February 6, 2005
Michael Crichton? He's Just the Author
F you do not know why she is a publishing legend, Jane Friedman will be happy to tell you. "I am actually credited with inventing the author tour," Ms. Friedman, the president and chief executive of HarperCollins Publishers, told a group of aspiring editors and publicists recently at New York University's Center for Publishing.
That boast is not without merit. In 1970, as a young publicist at Alfred A. Knopf, Ms. Friedman was assigned to schedule Julia Child on morning television shows to promote the second volume of her seminal work, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." Ms. Friedman added a series of kitchen demonstrations by Mrs. Child at department stores across the country, and - voilà! - the author tour was born.
Ms. Friedman also regularly tells of how she started the audio book business for Random House, bringing the idea of recorded books into the mainstream, and how she worked her way up from Dictaphone typist at Random House to the top of HarperCollins, helping to make it the country's third-largest publishing company along the way. After a speaker introduced her at N.Y.U. by saying that her company's profits had risen 100 percent since she took over in 1997, Ms. Friedman gently corrected him: "The profits went up 1,000 percent."
Now she is pursuing what is perhaps her most ambitious plan: to make HarperCollins as identifiable as some of the authors it publishes - including Michael Crichton, Tony Hillerman and Janet Evanovich.
Ms. Friedman, 59, says she envisions a day when a reader in a bookstore will reach for a HarperCollins novel the way some parents of young children now reach for a Disney film in a video store - a result of faith in the producer rather than the specific content. To instill that loyalty, HarperCollins is embarking on a project called Publishing Plus, which includes plans to pitch new books directly to readers through e-mail and the Internet and to offer "bonus material" in new paperbacks, much the way peripheral features are regularly included on DVD's.
HarperCollins is also aiming to use its targeted marketing to beef up two relatively new businesses: proprietary publishing, which produces special-edition books for retailers, restaurants and tourist attractions, and digital audio like downloadable books, which are cheaper to produce and more profitable to publishers, and could eventually replace audio books on CD's and audio tape.
By focusing on those new businesses, Ms. Friedman aims to continue her winning streak at HarperCollins. Since she took over as head of the company in 1997, its earnings and profit margins have risen each year, even as the rest of the industry has struggled. Last week, the News Corporation, its parent, said HarperCollins's revenue grew 8 percent, to $741 million, in the first half of fiscal 2005, while operating income rose 5 percent, to $122 million.
Profit margins fell slightly, however, signaling that HarperCollins faces challenges. One of the biggest contributors to its profitability in the last two years has been "The Purpose-Driven Life," the religious best seller by Rick Warren that has sold 22 million copies around the world. Even a new book by Mr. Crichton cannot top that, and the question of how much more growth the company can get from "The Purpose-Driven Life" looms large in its future.
THE easiest way for the company to grow is by acquisition, and Ms. Friedman said that at the right price, she would like to acquire a large publishing company. At the N.Y.U. forum, when asked if she was salivating at the idea that Simon & Schuster might be for sale, she quickly responded, "yes." Viacom executives have said they may consider selling some assets to focus on their core media businesses, and Wall Street has interpreted that to mean that Simon & Schuster is up for sale. A Viacom spokeswoman declined to comment on the possibility.
But given that book publishing is one of the slower-growing businesses in the media sector, Rupert Murdoch, the chairman of the News Corporation, may have more profitable uses for his cash. He was noncommittal last week. "We like the publishing business, and we'd like to have more of it," he said, before noting that publishing "is not a fast-growing business, so it all comes back to a matter of price." He did say that his company had not had any talks with Viacom, which owns Simon & Schuster.
Other publishers have tried to burnish their names as brands, but with only occasional success. That is because most people do not walk into a bookstore looking for a Doubleday novel or a Simon & Schuster title. Rather, they go in search of a Dan Brown thriller or the new Bob Woodward best seller.
"There have been some success stories, like the 'Dummies' books," said Robert J. Broadwater, a managing director at Veronis Suhler Stevenson, a New York investment bank that specializes in media and communications. He was referring to the imprint of how-to books like "Laptops for Dummies," published by John Wiley & Sons. With their uniform cover art and titles, the books have created one of the most recognizable brands in a bookstore. But for most popular and literary fiction, he added, "the author is the brand, not the publisher."
Ms. Friedman disagrees. "That is such old thinking," she said in an interview. "It doesn't take into consideration that we are living in a society that is very well branded. I believe we can brand the pieces of our company to stand for something alongside the authors."
One publishing imprint that has had some success establishing itself as a brand is ReganBooks, a division of HarperCollins that is run by Judith Regan. Ms. Regan is a sort of enfant terrible of the publishing world, attracting attention most recently for a string of graphically sexual books, including "How to Make Love Like a Porn Star," by Jenna Jameson. But Ms. Regan has also published "American Soldier," a memoir by Gen. Tommy Franks, and two novels by Wally Lamb.
Ms. Regan and Ms. Friedman are two of the most visible women in publishing, and rumors abound within HarperCollins of their dislike for each other. Both executives denied that there was real friction, but Ms. Friedman stiffened visibly when asked about Ms. Regan's role at the company.
"She is a little bit of a loose cannon," Ms. Friedman said. "But she very much understands branding." She noted that Ms. Regan also has a television and film production company that "is its own brand; she is very much involved in running a communications company."
Ms. Regan says she has pushed the idea of branding for her imprint for several years, often working to tie television, film and other projects to her books. She produced a Jenna Jameson special for VH-1, for example, and said she was now developing a satellite radio show that will sometimes feature her authors.
Of her relationship with Ms. Friedman, Ms. Regan said: "She is very supportive when I want to do something. The great part of our relationship is she leaves me alone." But she added: "I think that this reputation I have for being a loose cannon is undeserved. I am very frank. I'm brutally honest about everything. There are some people who would prefer I keep my mouth shut and not say anything, but that's not me."
HarperCollins is beginning its branding effort with the United States start-up of Collins, a British imprint that accounts for half of the HarperCollins name yet is all but unknown to Americans.
HarperCollins was formed in 1990 after the merger of Harper & Row, an American company that began in 1817 and went on to publish "Moby Dick" and "Profiles in Courage," and the British company William Collins, founded in 1819 and the publisher of the Agatha Christie mysteries, C. S. Lewis and reference books.
The new Collins brand will focus on reference, lifestyle and business books and is expected to make its debut in the United States this year. Also coming this year is the redesign of HarperPerennial and Perennial Classics, two paperback imprints whose books straddle the line between commercial and literary fiction. Among the authors popularized by the Perennial imprints are Rebecca Wells, author of "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood," and Barbara Kingsolver, author of "The Poisonwood Bible."
The overhaul includes putting special material like author interviews in the backs of books and creating a more uniform design and format, to help readers recognize that "if you pick up a HarperPerennial book, you know what you're getting," Ms. Friedman said.
All the efforts, she said, are aimed at reducing the company's reliance on finding the next hot author. "We can no longer keep chasing the big best seller," she said. "I feel we can really build an audience for our brand."
HarperCollins is not the only company to try some of those routes to better reach consumers. Most publishers have Internet sites that offer discussion guides to reading groups. Vintage Books, the paperback imprint of the Knopf Publishing Group of Random House, gives reading groups a chance to win a telephone chat with a featured author. Last month, Simon & Schuster outlined a plan to market directly to consumers, echoing many of the HarperCollins efforts.
The branding strategy has worked in some genres, particularly with imprints like Penguin Classics at the Penguin Group, which is owned by Pearson and is the second-largest publisher in the United States, and Vintage Contemporaries at Bertelsmann's Random House, the largest American publisher. The Vintage line, which has published novelists including Jay McInerney and Richard Ford, became recognizable as an icon of hip literary fiction.
Ms. Friedman's companion of 17 years, Jeff Stone, was in charge of the marketing of Vintage Contemporaries before starting a consulting company; he has advised HarperCollins on redesigning its imprints.
Ms. Friedman said that elevating the profile of HarperCollins would help it raise the value of its backlist - the stable of previously published books to which it owns publishing rights. By bolstering brand recognition, the company hopes that readers will be more likely to choose one of its backlist books over a title by another publisher. "We want to win the ties," Ms. Friedman said.
HarperCollins has fumbled some opportunities. Several years ago, it signed away the British rights to the Lemony Snicket books, the children's series that is published under the running title of "A Series of Unfortunate Events." The potential value of those rights became clear last year, when the film by the same name caused the books' sales to soar.
"We made a mistake," Ms. Friedman said. "I've tried to find out what happened with that deal. Did we not present it properly from the U.S., or did the U.K. not hear it properly?"
SOME of Ms. Friedman's critics contend that much of the hard work was done a few months before she arrived at HarperCollins, when the company took a $270 million charge against earnings to write off the cost of returned books and author advances for books it was no longer willing to publish. Her supporters, however, note that even such a deck-clearing did not guarantee growth or assure the smooth integration of Morrow and Avon after HarperCollins bought those publishing units from Hearst in 1999.
Whether she can balance her desire for additional acquisitions with her intention to focus on internal growth remains to be seen. Some editors at the company have privately expressed dismay that so much attention is being focused on consumers rather than authors. Ms. Friedman has tried to allay such concerns.
"These efforts should never be seen as being at the expense of the author," she said in an interview. "The author is the first brand. All we want to do is to help more people to find that author. If we can brand HarperPerennial and the authors within HarperPerennial, it just gives us another leg up on getting our books into readers' hands."
Among the tools that HarperCollins is using is direct-to-consumer marketing. This includes AuthorTracker, which lets readers sign up for e-mail updates when an author's next book is released or when the author is making a public appearance; Invite the Author, which lets book groups win a telephone chat with an author whose book they are reading; and First Look, which provides early copies to some readers and solicits their reactions to aspects of the books, including the cover art.
David Steinberger, a former senior executive at HarperCollins who helped create parts of Publishing Plus, says communicating directly to readers is important because most publishers cannot afford to compete directly with film, television and other media for their attention.
"But the Internet allows you to do that inexpensively," said Mr. Steinberger, now president and chief executive of the Perseus Books Group, an independent publisher. "In an industry where you are constrained by a limited number of powerful retailers acting between you and your customers, a direct relationship is potentially very valuable."
Even without such affirmation, Ms. Friedman does not lack for confidence in her strategy - in part, it seems, because of the company's success since she took over. "A defining characteristic of hers has always been her ability to set a goal and then achieve it," said Deborah Karl, a literary agent who has occasionally done business with Ms. Friedman over the last 20 years. "She's a person who gets stuff done."
Ms. Friedman agreed with that statement. "I refuse to be the person in the industry to contribute to any kind of doom and gloom because I just don't believe that," she said. "That's not the way I operate."