Jane Friedman on bringing books 'back to life'

Jane Friedman on bringing books 'back to life'

Jane Friedman’s most infectious laugh is reserved for jokes about herself: “I think I just told someone that I’ve sworn off speaking.”

Happily for The Bookseller, she has agreed to overlook that declaration to make an appearance on 4th December at the FutureBook Conference. Under the theme “Face out: Strategies That Work and Why”, she will comment as one of the most widely recognised trailblazers in the English-language industry.

She was the first female worldwide c.e.o. of a major publishing force, HarperCollins, from 1997 to 2008, but Friedman says she carefully deferred in the UK to Victoria Barnsley. “I wanted her to be the c.e.o. of the Commonwealth, as we say,” she recalls, “so I haven’t really done much speaking in London.”

Deep into a career that started in 1968 and spans what were arguably publishing’s most tumultuous decades, Friedman has a lot to say. After all, she is building what may become her most lasting legacy: a digitally eternal backlist for a worldwide readership. Her Open Road Integrated Media is best understood as a verb—a convincing demonstration of how to open a road; how to clear new digital territory for publishing into the future. Celebrating five years as the FutureBook Conference reaches its own fifth iteration, Open Road has become an acknowledged powerhouse, with that word “Integrated” a key. With close to 10,000 e-books in its catalogue by more than 2,000 authors, this is a living, commercial archive. Simply to list some of its most illustrious authors—Iris Murdoch, Mary Renault, William Styron, Pearl S Buck, Alice Walker, Pat Conroy, Dorothy L Sayers, and on and on—doesn’t get at the “integration” of a programme operated by more than 50 employees and meant not only to preserve and promote, but also to illuminate that list.

However, you will be disappointed if you expect Friedman to arrive at FutureBook singing the book electric without overtones from a career mapped across years with Random House as well as HC, before she leapt into the digital future with Open Road. “There’s a co-existence that’s essential,” she says from her office in New York. “Essential.”

“I have at home a 10,000-book library because when you spend 29 years at Knopf and 11 at Harper, you have a few books. And I wouldn’t trade those for a digital library. But do I have a digital library, too? Of course. And the younger generation will still have physical books. But they will also have an even larger digital library.”

What makes Friedman’s commentary on digital publishing so potent is that her career trajectory seems so traditional. As she puts it: “I am the quintessential publishing person. I grew up at Knopf where I realised the everlasting value of a really good book. You know what they say, that [Knopf Doubleday chairman] Sonny Mehta runs the most closeted bestselling publishing company in the world, which is true because it never talks of ‘bestsellers’. So I grew up on ‘literature’. As my career evolved at Knopf, I took over Vintage. People think of Vintage as being the quintessential trade paperback house. But when Sonny and I took it over, it really wasn’t. It was just six pages in the back of the Random House catalogue. Nobody was paying attention to backlist and trade paperbacks. But it completely ingrained in me my desire to continue to sell books that are in ‘my canon’. I won’t say ‘the canon’, I’ll say ‘my canon’.”

As she matured in her professional understanding of books, Friedman was finding backlist increasingly important. “I started the audiobook business for the industry in 1985—audio preceded Vintage by a couple of years, because Sonny came in for Vintage in 1987. So there I was, doing backlist audio, taking the best of the audio and putting that out. In the beginning, all Barnes & Noble would give me for audio was a single shelf at the back of the store. But I’ve always thought that audio would be a big business. Now it’s a huge, healthy, forever business, based on the fact that people like to be read to. Which is exactly why we started it.”

“Fast-forward, I go to Harper which is bleeding, no profit, and the first thing I say I’ll do is...backlist.” She describes getting a lot of funny looks from people but making revenues “jump 30% almost immediately” with Harper Perennial. Thus, she comprehended the promise of a digital future in terms of a good backlist’s potential. “I drank the Kool-Aid very early on digital because I kept hearing about carrying your entire library around with you. It wasn’t until 1994 that Random House put into its contracts the words ‘electronic rights’—and even then, it had to do only with CD-ROM, it had nothing to do with e-books. But before 1994, those rights weren’t exercised, they weren’t in contracts. Because my background had all those authors from Knopf, Vintage, Harper, I went and seized those rights. For me, it became a self-fulfilling prophesy.

“Of course the arrival of the Kindle was a very big part of this.” Friedman saw the advent of Amazon’s e-reading and sales system as a signal that a digital readership would become fully viable. “I knew I could put these books in front of the public. But what became clear to me was that I had to acquire volume. I had to go out and acquire catalogues. In our ‘author-branded backlists’, which is what we called our first category, it was basically literature.”

By expanding into genres as the Kindle and e-reading gained traction, Open Road was able to get to what Friedman says “is now 9,100 titles. I felt that this was going to be a volume business. And I know that there were people who absolutely doubted it. People said, ‘You can’t sell backlist out of bookstores—so how can you sell backlist online if people aren’t reading online?’ Everybody threw every kind of verbal obstacle in front of me. But everybody wanted to work with us—that was the beauty of it. Agents just came on board. And that goes back to relationships. Ed Victor immediately worked with us, for example.

“My great friends, during those years, really thought that if anyone could pull this off, it would be me. Which was flattering. But nobody really knew if it was possible. I always believed I could send a cheque to a widow who hadn’t seen a penny in 20 years. That was my goal. With investors, maybe I shouldn’t say this, but while my goal was to make a company successful, my real goal was to bring books back to life, books I felt the next generation should be reading.”

With a 50-50 split with authors and more than $20m in investment funding, Friedman and her team are, as Steven Bertoni wrote for Forbes, “finding new readers (and new revenue) for old books”. Friedman, however, is also thinking of publishing commentator Mike Shatzkin’s piece; she describes him writing: “Open Road discovered backlist and now so has everybody else.” And with the major publishers still so focused on frontlist, there is little to suggest they will mount a credible retort to Open Road on the basis of backlist—but they might hang on to what they have.

There may be qualms in some quarters about Open Road’s ability to continue pulling in backlist on the scale it needs. For her part, Friedman is sounding no alarms: “We are certainly not at saturation point in terms of acquisition.” But achieving the acquisitions needed to advance? “Shortly after [FutureBook],” she says, “we are going to do a story on what we call ‘iconics’, the books that are still not ‘up for acquisition’ and the crime of keeping these books hostage over the royalty or whatever. There are certainly fewer titles available than when we made up a list and went out and acquired. So for us, it goes back to being smart marketers. How do you uncover the audience and give them what they want? That has to do with community, something we have practiced all our lives as people in publishing and marketing.

“The biggest problem is making sure that we bring new audiences to our works, and our works are older works . . . We live today in a world of 24/7 news and if you’re not in the news, it’s hard to break through the noise. But the fact is that we have figured out ways to do that, and social media has been very helpful. Not the buzzword ‘social media’, but actually using social media, as in really finding the audience, the direct audience, and giving them what they want, in the format they want it, in the size they want it.

“So if I stay in backlist, which I have all intentions of doing, then does the backlist run out? No, it doesn’t. But it is harder to find the authors whose books are still available. We had a five-and-a-half-year head start on figuring all this out. The publishers who sat back and thought they could do this with backlist are now saying, ‘Well it’s not really brain surgery’. And no, it’s not brain surgery. There are publishers who are going to do some of what we do, but we have established our reputation by really doing well by our authors. Of course we would like to make some money, and that is harder as prices come down. I do think we have to get prices up again.”

Finding audiences and growing the readership will be the goal of a new strategy that has seen Open Road hire Paul Slavin, who rose to senior vice-president at Disney’s ABC News, and was executive vice-president and chief operating officer with medical advice site EverydayHealth.com. There is not, she cautions, a problem of people playing video games rather than reading, nor being carried off by television. If someone wants to read, she says, they will do it in addition to other pastimes. No, the road Friedman wants opened leads directly to the consumer who is happy to read but hasn’t yet put their hand on the right e-book. “It’s hard to make a reader,” she says. “But if somebody has any inclination, if you just give them what they want to read, you’ll be in good shape.”

After five years, is Open Road Integrated Media profitable? “No. I would say we’re chasing profitability.”There’s that laugh again, so full of chutzpah. “We are close. I love to say we are a ‘pre-profit company’.”

The FutureBook Conference takes place on 4th December at the Mermaid Theatre, London. For more information or early bird tickets, click here.