Publishers are looking at their bottom lines and at the array of proposals and manuscripts being offered to them, and, with a sense of restraint forgotten in the acquisitive '80s, they are learning to say, "No, thank you."
As a result, lists are leaner at most publishing houses, with fewer titles being printed. Publishers say they are looking with greater discretion at book outlines, turning away things they probably would have accepted a few years ago.
This appetite control prompted important changes at three publishing houses in the last few months.
Simon & Schuster dissolved Summit Books and dismissed the imprint's founder and publisher, James Silberman.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux cut about 15 percent of its staff, including its executive editor, Linda Healey. And the company's president, Roger Straus Jr., said it was no longer expanding its journalistic non-fiction as it had planned.
And just last week, Bantam Books announced that its publisher, Linda Grey, was leaving her job to start her own imprint within Bantam that would emphasize best sellers, while the house as a whole would be cutting back its book list.
"The better you can focus and spend your creative energy on your books, the better you publish them and the better they sell," said Jack Hoeft, president and chief executive at Bantam, Doubleday, Dell, the parent company.
Like many other industries, publishing went through an age of gluttony in the 1980s. Editors and publishers say they were often not sufficiently discriminating in the books they bought. They piled up acquisitions like so many trophies, sometimes without being sure what exactly they had won.
"Before, people used to ask, 'Why shouldn't I publish this?'" said Harold Evans, publisher of the Random House Adult Trade division. "Now the question they are asking is, 'Why do I have to publish this?' People say there are too many books out there, and it's probably a fair observation."
Talk of cutting lists usually provokes talk of the worthy books that will go unpublished. But Phyllis E. Grann, the president and chief executive of the Putnam-Berkley Group, said bluntly, "The books that suffer are the ones you don't need."