November 11, 2014

Hachette has an open office! What does that mean for the FUTURE OF PUBLISHING?


Not pictured: Michael Pietsch's body. (via The New York Times)

Not pictured: Michael Pietsch’s body. (via The New York Times)

Mark Krotov: Alex, what was the best article about book publishing, management theory, and office design you read today?

Alex Shephard: Hmm, I read a bunch of “Too Many Cooks” thinkpieces in the morning and then I read half of a Piers Morgan column and went blind. So I don’t know if I read anything that meets that specific set of criteria.

Mark: I avoided Twitter for most of the afternoon, so I still know nothing about the Piers Morgan column. In fact, I’ve now forgotten who Piers Morgan is. Please don’t remind me.

But there was also this. It’s by the guy who wrote Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning and a book about the war on terror, so you know it’s going to be a piece of serious, riveting, revelatory journali–wait, no. It’s just an article about cubicles.

Alex: Now that you mention it, I did read that piece, though I was pretty distracted by Hachette CEO Michael Pietsch’s disembodied head, which accompanied the article. It literally accompanied it. Every newspaper sold came with Pietsch’s bloody, disembodied head, which is pretty disgusting, but then again, you gotta sell newspapers!

But while Michael Pietsch’s head may no longer be connected to his body, Hachette’s offices are no longer connected to the ceiling. By which I mean, the company has disposed of offices and adopted cubicles. 520 identical cubicles, in fact!

What’s going on here, Mark? Is this about style? Productivity? Cost-cutting? Amazon? Has life, to borrow from the great Desus Nice, come at Hachette fast? And, hell, why didn’t Nikil Saval write this Times piece?

Mark: Pietsch is an amazing figure. You get the sense that he’ll subject himself to any kind of humiliation for the sake of Hachette Book Group USA. Including allowing The New York Times to decapitate him and 3D print around a million copies of his disembodied head. Is Pietsch the Joan of Arc of book publishing? Probably not, but that’s a short sentence that you can Tweet tomorrow, so let’s leave it in.

I’m not convinced that this is about anything other than cost-cutting. In the article, Pietsch and Little, Brown publisher Reagan Arthur gamely defend the appeal of the open plan, but surely this is all about overhead. How can it not be? You mentioned the brilliant Nikil Saval, who wrote a wonderful book about offices called Cubed, and he appears late in the piece to basically say that open-plan offices are dumb and don’t work especially well. If Saval knows this, the consultants that Hachette inevitably hired before making the switch know this, too.

Alex: Some people want to make this about Changes In Publishing™ because that is always a very safe take! The publishing industry is changing! It is less glamorous and sexy! WHERE ARE THE CORNER OFFICES OH MY GOD WHERE HAVE THEY GONE?

The publishing industry is changing and work is very insecure! That’s as much (if not more) the result of conglomeration and corporatism—the shareholders of the humongous corporations that own conglomerate publishers are privileged over the employees of the publishing houses—as it is the result of the general digital revolution (also ™), but I don’t really think it’s a very useful take.

There was a Golden Age of Publishing (third and final ™) and you can read about it from some of the folks who lived it, like Joseph Epstein and Andre Schiffrin. But it wasn’t a Golden Age because people were raking in the cash, it was a Golden Age because you could take care of authors—even underperforming ones—for decades and you could build a stable career. (Also you could get drunk pretty much all the time.) But to say that Hachette having an open office is the latest in a lengthy fall from grace for the publishing industry is lazy and also wrong.

Now get me another martini, because I am going to get drunk and then pass out and wake up in the office tomorrow at noon. Because that is something that happened in the Golden Age of Publishing a lot! I think.

Mark: [brings Alex a martini, but with really shitty gin, because he knows Alex has no taste and won’t be able to tell the difference.]

Yes, exactly. Or as fools on Twitter might say, “THIS.” Speaking of Twitter, here’s what Knopf publicity director Paul Boogards tweeted this morning:

Which is funny as far as it goes, but then again, Sonny Mehta already works for a big corporation, and some of his greatest successes have been hugely commercial titles. This isn’t a bad thing at all–far from it! But the story of Mehta’s success is not, as far as I can tell, about a man so posh that he could only get his work done in fancy offices and over long, drunken lunches–it’s about a smart, ambitious editor with great instincts that have remained great over decades. That breed is far from extinct–you can find smart, ambitious editors with great instincts in New York and London and Minneapolis and Columbus and Los Angeles (and in many other places), and these young editors will never get to have offices in which they can smoke freely. That doesn’t seem like a tragedy to me—it sounds healthier.

I realize that Boogards is making a joke here, and I also realize that it’s a problem when someone has to declare that he is not, in fact, humorless. Which is exactly what I’m doing. Still, one thing about the Golden Age of Publishing story that bothers me is that it never gives enough credit to the Paul Boogardses of the world. So here’s to you, truly brilliant publicity director Paul Boogards! Also, I do hope you get to keep your office, because offices are great. I wouldn’t really know—I had an office at my last job, but it had no door, so it was like having half an office.

Alex: I only drink the finest gin. Beefeater Gin. That’s nice gin, right? The nice men at the Tower of London can’t be wrong, which I think is a line from one of the two princes in Richard III.

Couple final takes before I talk about what I really want to talk about: Michael Pietsch’s disembodied head. One is that his cubicle is smaller than a prison cell! That is a hot take and totally meaningless. The other is that I really respect the fact that his cubicle is the same size as every other employees. Corporate publishing is a problem, in large part because corporations are a problem and have become a huge one inside and (especially outside) the publishing industry, especially over the past 35 years. CEO pay is complete bullshit, but I’m glad that Pietsch is making a statement that he’s in the trenches with his employees during what is surely a difficult time for the Hachette. I don’t know how much Pietsch makes (probably a lot less than most CEOs!) but this is a good statement and one I’d like to see other CEOs make in the publishing industry.

But man, that photo of Michael Pietsch. What’s going on there? He is making the same face he always makes in photographs—it comes across as smug, but I think he’s mostly just not comfortable being photographed—and it is hilarious. His head is just floating there and he is smirking away. What is he doing? Looking at The Goldfinch’s sales? Reading Ziggy comics? Watching Too Many Cooks? Thinking about how happy he was before Selfie was unceremoniously canceled?

I’ve been disappointed by the fact that Pietsch hasn’t had much to say about Amazon over the last few months, but this picture almost makes up for it. I am fucking fascinated by it. I may even print it out and place it next to the shirtless painting of Jeff Bezos, which currently chills out over my computer.

Mark: As someone who sometimes visits your corner of the office, I would advise you to remove the Bezos painting and avoid printing out the Pietsch photo. I can handle the rotting food and the Jimmy Buffett music, but sexy Bezos and Kafkaesque Pietsch are a bridge too far.

In conclusion:

Michael Pietsch: cool for having the same tiny cubicle as the people who work for him.

Book publishing: too in love with its past, and, as usual, drawing the wrong conclusions from it.

Hachette’s new open-plan layout: not the end of the world, but the fact that the cubicles don’t contain bookshelves is totally fucking crazy. It’s a publishing house. Books should be everywhere at a publishing house. “In Hachette’s new space, editors can display their books in the shared conference rooms for meetings with agents and authors” is the most absurd thing I’ve read in the Times since I read a random sentence from any of their Real Estate articles.

Oh, and “Too Many Cooks”: not as good as Eagleheart.

Alex: Agreed. But nothing is as good as Eagleheart. Bookshelves are important because, not to sound like the kind of meme-obsessed book people that make me depressed, people in publishing have too many books. Where will we keep them if not in our offices?

Oh wait, we don’t have offices. We have an open office. (Though thankfully no cubicles.) And you know what? We’re fucking great. Outstanding, really. So congratulations, Hachette: you’re ready to play with the big boys. (In this scenario Melville House is the big boys.) Now get me another martini.

Mark: Okay. I have a martini shaker right here, next to all of my many books, which are displayed on bookshelves that are mine and mine alone, and which aren’t in a fucking conference room. Then again, we don’t have a conference room.