Not long after Ellen Archer took over as head of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s trade group in late 2015, she received a corporate mandate to cut costs—an order that resulted in the elimination of more than 20 jobs in the trade division (and many more in the much larger education group). The cuts, coupled with Archer bringing in some of her own people, gave the HMH trade group a different feel by the middle of 2017, compared to when Archer’s predecessor, Gary Gentel, retired in spring 2016. Driven by e-book sales of The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984, print sales of the Whole30 series and Tim Ferriss’s Tribe of Mentors and Tools of Titans, and sales of such backlist print title sales as The Polar Express and The Giver, revenue in the group rose 11.4% in 2017 over 2016, and the trade unit posted net income of almost $2 million compared to a loss of $7 million in the prior year.
In a recent interview at HMH’s New York offices on Park Avenue, Archer said she sees the transition as largely over. “We have a great mix of talent,” she noted. “Some people have been here for over 20 years and bring great institutional knowledge, and some have been here for 10 years or less and bring different skills.”
Archer acknowledged that prior to joining HMH, she had little experience with children’s publishing; her last full-time publishing job had been as publisher of Hyperion, a position she left after Disney sold the unit in 2013. “Getting involved with children’s publishing has been very energizing,” she said.
With her limited children’s publishing background, one of Archer’s most important decisions was naming Catherine Onder as head of the Books for Young Readers division; Onder took over for Betsy Groban, who left HMH in 2016 after 10 years with the company. Archer said that in hiring Onder, she was looking for someone to add more commercial and young adult titles to complement HMH’s list of picture books and middle grade titles. “Cat has a great eye,” she added.
Another new element to the children’s group is author Kwame Alexander’s forthcoming imprint, Versify, which will release its first titles in spring 2019. Archer said that Alexander, who will be working with his longtime editor Margaret Raymo on the imprint, recently finished a long tour, during which he “was spreading the incredible magic of books.” She added, “We think his addition will really enrich our list.” Children’s books account for about 300 of the roughly 500 books that HMH publishes annually—a number Archer expects to stay relatively constant over the next few years.
On the adult side, HMH’s lifestyle and culinary titles have sold well. In addition to Melissa Hartwig’s Whole30 series, titles in the Instant Pot line have sold about 500,000 copies. And in something of a Whole30 spin-off, HMH just released The Whole Smiths Good Food Cookbook by Whole30 contributor and blogger Michelle Smith. Archer said Hartwig will continue to look for talent to add to the Whole30 line.
To expand the culinary and lifestyle category even more, HMH hired Deb Brody as editorial director, lifestyle and culinary, in October 2016. “Deb is very driven and creative,” Archer said, noting that not long after arriving at HMH, Brody commissioned the RBG Workout, which has sold nearly 40,000 copies since its October 2017 publication, according to NPD BookScan.
With its sales of nearly $185 million last year, Archer considers HMH to be a “mid-major” publisher. She said HMH gets to see all the projects it is interested in and the relatively small trade staff (of about 200) lets the company move quickly in responding to trends.
All parts of the organization, Archer said, work closely together. As an example of HMH’s teamwork, she cited how in-house excitement and momentum built for Friday Black, a collection of short stories by debut author Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. Archer described Adjei-Brenyah as a protege of George Saunders, who, in a blurb for the fall release, wrote, "These stories are an excitement and a wonder." Mary Karr said the novel “is the fiction debut of the year, and I can’t cheer it loudly enough.”
Fiction only accounts for about 15% of HMH’s adult list, and, as a result, e-books—which sell best in fiction—have never been as large a factor in HMH’s sales as they have for the Big Five. “E-book sales vary from year to year,” Archer said, noting that though the format did very well last year with Handmaid’s Tale and 1984, it is unclear how it will fare this year. And unlike the Big Five, HMH does not have a separate audiobook division—and even with the explosive growth of digital audio, Archer said conversations about possibly creating an audio unit are only beginning.
One venture that Archer is extremely high on is HMH Productions. Founded several years ago by HMH’s consumer group (which is now closed but had been overseen by HMH’s education division), the unit recently joined the trade unit under the direction of Caroline Fraser, whose mandate is to exploit HMH trade’s intellectual property through different platforms. Its biggest deal to date has been with Netflix for Carmen Sandiego. A 10-part animated series is set to begin in January 2019, and another 10-part series is set for fall 2019. A live-action film starring Gina Rodriguez is also in the works. In addition to producing the series, HMH is developing a publishing program around the show and is also reaching out to other potential partners, such as toy companies, to develop related products.
Another property that HMH owns is Oregon Trail, which HMH Productions is developing for TV and film. This fall, HMH will launch an Oregon Trail young readers publishing program with four “choose-your-own-trail” paperbacks. For adults, the company will publish a send-up titled And Then You Die of Dysentery: Lessons in Adulting from the Oregon Trail.
Archer said that with Fraser spending lots of time in Hollywood, she is able to get a good sense of what the film and television studios are looking for, and she communicates that back to HMH editors in an effort to find properties that can transfer to the screen. Archer is eyeing the publishing opportunities opened by Amazon Studios’ release of its TV series of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings in 2020 or 2021. HMH has Tolkien’s entire backlist, and although its publishing plans for the Amazon series aren’t firm, HMH is talking to the Tolkien estate and Amazon about possible companion titles and new editions.
“I’m really thrilled by what we have accomplished since I’ve been here,” Archer said. “It is a testament to the passion and pride the team has about the business.”