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10 Years: Hey, How'd You Drive Publishing into the 21st Century, Jane Friedman?

This successful publishing guru revamped HarperCollins and brought it into the digital age.

By Ron Hogan and Noah Davis - October 4, 2007
To celebrate mediabistro.com's 10th anniversary, we spoke with our Golden Boa honorees about their achievements in media. Check back throughout the week for Hey How'd You Do That features showcasing these media pros.
As president and CEO of HarperCollins Publishers Worldwide for the last decade, Jane Friedman has led the company to immense international success. Through innovative leadership decisions, she directed the launch of growth programs and decided to leap into the digital realm by creating a global digital warehouse. She was recognized as Publishers Weekly Person of the Year in 2006, and they described her as "a visionary pragmatist equally adept at building profits and relationships." She was also selected as one of The Wall Street Journal's 50 Women to Watch, was chosen as one of Fast Company's Fast 50; and was one of New York's Influentials. President and group publisher Michael Morrison recently told Publisher's Weekly that, "She's part Hilary Clinton, part Mother Teresa, and part Mae West. Who could ask for more?"

Before joining HarperCollins, she worked as executive vice president of Random House, Inc., executive vice president of the Knopf Publishing Group, publisher of Vintage Books, and founder and president of Random House Audio Publishing. We spoke with her about her job move (she calls it "fate"), the Internet's influence on the publishing world, and which books she's cozied up to lately.


You had risen to a significant position at Random House before moving to Harper Collins in 1997. What were some of the most important factors that motivated you to take the new position?
It's an interesting story because I can't really enumerate the factors. What happened was that I had spent -- this is going to sound really rude to your audience -- just under 30 years at Random House basically running the Knopf Publishing Group, and I was the founder and president of Random House audio publishing and the executive vice president of Random House Inc. I had a multi-pronged position at Random House and I was very, very happy. My children were just about grown at that point -- I have four sons -- and I was celebrating how happy I was on Labor Day in 1997 with my partner. The next thing that happened was I came to work after Labor Day and I got a call from a friend of mine, who is a recruiter, and who knows that I hadn't gone on a job interview since 1972. Literally. But I was intrigued. It was HarperCollins, a company that I had known of and about because the old Harper & Row had a fantastic literary backlist and so did Knopf. So I was always very aware of what HarperCollins had published, and I was also aware of the fact that HarperCollins had seemed to have gone off-track. There was a temporary CEO who had done what she had to do, but had made headlines for doing some Draconian things like canceling 100 contracts, etc. But as we watched from across town, we knew that she was doing the right thing to try to get HarperCollins back on track.

I was intrigued -- rather than turned off -- by the fact that HarperCollins had gone so not the way I thought it should. I was intrigued by the potential opportunities that a situation like that presented. I flew out and had a meeting with Rupert Murdoch and Peter Chernin, never thinking I was going to take that job. I was very happy where I was. But the more I spoke with them, the more intrigued I became and the more I realized that this was a chance to run a potentially a global publishing company that I would be fully in charge of. After a month of consideration, I said sure. I decided to take the job.

Ironically, six months later, Random House was sold to Bertelmann, and who knows what would have happened to me. So if you believe in fate, if you believe in a little birdie watching out over me, something told me at that point to take that job.

And 10 years later, are you happy you took it?
I'm so happy. It's 10 years in November. I've assembled a fantastic team of people -- some of whom were here before me, many of whom I've brought in. We have fun; we have profitability, and we are looking toward the digital future with a great deal of energy and verve, and it's a fantastic job.

What was the impetus behind publishing+? What early challenges did it face, and how do you feel that it has succeeded?
It has succeeded very, very well. What we learned in publishing+ really has become ingrained in the fabric of the DNA of our company now. Publishing+ was an idea that I had that started out with, "What are we going to do if we don't want to keep chasing the big, bestselling authors? They cost too much money; they don't often deliver the right kind of return. So what can we do internally to bolster our assets?" We looked at the company and really dissected what those assets were and what we could build from what we had.

It was a fabulous exercise. It started out with 20 executives from around the globe. It was totally global. We went to a retreat and then we came back and made teams. It was very intense for about 100 days. In that intense 100 days, the people that we selected to go on the teams -- the best and the brightest -- were really having two jobs. They were doing their day jobs and then they were working on one of four buckets. The four buckets were a branding bucket, using HarperPerennial, our trade paperback line, as the focus; another one was Collins, actually separating Collins out from Harper as a reference line that could be quite global and wasn't really being global; something called Publishing Services that was exploring alternative ways of publishing books a la working with other institutions and organizations, and the first thing we did was we produced a book for Saks Fifth Avenue called Cashmere If You Can. It was a book about a goat and it fit into their cashmere promotion at Saks, and it went on to sell quite a few thousand copies and started us on the road to then doing the Rockettes and many other projects. The fourth bucket was a d-to-c bucket, a direct-to-consumer bucket. All four of the buckets are actively part of our company now, but d-to-c has taken on enormous proportions.

So, has it worked? Yes. Did everything turn out perfectly? No. We recognized, for example, that some of our colleague's global publishing was indeed not global and we had to re-evaluate that sort of publishing. But for the most part, I would say 85 percent positive, and very energizing. Now we have bookseller+, we have library+, we have backlist+, the idea being that you think outside the book and try to figure out new ways to promote.

"I think that in book publishing we need reviews, we need interviews, we need buzz, and the buzz now is what we create through all these other new means of technology."

You've seen HarperCollins through the real rise of the Internet. How much has the internet changed the book publishing landscape over the last decade?
The Internet is such a big arena. The first thing is that we certainly have used the Internet for marketing; the Internet is a marketer's dream and we take marketing very seriously here. We are able to reach an audience that would take weeks -- if not months -- to reach all the people who liked mushrooms. Now you can press a button and find all the mushroom societies. That's the Internet in its simplest form.

Another part of the Internet was the development of the online distribution networks. You've got Amazon, Barnes & Noble, the Internet bookstores, etc. and of course those sales have increased dramatically and we are using that online channel of distribution in many different marketing ways, including the ability to browse inside our books through all these channels of distribution. That has not all gone live yet, but -- I have to backtrack a little bit and say that HarperCollins is leading the way in the digital world. We have spent millions of dollars to build a digital warehouse where we will have all of our frontlists from around the world and most of our backlists. We are looking to do 20,000 titles, all in digitized form, all that can be browsed, can be sent out as e-books, can be used for downloadable audio, can be used in any which way that they will present themselves in the near future. As you know, everyday another digital form is presenting itself.

We are also using the net to do some consumer-generated copy. We've done a teen book and a romance book with a company called FanLib -- that's fan fiction. We were the first ones to do that and to really see the value of consumer copy. We also are owned by the same company that owns MySpace, so we are very active in the MySpace community. It just goes on and on and on.

I would always talk about three things that changed the face of publishing. The first one was the superstore, which made the breadth of books available to the reading public. The next thing was Oprah Winfrey, whose impact on the book business is immeasurable because she gave people permission to read, and then the third thing, of course, is the Internet. We do believe that when all is said and done, all of the things we are doing on the Internet will help us reach a much broader audience and sell many more books.

What do you see as the future of book publishing? Will the book publishing industry be able to flourish on its own, or is its future inextricably linked to embracing synergistic relationships with other media and businesses such as speaker bureaus?
A book and author are the main assets of a publishing company. If we are going to remain a publishing company, which we are, we must value those assets. We can look at the author, and we can look at the book and the content and we can look at how many different ways we can use the content. I think that's what's changing in the publishing world today: there's the book, there's the audio book, there's the e-book, there's the snippet, there's the this, there's the that. We don't even know what there is yet. So we have to figure out how we can maximize every way to market the content and the author.

At HarperCollins, we started our own speakers bureau because we think it's important to keep the author in the limelight around the time of publication and also between publication. So that's certainly synergistic, but it's also is profitable because it makes some money for the author and it makes some money for the publisher. We just announced today that we have formed a partnership with an independent movie producer who is going to be looking through our backlist and frontlists for properties to develop as films. Now films are being made by lots of different companies, including all of our Fox companies, but this is another way to actually value the author and the book and the content directly through the publisher.

I think that in book publishing we need reviews, we need interviews, we need buzz, and the buzz now is what we create through all these other new means of technology.

What was the last book you read just for fun?
[Laughs] For fun... There's a book that I'm absolutely passionate about called The Maytrees by Annie Dillard, who won the Pulitzer Prize for a book called Pilgram at Tinker Creek many years ago, and I think it is absolutely the best book about love that lasts and changes over a 40 or 50 year period. I think it's a brilliant book and it was fun to read.

What was the last non-HarperCollins book you read?
I just read Susanna Moore's book called The Big Girls, which is a fantastic book published by Knopf.


Four tips for bringing publishing into the 21st century
1) Think outside the book.
The Internet has transformed the publishing world by introducing new marketing and distribution methods. "I think that in book publishing we need reviews, we need interviews, we need buzz, and the buzz now is what we create through all these other means of technology," Friedman says, "You can think outside the book and try to figure out new ways to promote."
2) Use what you've got.
Friedman's innovations grew from this basic rule. She asked herself, "What are we going to do if we don't want to keep chasing the big bestselling authors...what can we do internally to bolster our assets?" Her answer: "We looked at the company and really dissected what those assets were and what we could build from what we had."
3) Be prepared for bumps in the road.
Things don't necessarily always go as planned. When launching publishing+, Friedman realized, "some of our colleague's global publishing was indeed not global and we had to re-evaluate that sort of publishing." Roll with the punches.
4) Remember the basics.
Don't get carried away with the marketing and distribution aspects. "A book and author are the main assets of a publishing company," Friedman says, "If we are going to remain a publishing company, which we are, we must value those assets."

Ron Hogan is mediabistro.com's GalleyCat blogger. Noah Davis is mediabistro.com's associate editor.

Photo of Jane Friedman courtesy of Gideon Lewin.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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