The two companies that would come to form HarperCollins were founded just a few years apart in the U.S. and Scotland. J&J Harper, Printers (renamed Harper & Brothers in 1833) was started in New York City by brothers James and John Harper in 1817 and published its first book, Seneca’s Morals, that same year. Two years later in Glasgow, Chalmers & Collins Bookshop and Printing Works opened and published The Christian and Civic Economy of Large Towns by Thomas Chalmers. Over the course of most of the next two centuries, Harper and William Collins evolved, and after a series of acquisitions, were merged in 1990 to form HarperCollins. With revenue of $1.65 billion in fiscal 2016, HarperCollins is now the 13th-largest book publisher in the world.
For its part, Harper took part in a fair amount of U.S. publishing history, as can be seen in displays sprinkled throughout its new headquarters in Manhattan’s Financial District—the same neighborhood where Harper Printers first opened 200 years ago. HC moved into the building in spring 2014, and there was a conscious effort to put its literary history “front and center” in the office design, according to Brian Murray, HC CEO.
Murray said he likes new authors to be able to see that the company “wasn’t born yesterday” and that anyone signing with HC is joining a publisher that has a long history of publishing award-winning and bestselling books. “We’ve been serving authors for two centuries, and we’ve always kept authors front and center of what we do,” he added.
The heads of HC’s U.S. adult and children’s groups also are very happy to be working at a company that has a rich history. For Michael Morrison, president and publisher of U.S. general books and Canada, HC’s history is important on both a personal and professional level. He is a lifelong book collector who specializes in buying vintage copies of HC books and sharing them with the next generation of publishing professionals. Morrison acknowledged that in the day-to-day work world it can be hard to think about HC’s history, but said that the anniversary is a good time to reflect on the Harper legacy and to impart the HC tradition to newer employees.
From the beginning, Morrison noted, HC has published classic works by such authors as Charles Dickens, Gabriel García Márquez, Zora Neale Hurston, Henry James, and Richard Wright. But HC isn’t just about the past. Morrison said he would put HC’s current roster of authors, which includes Michael Chabon, Neil Gaiman, Barbara Kingsolver, and Amy Tan, up against any other publisher in the business.
Suzanne Murphy, president and publisher of HarperCollins Children’s Books, also sees HC’s history from a personal and professional viewpoint. Before joining HC in May 2015, Murphy worked at Scholastic and Disney; as a parent, she was well aware of HC’s “gold-standard backlist.” The strength of that backlist gives HC a foundation to experiment and innovate in different areas. Murphy said that HC is well represented in all aspects of the children’s book business.
The depth of the HC backlist also leads to a lot of opportunities to reintroduce classic titles to new readers. This year is not only the 200th anniversary of the founding of HC but also the 150th anniversary of the birth of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and to mark the occasion, HC is reissuing some editions in her Little House on the Prairie series. Murphy said that though HC is careful to monitor chances for reissues, booksellers and librarians often remind HC of favorites they would like to see given new attention.
Murphy said she is “honored” to be one of the few people to head HC’s children’s business and was very pleased that the group is “firing on all cylinders.” One aspect of HC’s success has been a commitment to diversity, she added. “I am proud to say we’ve always looked for writers who write from a variety of perspectives.” That tradition continues today not only in looking for authors but in recruiting employees as well. “Diversity is top of mind,” she noted.
Murray said the anniversary has reminded him that the book publishing industry “has been incredibly resilient.” He added: “The business has been through a lot——wars, depressions—and proved to be very durable. That is a cause for celebration.”
Harper & Brothers was involved in scores of publishing innovations. Here are a few.
The Harper brothers created sets of titles that guided readers to acquire a collection instead of buying just a single book. Classical Library, the Harper’s Family Library, Library of Select Novels, New England School Library, and School District Library were all published in the 1830s. Harper’s School District Library had the widest distribution and influence. As new settlements sprang up across the expanding frontier, the company distributed more than 600,000 School District Libraries between 1836 and 1855.
The Harper brothers were always looking for ways to reach more readers with less expensive publications, and in 1850 they introduced the concept of the modern literary magazine with Harper’s New Monthly Magazine.
As part of its plan to take chances on new authors, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine often serialized unproven writers. It printed a chapter of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick in October 1851 to promote the forthcoming novel. In the decades that followed, Harper periodicals were first to serialize Wilkie Collins’s Armadale (1864), Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend (1865), Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891), Henry James’s Washington Square (1880), Anthony Trollope’s Sir Harry Hotspur of Humblethwaite (1871), and Mark Twain’s Joan of Arc (1895).
Harper & Brothers published Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage in 1912. He published 55 books with Harper that went on to become the model American expectations of the western genre. By the 1930s, Grey had been read by more than 60 million people—half the population of the United States at the time. Estimated cumulative worldwide sales of Grey’s books grew from roughly 12 million in 1936 to 130 million in 1984.
A.B. Guthrie Jr.’s best-known novels—The Big Sky, These Thousand Hills, and The Way West—realistically depicted the taming of the frontier from 1830 to the beginning of the 20th century. On the strength of The Way West, Guthrie won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1950. He was published by William Sloane and Associates, which later became part of HarperCollins.
Harper & Brothers published its first children’s books in 1836, but it wasn’t until 1926 that the company established the Department of Books for Boys and Girls. The department’s first editor, Virginia Kirkus, published Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books starting in 1932. Kirkus’s successor, Louise Raymond, discovered Margaret Wise Brown, author of The Runaway Bunny (1942) and Goodnight Moon (1947). Ursula Nordstrom moved the division in new directions, developing authors and illustrators such as Ruth Krauss, Maurice Sendak, Shel Silverstein, Tomi Ungerer, and E.B. White.
Over the years, HarperCollins has published a number of books by African-American authors that deal with a range of issues affecting African-Americans. Harper & Brothers published the poetry of Countee Cullen, beginning with his debut collection Color in 1925. In 1938, it published Richard Wright’s debut story collection Uncle Tom’s Children (1938) before releasing his seminal works Native Son (1940), Black Boy (1945), and The Outsider (1953). In 1949, it released Annie Allen, a collection of poetry by Gwendolyn Brooks, who became the first African-American writer to receive a Pulitzer Prize. HarperCollins also published two books by Martin Luther King Jr., Stride Toward Freedom (1958) and Strength to Love (1963). In 2003, the company’s Amistad imprint released Edward P. Jones’s The Known World, which won the Pulitzer Prize.
We’ve picked out a few of the many publishing highlights in HC’s history.
1839 Collins receives a license to publish the King James Version of the Bible.
1848 Harper & Brothers publishes the first American editions of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, and Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
1917 Harper & Brothers releases a series of 12 Bubble Books, the first-ever book and phonograph record “bundle,” featuring nursery rhymes such as “Jack and Jill” and “Simple Simon.”
1924 Agatha Christie joins the house of Collins, and two years later publishes her first Hercule Poirot novel, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.
1927 Harper & Brothers signs Aldous Huxley, who publishes his first book with the company, Text and Pretexts, in 1932. Harper later acquires the copyright to Huxley’s other books, including Brave New World, releasing its own edition of the classic in 1934.
1956 Harper & Brothers publishes Profiles in Courage by John F. Kennedy, which wins the Pulitzer Prize in 1957.
1958 Collins publishes the first English translation of Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.
1970 Harper & Row publishes the first English translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. Gárcia Márquez goes on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982, and the novel sells more than 20 million copies.
1973 Collins secures the rights to Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago.
2012 Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel, published by HarperCollins in the U.K., wins the Man Booker Prize. Mantel becomes the first woman ever to win the prize twice, having first won for Wolf Hall in 2009.
Mark Twain & Herman Melville
Harper & Brothers’ relationship with Mark Twain did not get off to an auspicious start. His first submission to Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, “Forty-Three Days in an Open Boat,” was published in the December 1866 issue. It contained no byline and was later attributed to Mark Swain because Twain had not written his name clearly on the manuscript. Despite the rocky beginning, the Harper-Twain relationship went on until Twain’s death half a century later.
After Twain lost a fortune in his own failed self-publishing venture, he signed a contract with Harper in 1895 that gave the publisher rights to multiple titles, offering a royalty of 15%–20% on works such as Huckleberry Finn, Joan of Arc, and Tom Sawyer Abroad. Harper & Brothers nearly lost Twain when it entered bankruptcy in 1899, but Twain signed a contract that gave Harper & Brothers rights to all future works. This agreement helped to rebuild public confidence in the firm and consolidated Twain’s work with one publisher.
Harper & Brothers turned down Herman Melville’s first book, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, and it was released to strong sales by another publisher. When that publisher balked at his next manuscript, the nonfiction Omoo, Melville moved to Harper. Melville wrote a series of books for Harper & Brothers that were well received, and he had some financial success.
But Melville’s most important work, Moby-Dick; or, the Whale, received stinging reviews at the time it was released and initial sales were modest. Despite the publisher’s efforts to champion a unique American voice, Melville didn’t earn critical acclaim in his lifetime. The centennial of his birth in 1919 brought newfound appreciation for his work, however. The previously unpublished Billy Budd emerged in 1924 and sold briskly along with the rest of his oeuvre, and Moby-Dick took its rightful place as a cornerstone of American letters.
1955 Collins acquires Harvill Press.
1962 Harper & Brothers merges with textbook publisher Row, Peterson & Co. to form Harper & Row.
1977 Harper & Row acquires T.Y. Crowell and its associated imprints.
1978 Harper & Row acquires J.B. Lippincott, which was founded in 1836 and published Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960.
1982 William Collins buys Granada.
1987 Harper & Row acquires Caedmon Records, the first publisher of spoken-word audio.
1987 News Corp. acquires Harper & Row.
1988 Harper & Row acquires Zondervan.
1989 News Corp. acquires Thorsons Publishing Group and William Collins, bringing together Collins, Harper & Row, Gower Publishing, Times Books, Bartholomew, and Angus & Robertson.
1990 Acquisition of Unwin Hyman brings J.R.R. Tolkien to Collins.
1999 HarperCollins acquires William Morrow, Avon, Ecco Press, and Amistad Press.
2000 HCUK acquires Fourth Estate.
2010 HCUK acquires Letts, Lonsdale, and Leckie & Leckie.
2011 HarperCollins acquires Thomas Nelson.
2014 HarperCollins acquires Harlequin.