Business profile: Simon Johnson, HarperCollins group m.d.

Business profile: Simon Johnson, HarperCollins group m.d.

It only takes a glance at HarperCollins group m.d. Simon Johnson’s neatly curated shelves, stacked high with copies of J R R Tolkien and George R R Martin, to know what he likes to read. He shrugs, semi-apologetically: “I’m a maths graduate.”

Maths was Johnson’s first career too, spanning into several years at Goldman Sachs as both a quantitative analyst and a derivatives trader, before he decided his heart lay elsewhere. “I enjoyed it, it was a fast-moving environment, very entrepreneurial, but I had no attachment to the products, and my values didn’t really align. I wanted to move towards what I loved, which was media.”

While gaining an MBA, Johnson set up a TV and theatre production company, worked at a digital films start-up, and helped with marketing and strategy at the National Theatre, but a chance encounter with HC c.e.o. Victoria Barnsley soon nudged him towards publishing: “Various business leaders came to address our course, and Vicky was one of them. She was speaking about e-books at a time when they hadn’t really happened yet, and was a bit of a lone voice talking about how they would change the business.”

Upon his arrival at HC in 2007, Johnson realised that the digital “disruption” which lay ahead was just what he wanted to tackle. “My thinking in 2007 was that publishing was an exciting place to be because it was on the cusp of digital but it hadn’t happened yet, so there was an opportunity to explore that.” A raft of new faces at HC’s Hammersmith offices—such as last year’s appointment of Nick Perrett to head digital initiatives—have helped with the exploration, but Johnson insists editorial remains at the heart of the business.

“The most important people are the publishers, the editorial staff,” he says. “Ultimately they have the connection with the authors, and we are defined by those relationships. Publishers aren’t going to be staffed entirely by mathematicians and technologists, but there’s a balance. You do need those people to look at marketing and pricing and strategy.”

When he first arrived at HC, he said he wanted to make sure digital was “everyone’s role—it should be part of the day job”. The approach seems to be working. “In digital, the market information isn’t as good as in physical, but if you have smart mathematicians you can derive good information from what’s available, and we’re very happy. Even though our market value in physical is going through the roof, in digital, we’re doing even better. If you strip E L James out, we’re bigger than Random House in digital, and not far behind Hachette, which are much bigger publishing organisations.”

He attributes part of the success to strategies such as pricing: “Pricing is a key component of what we do and part of what we offer to authors. We’re in the business of creating long-term value for our authors, and pricing is key to doing that. We have price points changing regularly, there’s linkages between pricing and marketing—it’s quite proprietary. It’s a key lever, but it’s not the only lever. We don’t just have a pricing team that sits in the middle and moves things up and down, it’s a joint decision with sales and editorial.”

But he insists: “We’re not stripping out resources to chase the digital pound. In the last three years our print sales have been pretty constant while the market has declined. It’s still the majority of what we do. I can’t see a place where there aren’t amazing print books. I don’t think it’s an either/or scenario. I think it’s an ecosystem.”