There may be companies out there with more money, more color, more exposure.
But for sheer drama, nothing could top HarperCollins's year that was. Starting last August, when the company announced a 9.8% increase in sales for fiscal 2004 (largely due to an evangelical author that most Harper employees had likely never heard of before), the company created, and rode, a wave the likes of which publishing rarely sees.
Rather than rest on her success, HC president and CEO Jane Friedman set about remaking the house, and with a zeal. She created a new division in the Collins Group, hired a celebrated editor from Miramax, closed a struggling imprint and launched a sometimes-amorphous branding initiative (see timeline below).
In the process, she drew much press even by her standards—on Publishing+, on ReganBooks' move, on launches by Jack Welch and Michael Crichton.
Many of the changes, though, seemed to have little effect on the bottom line. As the year went on, the company's sales slid, dropping nearly 7% in the third quarter.
Just when doubters were getting ready, finally, for some bad news, the house staged a comeback. Last week the company announced a stellar fourth quarter that led to annual sales increasing 4% and operating income spiking 4.5%.
"Another company would probably have been reporting a down year this year," Friedman said last week with her characteristic confidence. The numbers were the result of strong children's sales for Maurice Sendak, Shel Silverstein and Lemony Snicket, as well as You: The Owner's Manual and Freakonomics.
The rise spells the eighth straight year of growth, a feat diluted slightly by the fact that, unlike some competitors, Harper started out smaller and has spent the last few years in growth mode, but impressive still. One high-ranking executive at another house said he was moved. "I think it's a straight success story."
Now the question is: Can Harper keep it up? Ever-rising sales increase the pressure on Harper, especially as it positions itself as Random's main competitor. Total sales are now at the improbably high number of $1.32 billion, which means the company has to one-up even big hits like Purpose-Driven and Freakonomics to really move the needle.
The first signs are encouraging. Last year, Harper had to overcome a slow first quarter, but this year it's more primed, mainly because of a book that it didn't even publish. The company will book revenue in Q1 from its billing of Harry Potterfor Scholastic—which could lead to revenue of as much as $8 million.
But the big bet will lie with a little movie coming out this Christmas. Both Harper San Francisco and Harper Children's are publishing heavily into what they hope will be a C.S. Lewis craze when the Chronicles of Narnia movie comes out. Friedman noted the risk—indeed, overpublishing into Star Warsnearly sank DK several years ago—but she called it "a very small one" and hopes it will do for HC what LOTRdid for Houghton.
Friedman also said she is looking to more bestsellers from Judith Regan (after Juiced!) even as Regan moves to L.A. later this year. (She revealed that Regan will have staff in L.A. and N.Y.) And Friedman said she expects much noise from new HC publisher Jonathan Burnham, who pulled his weight last week and signed Madeleine Albright to a two-book deal (Madame Secretary was a big author success story at Miramax).
And of Publishing+—which resulted in new imprints and realigned business—but which, according to some, has stalled recently, Friedman said, "The program continues and it's now part of the fabric of HarperCollins. You'll be hearing about it a lot more."
It's on to the ninth year for the effervescent one.