In early 2019, the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt trade group changed its name to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books & Media—a move made to reflect the new areas in which the publisher has been investing. “We’ve become a multichannel publisher,” said Ellen Archer, president of HMH Books & Media. The name change came shortly after the division formed HMH Audio and followed the 2018 move of HMH Productions from the company’s now-shuttered consumer group to its trade division.
Under the direction of Caroline Fraser, HMH Productions arrived at HMH trade with a deal to produce a 10-part animated series for Netflix based on the company’s Carmen Sandiego franchise. The series first ran in early 2019, and a second 10-part series ran in the fall; in a recent quarterly financial filing, HMH said the division earned $7.7 million from the deal through the first nine months of 2019. Though no new seasons for the animated show have been announced, a live-action feature film is in development at Netflix, with Gina Rodriguez to star. To take advantage of Carmen’s Netflix run, HMH Productions produced a web series, Fearless Kids Around the World, and HMH Books for Young Readers released eight new Carmen titles last year, with two more coming out in fall 2020.
Carmen also featured prominently in HMH Books & Media’s increased merchandising push. Last fall, HMH’s first Carmen products went on sale; among those were a board game with Goliath Games at Walmart, an electronic toy with Basic Fun, and costumes with Spirit. The company also has an agreement for apparel with Bio World, and more deals are in the works.
Archer sees HMH’s approach to Carmen as something of a model it can apply to other properties, where the company can develop a brand “from a variety of angles.” HMH is working on bringing back another earlier hit, Oregon Trail, and TV and game deals are expected to be announced soon.
A spokesperson said HMH also has another, unannounced animated book-based series in production, as well as another animated series in development with a major distributor—this one in collaboration with a house author.
HMH also has a pipeline of more than 20 projects in development for film and TV coming out of its in-house original IP collaboration between HMH Productions and the Books for Young Readers editorial team. This is in addition to media development for a variety of existing books, including projects for B.E.S.T. World and Ghosted.
HMH jumped into the digital audiobooks business last year, and HMH Audio has released 40 titles since its launch, including Dad’s Maybe Book, narrated by National Book Award–winning author Tim O’Brien, and The Best American Short Stories 2019, guest edited by Anthony Doerr and read by a full cast. Under the direction of Tommy Harron, HMH Audio has its studio in HMH’s New York City offices. It will do 40–50 books per season.
An initiative that has contributed a number of successful projects is what Archer calls HMH’s “talent hive”—a group of consultants, whose ranks include freelance editors, bestselling authors, and a film producer—who curate talent and bring exclusive deals to HMH. Veteran publisher David Rosenthal is a hive member, and his first book, Joni Mitchell’s Morning Glory on the Vine, was released last October. Other Rosenthal books set for the first half of 2020 are Final Draft: The Collected Work of David Carr, edited by Carr’s widow, Jill Rooney Carr, and Chasing the Light by Oliver Stone.
Science fiction editor and hive member John Joseph Adams, who has had an eponymous imprint at HMH since 2016, signed HMH’s big book for spring: Chosen Ones, the first adult novel by Divergent author Veronica Roth. Another productive hiver is author Kwame Alexander, who launched the Versify imprint last year as a part of the Young Readers Group. The first lists have been well received. And producer and new hive member Michael Sugar has hired Angela Ledgerwood as editorial director for his Sugar23 Books.
In terms of its book publishing program, Bruce Nichols, senior v-p, publisher of the company’s general interest publishing arm, said he has cut back a little on the number of titles he is doing in order to provide more focus to new and backlist books. Matt Schweitzer, senior v-p of marketing, explained that the HMH marketing team is applying more commercial and strategic promotional campaigns to get books in the hands of more readers. In 2020, the company will launch a number of initiatives to promote frontlist and backlist titles in book clubs and at retail, including the Book Club @ HMH and Revisit a Classic campaign featuring titles such as The Things They Carried and Wild Game.
HMH is also intent on expanding is its popular Little Blue Truck children’s franchise. The company backed the holiday launch of Good Night, Little Blue Truck with what it called its largest marketing campaign for that brand to date, including story-time events, influencer campaigns, and traditional and social media ads. The children’s group also saw the late 2019 launch of Etch, a young adult graphic novel imprint.
Archer said she is proud of HMH’s ability to react quickly to current events. In particular, she pointed to Impeach: The Case Against Donald Trump by Neal Katyal, which went on sale 30 days after HMH received the manuscript. Archer attributed the quick turnaround to the close working relationship the different departments have within the company.
HMH’s 2020 got off to a strong start, with The Defined Dish by Alex Snodgrass reaching #1 on PW’s January 13 hardcover nonfiction bestseller list. Defined Dish is part of HMH’s Whole30 line, which has been a mainstay of its list for several years.
The new year also saw HMH add two editors. Millicent Bennett joined the company as editorial director and reports to Nichols. Previously an executive editor at Grand Central Publishing, Bennett will oversee HMH’s fiction program and acquire and edit select fiction and nonfiction. Also new to HMH is Sarah Pelz, who is executive editor and reports to Deb Brody. Pelz will focus on acquiring lifestyle nonfiction.
Archer said HMH will continue to look for new partners and utilize new technologies to give its authors as many platforms as possible to reach readers, viewers, and, listeners.