When Michael Jacobs took over as CEO of Harry Abrams in 2004, an important part of his mandate was to diversify what was then the leading illustrated book publisher in the country. By 2009—the company’s 60th anniversary—the publisher had created a respected children’s division and expanded into such categories as crafts and cooking, while scaling back on the number of illustrated books it released.
Jacobs has kept up the pace of diversification, and the expansion of the company is one reason Abrams left its Chelsea offices in late June for new headquarters on lower Broadway in Manhattan. “This is a dynamic time for us,” Jacobs said in an interview in his offices at 195 Broadway. “We are doing more publishing and have more employees and more revenue” than in 2009. Though Jacobs didn’t disclose sales—the publisher is owned by the privately held Le Martiniere Groupe—he did say Abrams now has 140 employees, up from 100 in 2009.
Abrams’s most recent round of expansion began last October, when it announced the creation of a text-driven imprint (now called Abrams Press) under the direction of Jamison Stoltz and the formation of the Abrams Plus group to house the publisher’s gift and stationery line (Noterie), its calendar holdings, and its e-book and digital businesses under the direction of Jess Brallier.
Abrams Press released its first book, Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America, on May 16. Jacobs said Grocery is a good example of the type of book the imprint is looking to publish: narrative nonfiction in a category in which the publisher already has a presence. He expects the line to eventually publish 30–35 titles a year and did not rule out doing an occasional fiction title. The creation of Abrams Press “will allow us to publish more authors,” Jacobs said. “We are now at a place where we have the bandwidth to effectively promote and market these titles.”
The calendar and stationery units have been solid performers for Abrams; as Jacobs noted, the company’s popular adult coloring books came out of the stationery unit. He acknowledged that the digital business is not an obvious fit with the stationery and calendar lines, but he explained that grouping them would allow them to benefit from the direction of Brallier, who can give the businesses a focus and set goals.
The biggest driver of sales growth in recent years has been the children’s division, whose annual revenue has increased by double-digit percentages in each of the past 10 years. The children’s group now releases approximately 160 titles per year, compared to 110 on the adult side (a number that has risen in recent years after being cut back).
An important factor in the sales growth in the children’s division has been the success of Jeff Kinney’s Wimpy Kid series, which has sold more than 180 million copies worldwide. The 12th book, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Getaway, will be released in November. While sales of the series have slipped a bit, the 11th title, Double Down, sold more than one million copies, and Jacobs is convinced the series will remain a bestseller. Asked how long the series might run, Jacobs said Kinney told him he would like to do 20 books. “I hope he does,” Jacobs said.
The children’s division also went through a bit of a reorganization recently. The November 2016 departure of Jason Wells, who oversaw marketing and publicity at Abrams Books for Young Readers for the past 14 years, provided the opportunity to change things up. In March, Melanie Chang left Little, Brown Books for Young Readers and joined Abrams as v-p of children’s marketing and publicity. Steve Tager, senior v-p and chief marketing officer, gave up oversight of children’s marketing and publicity to focus on marketing and publicity for Abrams’s adult businesses. Jacobs said Chang has been building her team, and one area of likely expansion is license publishing.
The addition of Chang, Brallier, Stoltz, and others is important to Jacobs. “New people bring fresh ideas to the company,” he explained. Bringing in new talent and finding new leaders is one of Jacobs’s priorities.
After conducting a recent employee survey, Abrams stepped up its human resource efforts in such areas as diversity among staff and engagement with millennial employees. One benefit of the new office space, Jacobs said, is that it provides more opportunities for collaboration among different parts of the company, which appeals to millennials. Jacobs said he has been encouraged that young people remain interested in book publishing. “The caliber of candidates [for open positions] has been quite high,” he said.
As for other potential areas for expansion, Abrams is looking at getting into the fast-growing audiobook market and may beef up its e-book business. Jacobs noted that, to date, e-books have been a very small part of the company’s revenue, so even a modest increase would be a nice boost to sales. The company is also looking to do more special sales and find more new traditional outlets, including looking for someone to be its “eyes and ears” in the ABA market, Jacobs said. Another potential area for expansion—international sales—leads back to Abrams’s original area of expertise: illustrated books, which travel well overseas.
Sales for the first half of 2017 were a little soft, Jacobs said, but he is expecting a good finish to the year. “The place feels vibrant,” Jacobs said. “Everyone is very passionate about what we do.”