ATG Hot Topic of the Week: Amazon and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

by Jonathan H. Harwell, Rollins College

Remember those dizzying days of the growing Web?  I was teaching in Albania from 1994 to 1996.  Before I left the US, I saw the Internet once.  A friend showed me something called a whale server in a computer lab.  Meh.  When I came back, it was everywhere.  I started library school soon afterward and had to relearn how to use computers.  Nothing I had learned in my basic introductory computer science class a few years before would apply to Windows or the Web.  So in the SLIS computer lab in the top of Gorgas Library at The University of Alabama, where some of us would live for a year and a half, beneath ghostly sounds of rolling metal pipes and other large objects scooting across the attic in the wee hours, I learned all sorts of cool stuff like Ctrl+F, Amazon, and Hotbot.

The first two have stuck with me.  The third, of course, fell away quickly during my first librarian job, after my top-notch student assistant told us about this Google thing she found.  Anyhow, think back for a minute to life before Amazon.  Books in Print on microfiche.  Independent bookstores.  Special order.  List price.  OK, now switch the DVR ahead to Live TV and consider where we are now, with a long history of criticism of Amazon’s business practices and their effect on the market, kids getting Kindles for their birthdays, and what happened to Borders anyway?

The Nation has released a special issue on “Amazon and the conquest of publishing.”  Check out the cover story, Steve Wasserman’s “The Amazon Effect,” for a brief history of Amazon’s rise, its effect on the market, and its more recent ventures as a publisher; Anthony Grafton’s look at the depth of information Amazon used to provide, in “Search Gets Lost,” and former Henry Holt CEO Michael Naumann’s tale from the flipside, where Amazon has not cornered the book market in Germany.  Find out why in “How Germany Keeps Amazon at Bay and Literary Culture Alive.”  Discuss.

– AND-

Business Week, along with a number of others, recently reported that “Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co., the publisher of authors from Mark Twain to J.R.R. Tolkien, sought bankruptcy protection to eliminate more than $3 billion in debt.”

We must admit that this is a not-so-surprising sign of the times given the depressed state and local budgets and competition from open access e-books.  However, it brings up a few of questions.  Will Houghton Mifflin Harcourt strategy for coming out of bankruptcy include a radical new business model?  Will that model serve as an example to other troubled publishers?  Is there any way they can adjust to the move toward free open access e-textbooks?  And what does all this mean for libraries?

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