Harper-Collins CEO Brian Murray: Bullish on Books

Brian Murray, CEO and President of HarperCollins, speaks to students
Brian Murray, CEO and President of HarperCollins, speaks to NYU SPI students.

In his keynote address opening the book session of the NYU Summer Publishing Institute, Brian Murray, President and Chief Executive Officer of HarperCollins Publishers, assuaged our frantic, job-desiring minds. “Depending on what you read and when you read it, you’ll see a whole lot of headlines telling us about publishing is dead,” said Murray. It depends on who is writing these negative stories, he added. Some might have an agenda behind them, or be based on misinterpreted facts. “But for every one of these articles saying publishing is dead, there’s one saying that big publishing companies are doing great,” Murray noted. “I actually think it is an extremely exhilarating time to be in publishing. From where I sit, looking at all these different markets and all the different publishing we do, I don’t think it’s ever been as exciting or as dynamic as right now.”

Considering the 60 branded imprints and 3,000 books HarperCollins produces annually, as well as its growth and expansion (the company acquired Thomas Nelson in 2011 and has announced its intention to purchase the internationally successful romance publisher, Harlequin), I think we can take his opinion as a truth.

Walking us through the state of publishing, past and present, Murray explained that from the consumer’s viewpoint, with ebooks in your purse and pocket and multiple price points, access to a writer’s works is stronger than ever. The biggest problem? “Too much to read,” he said with a smile. From the author’s vantage point, he added, there are also more choices than ever, more platforms and ways to reach an audience, including self-publishing. Murray said that HarperCollins itself, the second largest English-language consumer publisher in the world, is doing well because of the company’s ability to be flexible and grow upward as well as outward.

Their strategy includes investing in fiction, children’s publishing, and religion; driving growth through digital transformation; expanding internationally; and improving efficiencies in its core print business. This has resulted in $1.4 billion in revenue in fiscal year 2013 and more than 200 bestsellers. “The key trends are digitization and globalization, and both of these are really helping publishers and authors,” Murray said. Explaining to us the challenges of international publishing back in the print-only era, he noted that it was once impossible to predict how many books to export to retailers around the globe; books were expensive to ship, raising the price in the marketplace. But with ebooks, the shipping costs go away, permitting publishers to price books far more fairly in global markets.

Overall, Murray was enthusiastic about the power of ebooks to redefine an industry, creating economies of scale and increasing profit margins. HarperCollins’ own bottom line has been helped by ebooks, which now represent 21% of total revenue. (Five years ago, ebooks constituted only 5% of revenue).

Listening to Murray patiently spell out for us the realities of the industry, we got the sense that reaching and engaging readers (that “discovery” problem we keep hearing about!) continues to be a challenge, but have no fear. As HarperCollins’ CEO reassured us, book publishing is here to stay. Our job-desiring minds are more desirous than ever of positions in publishing.

by Natalie Harms

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