopted on a wide scale in college courses across the country. No matter how the economy’s doing, those books are sold and read. And since we’re a small press with a long-time devoted staff, we can be creative and smart about keeping costs down and forging ahead as we’ve always done. One thing our President Peggy Fox reminds us about is that we’ve been through ups and downs before.

SE: In a recent article in The Independent, Boyd Tonkin advanced the idea that an important group of British writers come on the scene during the UK’s recessionary ’80s. He speculated that the economic turmoil was somehow linked to the emergence of these writers–perhaps the recession helped open the field to emerging writers and allowed more innovative publishers to put out the work of talented writers who hadn’t broken into the mainstream. Some of the authors he named were Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes, and Martin Amis. What do you think of this idea? Would you say that in times of a recession you would be more likely to publish an unknown but largely talented author?

DS: Well, we’re always hoping to find unknown, hugely talented authors and even now have our eyes open, but to be honest, I’m sorry to say, as a trend, what you’re describing above is probably more unlikely. You hear about these publishing freezes at places like Houghton and while nothing like that happening at ND, we’re scaling back and trying to concentrate on bringing out all those books we’ve already signed. Since many of these are translations, we have a lot of new material in the works. We’d probably be a little less inclined to bring out a worthy book that we’re sure won’t sell I’m sorry to say. A noteworthy French author I considered a few months ago I would have normally really pushed for. Now, I roll more with the consensus of our editorial staff.

However, there is the possibility that great authors, say mid-list authors, might be dropped by the big houses, and ND might very well be the place they could land.

SE: By contrast, in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Anita Elberse argued that tough economic times will make the blockbuster publishing model more alluring than ever. She stated that in the past the blockbuster strategy has "worked wonders," and she argued that it made more economic sense to make a few high-stakes bets than spread your money around a number of low-payoff books. In particular, she stated that publishers that spend "an inordinate amount on an acquisition, will do everything in its power to make that project a market success," that large acquisition deals indicate seriousness to chain bookstores, and that publishers that don’t show a willingness to bet bit on manuscripts in recessions will be shut out in the future. What do you think of these arguments, especially as they pertain to publishing in a recession?

DS: Doesn’t really apply to us. For us, a “large acquisition” is small potatoes for the commercial publishers. We tend to find authors who are unknown in the USA and eager to appear in the English language, and then build them.

SE: As a follow-up to the previous question, would you say that in times of recession emphasis shifts away from publishing’s center? For instance would you say manuscripts begin to flow elsewhere as the major houses clamp down? That there’s a general incentive to try new things?

DS: I guess I sort of answered that question above. I know that there are some very amazing and important books and authors that are being dropped by the publishing center. It’s too early to tell, but perhaps some may come over to ND.

SE: Another effect of the recession is that a lot of bookstores are going out of business, and large chains are cutting back on their retail space and the number of books they buy. Are these closings and cutbacks affecting you in any noticeable way?

DS: Absolutely. Well, the demise of the independents has been a trend for many years, and this hurts a literary press like New Directions. Although the great bookstores that survived in the last two decades are seemingly strong, you still hear of Cody’s or Stacey’s and get a chill, and I’m sure it’s only getting worse. Over the years we’ve built a loyal following from independent booksellers and the kinds of folks who like to purchase their books in these stores. I first became really aware of New Directions books when I started haunting the St. Marks Bookstore (when it was actually on St. Marks Place) and their selection influenced what I read. I’m sure there are lots of people like me, and what’s encouraging for New Directions is that there are lots of young folks who still support the independents, recognize their value, and just eat up our books and revere the history of our press. I don’t think that’s happening quite as much in the Barnes & Nobles. As I said above,  the greatest damage due to the economic downfall this year has been due to the fact that the chains aren’t buying as many books up front, they’re reducing their shelf life (our author Eliot Weinberger says books now have the shelf life of yogurt), and in response to the climate, they’re returning more books. That’s incredibly damaging for a small company like New Directions. It effects not only our sales, but how many we decide to print off the bat.

SE: In terms of the nuts and bolts of running a press–e.g. costs of paper, costs of printing, staffing, etc.–what kinds of changes are you experiencing? Do you attribute any of this to the recession?

DS: I’d say the main way we’re reacting to the climate is really taking advantage of our backlist. There are so many incredible books and authors we’ve published over the years, some of which have fallen off peoples’ radars. Many of these books are loved by other important authors, so for instance, rather than pay an advance for a new author and bring out a new book, we’ve discovered we can find one of these well-known authors to write an introduction for a book we already publish which the famous writer really loves. We’ve had great success repackaging some of our backlist classics, books like Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood, our Tennessee Williams plays, Celine’s Journey to the End of Night, with great introductions from writers like Jeanette Winterson, Edward Albee, Jose Manuel Prieto, Jeffrey Eugenides, and William T. Vollmann. This fall we’re bringing out one of our classic Henry Miller’s, The Colossus of Maroussi, with a new introduction by Will Self, and William Carlos Williams’s In the American Grain with a Rick Moody introduction.

We’re also introducing a new series of economical books that will take advantage of gems from our backlist while introducing new short works by some of the best newer authors like the Argentine Cesar Aira.

The great designer Rodrigo Corrall has become our Creative Art Director at Large and is helping us redesign some of the great New Directions books, retaining the vintage look but giving them a contemporary feel too.

None of us got raises this year. We’re trying to cut costs, and interestingly, we’re finding that the printers are more eager for business. We find we can bunch up more titles and bring down the printing and binding costs this way for titles that sell more steadily. We’ve always run sort of on a shoe-string, so while we’re certainly being careful about keeping expenses down, this is something we’ve always done anyway.

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I agree, this is a great interview. I have a lot of respect for the way in which New Directions operates.

I believe that one positive side effect of the recession will be a purging of dilettante authors. The excesses of last decade in publishing encouraged mega-advances which attracted speculators of all types to recast themselves as writers. In the last few years, walking into a store like Barnes and Noble has been like walking into a book circus. I am hopeful a contraction of the industry will make publishing less palatable for those with less-than-artistic motivations.

I believe that one positive side effect of the recession will be a purging of dilettante authors. The excesses of last decade in publishing encouraged mega-advances which attracted speculators of all types to recast themselves as writers. In the last few years, walking into a store like Barnes and Noble has been like walking into a book circus. I am hopeful a contraction of the industry will make publishing less palatable for those with less-than-artistic motivations.


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