Henry Holt & Company has undergone a number of incarnations since it was formed in 1866, when Henry Holt partnered with Frederic Leypoldt to publish books under the name Leypoldt & Holt. For one thing, it has had a number of different names, owners, and mission. The Henry Holt that exists today began to take shape in 1985, when the Holtzbrinck Publishing Group acquired the trade operation of Holt, Rinehart and Winston, while the textbook business was sold to Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
From the very beginning, Holt published a mix of trade books and textbooks, and in the 1870s it added children’s books to its mix. By 1876, Holt had published a total of more than 300 titles. In 1915, the company released the first work by an author who would be key to its identity in the early part of the 20th century: Robert Frost. By the 1930s, Frost had become a mainstay of the Holt list, and between 1924 and 1943 four of his titles won Pulitzer Prizes for poetry: New Hampshire (1924), Collected Poems (1931), A Further Range (1937), and A Witness Tree (1943). During that period, Holt poet Mark Van Doren also took home a Pulitzer for poetry, winning in 1940 for Collected Poems.
While poetry was an important part of the Holt list, the company continued to branch out in different areas, particularly after WWII. In 1946, Texas oilman Clint Murchison Jr. became the majority shareholder in the company, and with his backing, the company expanded both its textbook and children’s offerings throughout the 1940s.
The next milestone in the company’s history came in 1960, when Holt merged with Rinehart & Co. and John C. Winston Company to create Holt, Rinehart and Winston. At the time of the deal, PW reported that total sales of the combined company were $35 million, with Holt generating about $23 million of that total. Seven years after the merger, HRW was one of several publishers bought by the technology leaders of the time, who were looking to combine technology and textbooks to create thinking machines. In the case of HRW, which had sales of $70 million in 1966, CBS was the buyer. The company remained part of CBS until 1985, when the company’s educational publishing operations were sold to Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (which got the HRW name), and Holtzbrinck bought the trade business, which it operates as Henry Holt & Company.
Becoming part of Holtzbrinck (which rebranded itself as Macmillan Publishing in the U.S.) did not mean that Holt was through evolving. Metropolitan Books, for example, was formed in 1996. The most significant change in creating the Holt of 2016 came in 2008, when Macmillan formed the Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group, which meant moving Holt’s children’s division—Henry Holt Books for Young Readers—into the newly formed MCPG and leaving Holt adult in a group that now includes Farrar, Straus and Giroux, St. Martin’s Press, and Flatiron Books.
It was around that same time that Macmillan CEO John Sargent was looking for someone to come in and give Holt’s adult trade operation a jolt. When Steve Rubin, president and publisher of Doubleday, resigned from Doubleday’s parent company Random House, Sargent knew he had his man. Sargent said in hiring Rubin he was looking for someone with a proven track record, great contacts, and strong instincts to help Holt raise its profile and better compete in a changing market. Rubin has not disappointed Sargent since he became president and publisher of Holt in 2009. During his tenure, Holt has been consistently profitable, and in some years “very profitable,” Sargent said.
In an interview in his ninth-floor office in the familiar prow of the Flatiron Building, Rubin said he is very much aware of the Holt legacy as he works to maintain a house that has kept its focus on quality over quantity and views its relationships with authors as true partnerships. “We are enormously proud of our publishing program and the books we publish,” Rubin said. “The editorial vision is very straightforward and has been pretty consistent over the years: publish books that matter, books that have a voice, books that entertain. Overall, we certainly keep a critical eye out for serious works, but we also want to reach a popular audience, and that keeps our list highly flexible.”
Rubin said the publishing philosophy at Holt can be seen in two of its biggest authors: Fox News anchor and bestselling author Bill O’Reilly, and two-time Booker Prize–winner Dame Hilary Mantel. Rubin had published O’Reilly at Doubleday; after he left, O’Reilly moved to HarperCollins for one book. Meeting Rubin at a party, O’Reilly brought up the idea of a series of popular history books, and Rubin was hooked. “Bill is a very strategic guy. He had a clear vision for what he wanted to do, and that vision has come true,” Rubin said. Beginning with Killing Lincoln, the Killing series has more than 14.5 million copies in print worldwide, and the sixth volume in the line, Killing the Rising Sun: How America Vanquished World War II Japan, will be released on September 13. For his part, O’Reilly has appreciated Rubin’s support. “Some publishers have little vision and no spine—not Steve Rubin,” O’Reilly said. “From the beginning, with Killing Lincoln, Steve saw that history can be presented in an entertaining way.”
No matter who the author is, however, the Holt team is able to devote lots of attention to each hardcover it publishes. It has what may be one of the highest employee-to-books-published ratio in the industry: with a staff of about 40, the Holt adult group releases between 50 and 60 titles annually. That ratio, Rubin believes, gives Holt a competitive advantage. “We stay very focused on what we are doing and can change something quickly.”
Rubin said he is most happy about the recent success of Holt because of the dedication of its staff, many of whom have been at Holt for years. No one has been there longer than Mimi Ross, director of copyrights and permissions, who has been with the house for 50 years. Rubin also values the team approach at Macmillan. “It is the best place I’ve ever worked,” he said.
That team spirit extends to the Holt children’s group as well. Despite being a separate division, Henry Holt for Young Readers has “a really nice relationship with the adult group,” according to Laura Godwin, v-p and publisher of the division. She pointed to the number of authors the children’s and adult group share—Bill O’Reilly, Rick Atkinson, Charles Shields, and Louis Bayard—as evidence of that collaborative effort.
But the children’s group has its own tradition to uphold. Its first Newbery Medal was in 1933, when Elizabeth Foreman Lewis took home the honor for Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze. Between 1964 and 1968, Holt published one book annually in the Chronicles of Prydain series by Lloyd Alexander. The second book in the series earned a Newbery Honor in 1966, and the final one won the 1969 Newbery Medal. Godwin believes the series has influenced modern-day authors of children’s fantasy and noted that discussions are underway about making the series into a movie.
The publisher’s all-time top seller is Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What do You See? written by Bill Martin Jr. and illustrated by Eric Carle. Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the title, which still sells in big numbers. The Brown Bear franchise (there are four other titles) has 35 million copies in print worldwide and the series is part of the Holt legacy. “We have a very deep backlist,” Godwin said.
The group publishes 80 to 90 titles annually, and Godwin described the program as “broad-based and eclectic.” In fact, the division has adopted the name of Sorche Nic Leodhas’s 1966 Caldecott Medal–winner as its unofficial motto: always room for one more.
Henry Holt Company Names
Leypoldt & Holt 1866–1871
Holt & Williams 1871–1873
Henry Holt & Company 1873–1960
Holt, Rinehart and Winston 1960–1985
Henry Holt & Company 1985–present
Major Figures in Holt’s History
Henry Holt founds the company in 1866 and stays active until his death in 1926.
Henry Holt Jr. and Elliot Holt take control of the publisher after their father’s death and incorporate the company.
Alfred Harcourt and Donald Brace join Holt in 1904 and leave in 1919 to start Harcourt Brace.
Robert Frost’s first work is published by Holt in 1915, and the poet becomes a mainstay of the Holt list.
Frederick Jackson Turner, winner of the 1933 Pulitzer Prize for History for The Significance of Sections in American History.
Elizabeth Foreman Lewis, winner of the 1933 Newbery Medal for Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze.
Clint Murchison Jr. becomes Holt’s largest stockholder in 1946.
Norman Mailer, whose The Naked and the Dead is released by Holt in 1948.
Edward T. Rigg becomes Holt president in 1949 and oversees its merger with Rinehart & Co. and John C. Winston Company in 1960; he is named chairman of the combined company.
Sorche Nic Leodhas, winner of the 1966 Caldecott Medal for Always Room for One More.
Evaline Ness, winner of the 1967 Caldecott Medal for Sam, Bangs and Moonshine.
Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction in 1984.
Kimberly Willis Holt, winner of the 1999 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for Zachary Beaver Came to Town.
Robert Olen Butler, whose A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain wins the Pulitzer for Fiction in 1993.
David Levering Lewis wins the 1994 Pulitzer for W.E.B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race; Lewis wins his second Pulitzer in 2001 for the second volume of his Du Bois biography, The Fight for Equality and the American Century.
Rick Atkinson takes the Pulitzer for History for An Army at Dawn in 2003.
Caroline Elkins receives the 2006 Pulitzer in General Nonfiction for Imperial Reckoning.
Elizabeth Kolbert, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction for The Sixth Extinction in 2015.