When Abrams Books recently moved to new offices in Lower Manhattan from its longtime home in Chelsea, it hired the consultants that companies typically call in for their expertise in audiovisual, lighting, temperature and ventilation needs.
It also hired a library consultant, who identified the first and latest editions of almost every title the 70-year-old publisher had ever printed, which were then lined up on towering oak shelves. The 10,000-volume library is the first thing visitors see when they enter the new workplace.
That may sound musty, but Abrams was striving for a modern workplace. Designed by the architecture firm Spacesmith, the 41,000-square-foot office has an open plan, a spacious cafe and state-of-the-art technology.
“We’re a publisher of visual books, primarily known for our design aesthetic, and the new office reflects who we are,” said Michael Jacobs, Abrams’s chief executive.
His publishing house is one of many in New York, the capital of the book world, that have recently moved or renovated, or are in the process of doing so. The industry has a reputation for being bound by tradition; it is committed to print in a world going digital and is still conducting business essentially the way it has for decades. But companies are embracing the changes in workplace design that have modernized other industries.
“They’re no different from any other industry,” said James A. Schwartz, founder of the project management company JAS Consulting, which has assisted several publishers with moves. “They’re just slow.”
Publishing houses have been in New York for centuries. Early last century, they were concentrated on Fifth Avenue between 13th and 23rd Streets — an area nicknamed Paternoster Row, a nod to London’s old publishing district. Today, their footprint extends to the upper reaches of Midtown Manhattan. But recently, rents in Lower Manhattan have been averaging around $63 a square foot, compared with about $75 a square foot in Midtown, according to Cushman & Wakefield.
“What is a trend in the publishing world is to relocate to a lower-cost environment, which means going downtown,” said Leon Manoff, a vice chairman of Colliers International, a commercial real estate firm that has worked with publishers.
HarperCollins, which is owned by News Corporation, led the migration in 2014, moving its global headquarters from East 53rd Street to 195 Broadway, the granite landmark between Dey and Fulton Streets popularly known as the AT&T Building.
Brian Murray, the president and chief executive, said he had “reluctantly” gone downtown to look at the four and a half floors the company would decide to lease there. But he was attracted to the lower costs of the building as well as its history — it opened in 1916 and was the stateside site of the first trans-Atlantic phone call — and elaborate lobby, featuring marble columns and an ornate coffered ceiling.
He also liked the large floor plates, which allowed the company to rethink how it would lay out its workplace.
Mr. Murray had come to believe that the company’s old setup — 26 small floors of private offices that kept employees isolated from one another — “was terrible for a creative business” that requires collaboration among departments. He also felt it was a lousy calling card at a time when self-publishing was on the rise, Amazon was breathing down the industry’s neck and many authors were questioning whether they even needed a traditional publishing house to get their work out into the world.
In their current offices, designed by the architecture firm ENV, floors are connected with wide staircases and interior walls are glass so that everyone can share the sunlight streaming in the windows — and can be seen by visitors.
“As an author coming to visit, you see the bigger team working on your book,” Mr. Murray said.
Abrams is now also in the building. And Macmillan Publishers, which for years has occupied the Flatiron Building, is moving a couple of blocks farther down Broadway, into five floors of the Equitable Building, another massive landmark. Macmillan Learning, its academic division, moved earlier to nearby 1 New York Plaza.
Regardless of the geographical direction companies are heading, many are giving up square footage or consolidating divisions in a single workplace to save on rent.
After a rocky period, the $29 billion publishing industry has stabilized, according to a recent report from IBISWorld, but is growing at an infinitesimal rate.
And with the reduction in square footage has come a substantial decline in the number of private offices.
In an industry known for modest salaries, such offices, lined with the books that an editor has helped shape, were long regarded as a necessary perk. Editors could close their doors while poring over galleys or having long, sometimes sensitive phone conversations with authors and agents.
Then Hachette Book Group went to an open plan when it moved to offices next to Radio City Music Hall in 2014. Now, other publishers are following suit, though most are retaining at least some private offices for senior staff.
Abrams’s previous space was divided into 96 private offices; the new office has just four, one for Mr. Jacobs, one for payroll and two for human resources. Macmillan and W.W. Norton & Company, another publisher on the move, are significantly reducing the number of staff offices, according to Suzette Subance, a managing executive at TPG Architecture, which has designed both workplaces.
Not that there hasn’t been resistance.
Merle Brown, executive assistant to Mr. Jacobs and manager of corporate events, who handled the logistics of the company’s move, heard a litany of complaints, including, “We’re all going to be sick” from the spread of germs.
Hachette had to make adjustments after its initial renovation, said Michael Pietsch, the company’s chief executive, who remains a staunch supporter of open plans. The design, by the architecture firm Gensler, provided common areas of all sizes where people could hold meetings or plop down with laptops, away from their cubes. But it underestimated the number of spaces needed for private calls. Hachette started with 12 of these “phone booths,” but has added 11 more.
Mr. Pietsch also said some editors may able to do more work away from the office. Most departments do not schedule meetings on Fridays to allow editors to work from home that day.
But New York publishers have not gone all the way to so-called benching, where people sit side by side at long desks, as other industries have. Nor have they adopted “hot-desking,” where employees do not have assigned seats but come in every morning and select a spot to work.
“It’s important for employees to have a home base,” said Larry Nevins, executive vice president for operations at HarperCollins, and among the 20 percent of the staff who retained a private office.
Mr. Jacobs of Abrams said he had made it clear to his staff from the beginning that he would keep his, too, after the move. When asked if he got any ribbing about that, he said, “I’m quite happy to have lots of group meetings in my office.”
Besides, he added, “my door is glass, so it’s not like I can close it and hide for four hours.”
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