The two-book deal William Morrow signed with Patricia Cornwell earlier this month was just the latest high-profile deal in a concerted effort by parent company HarperCollins to rebuild the house’s fiction list. The move to strengthen its fiction offerings began about two years ago, as the company assessed the impacts of the deaths of bestselling authors Tony Hillerman and Michael Crichton in 2008. Without those two longtime pillars of its fiction program, said Michael Morrison, president and publisher of HC’s general books group, something needed to be done. “We’ve got back in the game in a big way,” said Morrison, and indeed it did. In addition to Cornwell, recent signings include Amy Tan, Greg Iles, and Mitch Albom.
More signings are ahead, Morrison told PW. The increase in fiction buying is spread across all three of HC’s adult groups—Morrow, Harper, and Ecco. While agents can submit the same project to editors at more than one imprint, HC will make only one house bid. Overall, unit sales of HC fiction books in print were up just over 7% through Aug. 11 at outlets that report to Nielsen BookScan, and the combination of print and digital sales has resulted in some impressive gains in sales of a range of authors’ most recent books compared to earlier titles. For example, combined e-book and print sales of Daniel Silva’s The English Girl—his third with HC—are up 34% over last year’s Fallen Angel. Combined hardcover and e-book sales of Neil Gaiman’s Ocean at the End of the Lane are running more than 400% higher than his #1 bestseller in 2005, Anansi Boys, while Joe Hill’s hardcover and e-book sales for NOS4A2 are running 95% higher than his 2010 book, Horns. The growth, noted Ecco publisher Daniel Halpern, “is a testament to the marketing department.”
Those marketing efforts are powered by a corporate team as well as marketing departments within each imprint, and they feature lots of collaboration between the two, according to Morrison. One of the functions of the corporate team is to conduct consumer research and provide advice to the imprints on trends. The company is also focusing more on brand development. Liate Stehlik, senior v-p, publisher of Morrow/Avon/Voyager, noted that HC is employing more strategies to cross-sell other titles from an author. Stehlik said that HC is finding that social media is useful in building author awareness, “as long as it’s done as part of an overall campaign.” As part of Silva’s marketing campaign for English Girl, for example, HC built his Facebook presence from 6,200 fans to 25,000. In addition, working closer with accounts has increased the amount of titles chosen as monthly “picks” at outlets such as Target and Costco, a tactic that has helped boost sales at those outlets.
Morrison said that HC isn’t only interested in authors whose sales are on the upswing, but is also looking to sign authors whom it identifies as underperforming elsewhere. Halpern pointed to the success of Richard Ford’s Canada, his first book at Ecco, which hit the bestseller list, and, more recently, Philipp Meyer, whose Ecco novel, The Son, has sold over 100,000 copies. Meyer’s debut, published by another house, was well reviewed, but sold modestly.
Part of HC’s fiction strategy is to use its digital-first initiative, Impulse, to break out new novelists. At Avon Impulse, two authors have moved to the flagship Avon imprint, with Candis Terry’s Anything But Sweet released July 13 and Sophia Barnes’s The Trouble with Being a Duke set for release September 13. Morrison noted that HC is committed to investing “in new writers’ careers.” Among debut authors who sold well in the last year and were well reviewed are Amanda Coplin (The Orchardist), and Kimberly McCreight (Reconstructing Amelia). HC is measuring its renewed fiction success not only in sales but awards. Louise Erdrich took the National Book Award for The Round House, while Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk was the National Book Critics Circle fiction award winner.
Among its newly signed authors set for release in the next few months is Mitch Albom, whom Morrison said HC “will bring back to the bookstores” as part of his tour for The First Phone Call from Heaven: A Novel, planned for a Nov. 12 pub date. Amy Tan’s first HC title, The Valley of Amazement, will be out Nov. 5. With its new fiction emphasis, the percentage of fiction of HC’s hardcovers will rise to 34% in the current fiscal year from 28% in the fiscal year ended June 30, 2013. “We’re feeling very bullish about fiction,” Morrison summed up.
Correction: An earlier version this story listed 'The Son' as a Harper Perennial title; it was published by Ecco. Also, HC grew Daniel Silva's fan base on Facebook from a starting point of 6,200 fans, not 600. Lastly, among HC's three adult groups there is not a division called HarperCollins; the division is called Harper.