The inside scoop on the book world -- Henry Holt downsizes and Howard Blum's ''The Brigade'' becomes a hot commodity

By Matthew Flamm
Updated February 12, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

Henry Holt, which was marked by expansion and high-profile acquisitions (like Salman Rushdie) under its previous chief, Michael Naumann, is retrenching in a big way. Newly appointed president and publisher John Sterling has let go a reported 17 employees, including top editors in the Owl paperback division, as part of a plan to reduce the number of titles the house puts out from 250 in 1997 to around 175 next year. In light of the industry mergers taking place around it, ”Holt has got to be selective and focused,” says Sterling. ”It’s been very hard and painful. But the whole notion was to do this once and only once, so we can build from here.”

Journalist Howard Blum just made a six-figure deal with HarperCollins for his World War II account, The Brigade. And sources say Tom Cruise is negotiating to land the film rights, with an eye toward starring as one of the Jewish soldiers who were recruited from Palestine to fight the Nazis in the last days of the war. ”It’s one of the few untold stories of World War II,” says HarperCollins executive editor David Hirshey, who plans to publish The Brigade in fall 2000. Meanwhile, John Travolta is preparing to star in the biopic Standing Room Only, based on Farrar Straus’ recent Making the Wiseguys Weep: The Jimmy Roselli Story, by David Evanier, about the other legendary singer from Hoboken.