Brian Murray took over as CEO of HarperCollins from Jane Friedman in 2008. In the first few years after Murray’s appointment, many in the publishing industry expected then–HC parent company News Corporation, which focused on its films and other entertainment operations, to divest itself of the house. Six years later, HC is coming off a record performance in the fiscal year ended June 30, 2014, and is firmly entrenched as the country’s second-largest trade publisher—with ambitions of becoming an even big player in the international market, where it is already one of the largest English-language publishers. For his role in leading the transformation of HarperCollins, Murray is PW’s Person of the Year.
HarperCollins gained a new parent company in June 2013, when News Corporation split off its film and broadcasting holdings into a new company called 21st Century Fox, simultaneously forming News Corp, where it placed HC and other publishing companies. Murray says that HC has benefited from being a “much bigger piece” of the new company: it’s easier for the publisher to get resources and support for new ventures, and it allows HC to work synergistically with other News Corp units. The companies within News Corp have consolidated some back-office functions and also share growth characteristics—particularly the opportunities for international expansion and more digital development.
Murray notes that HC and other News Corp holdings in the U.K. (including some of the country’s largest newspapers) will move into a new office building in London in January. The move, he says, “is a clear signal” of News Corp’s intention to make HC an integral part of the company’s future.
The chance for overseas expansion was one of the factors that led HC to acquire Thomas Nelson in 2012, with the support of News Corporation. “We like the Christian publishing business,” Murray says. “It has stable values, and its content travels well globally.” He is particularly excited about the opportunities for growth in South America. This fall, HC acquired the majority ownership of Brazil-based Thomas Nelson Brasil from Ediouro, its partner in the joint venture.
Murray is a firm believer in the strength of the mainstream book market as well. He says the publishing industry has been “undervalued” and that it has done a “decent job” of navigating the transition from a print to a hybrid market. He notes that lower e-book prices have somewhat obscured growth in unit sales: “There is no question that there is still a strong demand for books.” With the success of e-books, publishers can now reach “a super mass market,” Murray says, explaining that while they always knew consumers were interested in books priced under $5, there was no way to meet that demand until the advent of digital publishing.
Under Murray, HarperCollins has aggressively explored opportunities for growth in e-books, in the U.S. and abroad. The company has about 200 digital storefronts in international markets and is continuing to open new ones. “We are doing contracts all the time,” Murray says.
HC is also making its backlist titles available on the major subscription services; one of the first actions it took after acquiring Harlequin was to sign a deal with Scribd to allow the service to offer the imprint’s backlist titles. “We certainly are willing to try innovative business models,” Murray says, “and when we find ones that work we move forward.”
One area where HC has scaled back is enhanced e-books. “We built them, but no one came,” Murray says. He believes that the format will do better when merchandising can be improved.
HarperCollins and other publishers have long sold books directly to consumers, but HC reaffirmed its commitment to direct sales this summer when it redesigned its website (harpercollins.com) to allow consumers to buy print and digital books more easily there. It followed up in the fall by giving authors an additional 10 percentage points on royalties when their titles are purchased by consumers whom they refer to harpercollins.com via links on their own websites or blogs. Improving the sales capability of the HC site is just one step the publisher has taken to maintain what Murray calls “a diversity of retail channels.”
With consumers now able to buy both print and e-books, Murray says that one of the most important functions for a publisher “is to maximize points of sale” and to do what it can to ensure that “one channel isn’t cannibalizing sales from another.” He notes that he is very encouraged by the “green shoots” he sees sprouting in the independent bookstore channel, adding that HC will continue programs that support indie stores.
A growth area for HarperCollins in the 2015 fiscal year (which started July 1, 2014), of course, will be the addition of Harlequin, which the house officially acquired on August 1. Murray didn’t take long to fulfill his promise, made at the time of the acquisition, to use Harlequin to expand HC’s footprint in the foreign-language book market, announcing at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October that Harlequin’s offices in Germany will be rebranded as HarperCollins Germany. In addition to continuing to publish Harlequin titles, the office will publish (mostly) mainstream commercial fiction under the HarperCollins Germany imprint. Plans are in place to use the same template in several other countries, including Japan, the Netherlands, Spain, and Sweden.
While the integration of Harlequin is still in its early days, Murray says he wouldn’t shy away from making another purchase “for the right price, and if [the company in question] fits what we want to do.” HC has been actively building its fiction list, and Murray says he would like to continue to see it strengthen that area.
As HarperCollins revenue closes in on the $2 billion mark, Murray’s goal is to give as much autonomy as possible to the house’s editorial operations, while taking advantage of scale where appropriate. “The best decisions are made by small creative teams,” Murray says. To minimize red tape, he limits the number of executives at the company who report directly to him. Among those who do are the leaders of HC’s five major business groups: Michael Morrison, president and publisher of U.S. general books and Canada; Susan Katz, president and publisher of HarperCollins Children’s Books; Mark Schoenwald, president of HarperCollins Christian Publishing; Charlie Redmayne, president of HarperCollins UK; and Craig Swinwood, president of Harlequin.
Murray’s management style is widely appreciated. “Brian is a macro thinker who embraces change and isn’t afraid of taking risks,” Morrison says. “He’s incredibly smart, forward thinking, fair, and levelheaded. In fact, I’ve never met anyone who is less interested in drama. He’s focused on doing what’s right for our authors and for our business.” Katz points to those same traits: “Brian is strategic, very smart, calm under pressure, and has a good sense of humor. He never encourages finger pointing when we miss the mark, and he always gives credit to the team.”
With the recent success that HarperCollins has enjoyed—the house followed up its record fiscal 2014 performance with a 28% increase in earnings and 24% gain in sales in the first quarter of fiscal 2015, which ended Sept. 30, over the same period last year—it is no surprise that News Corp views HC as key to its future. In a conference call discussing first-quarter results, News Corp CEO Robert Thomson described HC as one of its “core pillars.” And he told PW that he salutes Murray for being “purposeful and passionate about his work” as well as “acutely aware of the social efficacy of the book, delivered in whatever form.” Thomson added, “Brian’s efforts have not only ensured robust profitability at HarperCollins, but he has built a firm foundation for the future of the company and the industry.” ■