HarperCollins CEO Brian Murray on Acquisitions, Industry Change & Importance of Choice
On the morning of day three of the Digital Book World Conference + Expo, HarperCollins president and CEO Brian Murray offered his take on the future of his company and the industry at large. Sitting down with conference chair Mike Shatzkin, Murray spoke on HarperCollins' recent acquisitions, how the company is managing change, and how it is responding to self-publishing and subscription models.
Shatzkin kicked things off by inquiring about the effects of HarperCollins' "dramatic acquisitions" of romance publisher Harlequin and Christian publisher Thomas Nelson. Generally modest in his responses, Murray acknowledged that the Harlequin acquisition (completed in August of 2014) has been "transformational." Murray said both companies enable HarperCollins to expand into new markets.
Thomas Nelson, now a Christian division within HarperCollins, allows new inroads into markets like Latin America, said Murray. With Harlequin, HarperCollins has expanded its international footprint with access to 13 new countries and 17 new languages. With the avid and repeat reading habits of the romance audience, Murray hopes to use Harlequin as a springboard for HarperCollins broader trade business.
Shatzkin questioned whether a model exists for a multi-language book publisher. Murray conceded that Penguin Random House has been operating in multiple languages for quite a while, but he has very much looked to digital technology companies that have started in the U.S. and expanded globally for inspiration. "The questions becomes the how and when" this expansion takes place, said Murray. Where trying to grow international relationships organically would take a long time, acquisitions like that of Harlequin speed up the process.
HarperCollins' expansion has also been spurred by changes in customer behavior and new digital capabilities. With the limitless shelf space offered by Google, Nook, and Kobo, the publisher is no longer solely dependent on bookstores or large distributors, said Murray.
Next, Shatzkin inquired how HarperCollins is managing change and whether bringing in skillsets that the book business hasn't traditionally traded in was a challenge. Murray responded that bringing in such outsiders and leading change is much easier today than 5 to 10 years ago - staff that has come up through the book industry have been witness for the need to change and understand, helping to hasten the pace of change. "That said, it's important that you bring in the right people. Not every Silicon Valley or consultant can parachute into the book business and survive." Murray added that outsiders have to appreciate the history of the book business but also be able to look at new ideas -- and fortunately the industry is much more receptive to new ideas now.
Subscription, Self-Publishing, Indies & Choice
Finally Shatzkin and Murray addressed how the Big 5 publisher is responding to the emergence of self-publishing and subscription platforms in recent years. In this context, Murray stressed the importance of entertaining new ideas and experimenting with new pilot programs. "We don't jump at every opportunity, but you can't stand still... We're willing to learn."
Underlying Murray's thinking on both subscription and self-publishing is the sense that there are positive effects connected to having more choices available - more choices for authors to publish their work and more choices for readers to access that work. Subscription is one channel for expanding reader choice. Independent bookstores also play an important role in this, said Murray. "Having local bookstores is critical to us. We want there to be as much choice for readers as possible."
Self-publishing also presents an opportunity to expand choices within the industry, said Murray. While HarperCollins isn't in the self-publishing business, Murray said the company will apply its core competencies -- editorial, finance, marketing -- to the self-publishing phenomenon, with such things as HarperCollins Publishers Services and by building relationships with authors earlier in their careers.
Denis Wilson was previously content director for Target Marketing, Publishing Executive, and Book Business, as well as the FUSE Media and BRAND United summits. In this role, he analyzed and reported on the fundamental changes affecting the media and marketing industries and aimed to serve content-driven businesses with practical and strategic insight. As a writer, Denis’ work has been published by Fast Company, Rolling Stone, Fortune, and The New York Times.