“It’s not a disaster”

As announced on Monday in The Bookseller, Penguin is to make 100 people at its London headquarters redundant, shunting them out into a depressed job market with one hand, while maintaining with the other that, “The market is alright, it’s not a disaster, this really isn’t about how we are trading.”

Baloney! It may not be a disaster for the Penguin chief executive, but it’s pretty miserable for the people being abandoned.

They also include “one or two” people at Rough Guides – part of Penguin Travel and publisher of three of my books.

I got an email yesterday from a senior editor at RGs saying that the first edition of a new title, which I was about to be contracted to write next year for publication in October 2011, has been “put on hold indefinitely”, since there will no longer be sufficient staff in-house to edit it – and no budget to outsource the editing to freelancers. I know, too, that other titles have gone down the swannee.

Meanwhile, John Makinson, chief executive of Penguin, “pointed to Penguin’s ‘strong’ autumn schedule, and added that he expected to see a bounce-back in areas such as travel-guide publishing.”

Well, chum, it’s hard to bounce back when you cut new titles!

The message to aspiring travel writers, and old hacks alike, is to diversify or die. Put all your eggs into one basket and you expose yourself to the big heave-ho: freelancers are always the first to be “let go”. When I left my last proper job – as a Rough Guide editor – in 2003, I relied on that one company for virtually all my income, as both a staffer and a freelance author. Now, thankfully, I make my living from numerous sources. This cancellation is a blow, but what I didn’t have I won’t miss. Pity the people dumped by a company with a chief executive who has the gall to tell them “it’s not a disaster”.

Time to up the pace and start looking for more ways to earn…


  1. Jeremy Head

    What depresses me about most guidebook publishers is the way they cling to old models of working and if the going gets tough they hack away at their cost base… what they need to do is start looking for new revenue streams.. Do guidebook publishers have Research and Development and New Product Development teams? They should do.
    (PS. I got a press release from RG yesterday with list of new books for publication. On the list Jordan in September was listed as ‘new’…. ie a 1st Edition. Typo I presume?!)

  2. Matthew Teller

    Thanks, Jeremy. Yes, typo: RG Jordan is a 4th edition update.

    I agree about the necessity of developing new revenue streams. My problem, though, is that the contracts they issue are already hazy about rights and responsibilities in online/digital formats. Before I’m prepared to go hand-in-hand with Rough Guides into new media, I’m going to need them to revamp their contracts so that my rights in my own material as ‘content provider’ or ‘creative’ (whatever) are protected…

    But it feels to me like contract law hasn’t really kept up with digital developments. Some over-enthusiastic (and IMHO sorely misguided) people are already talking about the end of copyright. All writers should oppose such an idea. The web has been very effective in seducing people into believing that content (words, music, images) are free, and that everyone is equal when it comes to creating content. Everyone is NOT equal. Some do it for fun, some think they’re good at it, some are actually good enough to merit being able to support their families doing it.

    Publishers need to move on, I agree – but lawyers need to move on first!

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