By Alex Hedley, New Zealand Publisher, HarperCollins
I’m just shy of six months into my role as the publisher at HarperCollins New Zealand, and it’s already been one heck of a ride. Much smaller in New Zealand than Penguin Random House, the company I left, HarperCollins has a strangely familiar ‘indie’ vibe to it. It has the kind of agile, fleet-footed and creative ability of the book businesses I began my career with.
I sit next to our digital marketing exec Kelly Bold, opposite marketing communication manager Sandra Noakes, across the room from our key accounts manager Teresa Garnett, sales support co-ordinator Kathryn Moffitt and sales manager Matthew Simpson. While I’ve always had plenty to do with sales, marketing and publicity as a commissioning editor and publisher, it’s quite a different thing to see how they operate on a daily basis. I share and witness their wins and struggles, strategies and solutions – such invaluable learnings for me as a publisher. A big part of the reason I came to HarperCollins was to get a more holistic understanding of the publishing machine. Larger publishing houses tend to operate in departmental silos. This has its advantages, especially when you’re cutting your teeth and wanting to focus on the process of making the books… but it also has significant drawbacks.
One of the greatest joys of working in the same space as the sales and marketing team for the international list is sharing the buzz around new titles coming through from imprints like 4th Estate, Head of Zeus, Apollo, William Collins, Harper Design and Harper USA. Getting a sense of the international trends early is a fantastic insight, not least for packaging inspiration for our local titles.
One of my first jobs as the new publisher was to write the history of HarperCollins in New Zealand, as part of the 200-year celebrations of HarperCollins internationally. The original Harper Brothers Company was established in New York in 1817 and over the years published the works of Mark Twain, the Bronte sisters, Thackeray, Dickens, John F Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. In New Zealand the company was established in 1888 as a division of the UK’s William Collins, making us the oldest continuously operating local publisher in New Zealand. It’s a remarkable coincidence that I’m also helping celebrate the 110th year of my family’s bookshop in Masterton, founded in 1907, the oldest book business continuously owned and operated by one family in New Zealand.
Last week my father David sent me an anecdote from my grandfather Alex’s diary, about a book that, in his words, ‘started him as a bookseller’. It was a Collins title called Reach for the Sky about Douglas Bader, a Second World War air ace who lost his legs but returned to fly in war combat with artificial limbs. He was shot down over Europe, taken prisoner, and made numerous escape attempts with indomitable spirit. As my grandfather Alex said in his diary: ‘It had everything from courage and flair to human interest. I indented heavily, took a risk and was the only bookseller in New Zealand with copies when the demand was on. I had a ball, with people ringing me from all over New Zealand. Eventually I sold them all and started to make my name. This was the first time I sold over 100 copies of a book.’
In writing company profiles we often focus on the successes. While we don’t hear about them as often, just as important are the failures, the setbacks and the lean times. Looking back over what these two businesses have had to overcome to stay afloat – two world wars; the Great Depression; the advent of commercial radio and television; the new world order of retail; the Kindle; iPads – to see both companies still striding ahead in 2017 should give the New Zealand book industry tremendous confidence. I believe at the core of both businesses is a passion for quality books, and the wherewithal to take risks when the timing is right.
In some ways, the most significant accomplishment of my time at HarperCollins so far has been our local publishing vision document. We’ve worked hard at this and believe it will serve as a guideline for everything we do going forward. At its core is the intention to publish books that are ‘surprising, original and quality’.
At HarperCollins, looking ahead, we’re going to take a few risks, and while we’ll celebrate this hugely significant anniversary, we certainly won’t always look to the past to define our future. Without taking risks, and without being bold, we’ll surely live up to the epithet, ‘sunset industry’. But if we’re creative, original and courageous, we will continue to surprise our critics and delight our readers.
Photo credit Tom Donald