Publisher disputes reports of book-buying freeze

NEW YORK (AP) -- Reports of a buying freeze at Harcourt Houghton Mifflin is news to the publisher of one its imprints.

"I don't work at the Harcourt offices so I called to find out if the story was true," Otto Penzler, whose Otto Penzler Books specializes in mystery books and releases 6-8 titles per year, said Wednesday.

Penzler was referring to media stories alleging that Harcourt Houghton Mifflin (HMH) had temporarily stopped acquiring new books.

"I was told that it had been blown out of proportion and that there was simply some belt-tightening going on. I asked, `Does this mean I can keep buying books?' `Absolutely,' I was told.

Penzler says the information came from a high-level Harcourt Houghton executive, whom he declined to publicly name, saying he wanted to preserve the official's privacy.

The book world was stunned Monday by a posting on the Web site of Publishers Weekly that HMH had "temporarily stopped" buying books, the latest shock resulting from the economic crisis. HMH is the publisher of Philip Roth, Nobel laureate Guenter Grass and one of the literary world's most lucrative franchises, J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.

Houghton Mifflin acquired Harcourt in 2007. Their owner, the private-equity concern Education Media and Publishing Group, has acknowledged that rival publishers have expressed interest in buying HMH, leading to broad speculation in the industry that the announced halt in buying was a prelude to the company's sale.

"To the best of my knowledge, the company is not being shopped," HMH spokesman Josef Rosenfeld said Wednesday. He would not comment on whether other publishers had approached HMH.

Rosenfeld has called the current policy "freeze-lite," although cracks keep appearing. Rosenfeld confirmed that education and children's books are still being acquired, did not dispute Penzler's assertions and added that the "right" book, of any kind, would still be considered. He said talk of a freeze had been taken out of context.

"A headline about a freeze is very appealing, but in reality all we're doing is taking a good, hard look at everything that comes in, much the way this company is watching all expenses and expenditures," he said. "It's just a higher degree of scrutiny."

Asked if agents should continue submitting manuscripts to HMH, Rosenfeld said, "I don't see why not."

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