Thursday, January 01, 2009

An answer to the Chicken Little atmosphere in publishing.

I have one reply to the gloom surrounding the acquisitions freeze at Harcourt and the Random House reorganization: consider the example of Harper & Brothers (some of the Harper siblings can be seen at left, taken by Matthew Brady bet. 1855 and 1865).

As the twentieth century approached, Harper & Brothers had published the Brontë sisters, Richard Henry Dana (author of Two Years Before the Mast), Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Washington Irving, Thomas Babington Macaulay, Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, William Makepeace Thackeray, Mark Twain, and Gen. Lew Wallace (author of Ben-Hur).

An instructive timeline:
Mar. 1817: J & J Harper founded by James and John Harper.

1833: Name changed to Harper & Brothers when Joseph, Wesley, and Fletcher Harper join firm.

Dec. 1853: Harper & Brothers premises in New York are destroyed by fire; damages are estimated at $1 million, with only $250,000 covered by insurance.

1854: The offices of printers to whom Harper & Brothers farmed out printing burn; plates for various books are wiped out.

1855: The Harper brothers open rebuilt facilities that are considered an architectural and technological marvel at the time.

1899: Harper & Brothers goes bankrupt. Says William Dean Howells, whose Rise of Silas Lapham was published by Harper & Brothers: “It was as if I had read that the government of the United States had failed” (qtd. in Strouse, Morgan: American Financier 366).

J. P. Morgan gives nearly $2.5 million to keep the firm afloat. Firm leaves Harper family. Col. George Harvey, who previously served as managing editor of Joseph Pulitzer’s World, is appointed manager of the firm.

1902: Harper & Brothers publishes Woodrow Wilson's five-volume A History of the American People.

1903: Harper & Brothers publishes Henry James's The Ambassadors.

1912: Harper & Brothers publishes Zane Grey's Riders of the Purple Sage.

1913: Harper's Bazar sold to William Randolph Hearst.

1917: Harper & Brothers publishes Edna St. Vincent Millay's Renascence and Other Poems.

1934: Harper & Brothers publishes Thomas Wolfe's You Can't Go Home Again.

1940: Harper & Brothers publishes Richard Wright's Native Son.

1946: Harper & Brothers hires editor (and eventual mystery legend) Joan Kahn.

1947: Harper & Brothers publishes Margaret Wise Brown's Goodnight Moon.

1949: Harper & Brothers publishes John Dickson Carr's The Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

1950: Harper & Brothers publishes Patricia Highsmith's Strangers on a Train.

1955: Harper & Brothers publishes John F. Kennedy's Profiles in Courage.

1962: Harper & Brothers merges with Row, Peterson & Co.; firm becomes Harper & Row.

1970: Harper & Row publishes Tony Hillerman's The Blessing Way.

1978: Harper & Row acquires J. B. Lippincott (latter est. 1792).

1980: Harper's Magazine taken over by John R. MacArthur and the Harper's Magazine Foundation.

1987: Rupert Murdoch acquires Harper & Row.

1988: Harper & Row acquires Christian publisher Zondervan.

1989: Harper & Row acquires textbook publisher Scott, Foresman.

1990: Harper & Row merges with UK publisher William Collins (which publishes Christie, Tolkien, and Wells) to become HarperCollins; sells Lippincott to Wolters Kluwer.

1993: HarperCollins publishes Lisa Scottoline's Everywhere That Mary Went.

1994: HarperCollins acquires scholarly publisher Westview Press.

1999: HarperCollins acquires William Morrow and Avon from Hearst Corp.; Ecco Press from Daniel Halpern.

2006: C. S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia makes $104 million in one quarter for HarperCollins.

Apr. 2008: HarperCollins announces plan to substitute profit-sharing for author advances and intention to eliminate returns.

June 2008: CEO Jane Friedman leaves HarperCollins.

Nov. 2008: Publishers Weekly reports that HarperCollins' first-quarter revenue drops from $330 million to $315 million.
In sum, on the eve of the twentieth century, Harper & Brothers was poised on the brink of oblivion. As can be seen in this brief example, however, there were many, overwhelmingly better things to come.

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