DBW Insights: Brian Murray, CEO of HarperCollins

In this exclusive interview, Brian Murray, CEO of HarperCollins, discusses the thinking about books beyond their print containers, return on investment and keeping up with the pace of innovation, and the HarperCollins’s 26-lend policy for ebooks in libraries.

From the interview:

We’re at this point where our editors are really working with the author. For us, it’s all about the best voices, the best authors, and the best stories. Yet consumers now are able to engage with that story on different devices, devices that are now connected to the web, devices that allow video. There are so many things that we can imagine today when you think about the container, but we don’t necessarily start with the container. We start with a really good idea, a really good author, and what we do is figure out how best can we reach the broadest possible audience and bring that author’s idea to the most number of readers. So these new containers that are out there are just new vehicles for us to do what we’ve been doing for decades.

We’re in trade book publishing and we don’t get a positive ROI on a lot of the books that we do. So we have a culture where we’re always experimenting. We’re experimenting with different authors all the time, so it’s not difficult for us to move from experimenting on, and taking risks on, big authors to what other ways might a consumer enjoy that story. I think our culture suits our ability to try new things in this new emerging digital world. So I’m not worried about that. I worry about making sure we’re trying enough new things, because the rate of change is really one of the biggest challenges we face.

Libraries are a really important channel for HarperCollins. We’ve talked about discovery of books and libraries are where a lot of discovery happens in many communities across the country. So HarperCollins is committed to that library channel. The challenge is that we’re trying to balance the needs of all of our stakeholders. So librarians and their patrons are stakeholders, as are authors, and as are booksellers. As this business transitions from physical to digital, it’s forcing us to think about different business models and try to make sure that all of those stakeholders have a role to play in the future. So when we were looking at the library channel, the idea of having almost a subscription model is actually a unique business model. Right now, it is the only channel where we have offered this kind of business model. We’re struggling to find the right business model that can work for libraries. The rationale behind it was, “let’s find something that’s unique and different that libraries might adopt,” and we put it out there and we’re now listening to everyone to see what they have to say. We’re going to continue to listen over the coming months and we encourage librarians to try it to see if it works.

A joint production of Digital Book World and Astral Road Brand Media: http://www.astralroad.com/. Founded by Rich Fahle, Astral Road Media is a full-service digital media agency, providing content strategy, design, video production, and other creative forms of social outreach for authors and content creators of all types.

2 thoughts on “DBW Insights: Brian Murray, CEO of HarperCollins

  1. Phil Bowyer

    Very interesting interview and reinforces my opinion on publishers.

    If you watch and listen to his responses carefully, he say’s that they are in a good position to be in the digital era because they have a combined experience of 100 years “helping authors”. That’s like saying, I have all these years of being an EMT, so I’m in good position to do surgery.

    Plus, you cannot add everybody’s experience and get “100 years”, it’s a nice trick but realistically you have zero experience of successful marketing authors in a digital age. Yes, you can sell books by already established authors, but that doesn’t mean you know what you are doing– how many unknown authors that were signed within the last year met expectations, or even made a profit. By his own admission in this video, they have a very low ROI – doesn’t sound like they really know how to market and help authors tell their stories these days.

    Publishers, and many authors, believe that the “hundreds of years” experience is an advantage, but marketing today is a lot different than it was five years ago.

  2. Foster Winans

    Book publishers seem to be on the same path as the railroad industry was during its death spiral. The railroads thought of themselves as being in the railroad business instead of the transportation business, and thus missed out on the trucking and aviation booms.

    Book publishers are in trouble because they think they are in the book publishing business when in fact they are in the business of licensing intellectual property. So instead of selling products in containers, the publishing industry should be leveraging and marketing authors and ideas.

    My dream publishing company has a book division, a lecture agency, a tv production company, a website build-and-manage division, and so on. Instead of acquiring manuscripts and crap-shooting for a break-out title, it would acquire new authors, give them vigorous editorial help all along the way, help them grow their brands within the publisher’s imprint, and leverage that brand and content in every way possible, thereby creating multiple revenue streams.

    In addition to subsidizing authors, my dream publishing company would have an imprint devoted to publishing topical nonfiction funded by authors who have trade-worthy books but a limited or hard-to-reach market so can’t get a traditional deal. Under the radar, this is what John Wiley & Sons already does. Instead of self-publishing, they call it a buy-back: yes, we’ll publish your obscure title about investing, and we’ll pay you $5,000 if you’ll agree to purchase the first 10,000 copies to cover our costs. Instead, my dream publisher would have a robust editorial/ghostwriting department that would develop brands and books for experts, execs, and entrepreneurs who have something to say and are willing to invest in having it done professionally.

    A friend who has been a major publisher and is today a busy consultant to publishers told me recently, “nobody knows where this is going.” As someone who has written or ghosted books for most of the leading trade publishers, I’m sad to see the industry struggle and sad to see so many doors closing to emerging writers. But like the railroads, out of destruction will come creativity, innovation, and reward. No matter what the containers end up being, they’ll always be a place for the folks that create what goes into them.



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