What’s the difference between being the CEO of the largest publishing house in the world and the CEO of a startup with $15 million in funding?
Ownership. And pressure.
Ex-HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman, who is now running her own company explains: “I’ve always been entrepreneurial while still being able to type 90 words per minute without mistakes, but I never thought what it would be like to have a place that was just mine. We’re VC-backed but it’s mine. It rises and falls on these shoulders. It’s a daunting idea in abstract, but I must say, in reality it’s great.”
Her company, Open Road Integrated Media, set out 18-months ago to revolutionise the book industry by selling and marketing ebooks of backlist titles from authors such as Pat Conroy, Jack Higgins, and the Boxcar Children.
Friedman boasts an impressive track record and she is confident enough — her detractors would say arrogant — to think she knows how to run her new company best.
“I didn’t really want to hear from anybody else. I just wanted to try it,” she said. “I know content. I know authors. I know readers. And I know that the world wants everything to be convenient and low-priced.”
Open Road has an unusually experienced head (“You can’t be a startup with 40 years experience.”) and a medium (books) that doesn’t fall under the purvey of a usual startup, but the office on Varick St. certainly feels like one.
Young staffers hang photos of the company’s authors in the entryway. Apple computers are everywhere. The digital team edits beautifully crafted marketing videos designed to promote the books. The whiteboard walls in each office are covered with ideas written in a rainbow of colours. The energy is impressive.
Even Friedman herself, who will gladly tell you she invented the author tour, sounds refreshed and enthused by her surroundings.
“I always thought I ran a pretty relaxed shop, but it’s so different. I walk in the morning and I smile, and that’s a great feeling,” she said.
Friedman has been at the forefront of the transition to digital for 15 years. When she worked at Random House in 1994, she “put the line into the contract that said electronic versions.”
Open Road is just the next step.
Initially, the goal was to bring back the classics through smart marketing. Friedman saw a novel like Sophie’s Choice selling 5,000 copies per year – down more than 20-fold from two decades before – and thought there was an opportunity in the e-book format. In exchange for the e-rights, Open Road offered to use its proprietary marketing system to promote the books. The company splits revenue 50/50 with the authors after recouping an initial $400 digitization fee. After 60 downloads, authors begin to see money. Not a bad deal, especially considering it is essentially extra revenue that didn’t previously exist.
One of Open Road’s major promotional elements is the high-quality videos produced by Luke Parker Bowles and his team. On Monday afternoon, the EVP of production had 12 teams shooting footage around the world that would be turned into short videos and used for a variety of purposes. (A whiteboard in the office has a list of important days coming up in the future. August 13 is International Left Handers Day so they might release a video featuring all of Open Road’s left-handed authors.)
Another, albeit smaller, aspect of the company’s business model is the e-riginals, or original books Open Road publishes. They publish 12 per year, and one – Mary Glickman’s Home in the Morning – is already a massive success.
“We just sent the agent a check for $75,000,” Friedman said. “We have made a star. We optioned the movie rights. She has a second book due out in the fall. She’s going all over the country with the Jewish book fair network.”
If they can hit with one-third of the e-riginals – a target Friedman admits is ambitious – that can be a big part of the revenue stream.
Open Road will have plenty of challenges ahead, both with realising profitability and fighting off the larger competitors for the growing e-Book market. It faces competition from the big six publishers as well as companies including Amazon.com, Barnes and Nobles, and other big players in the book business.
So despite the early traction for Open Road, Friedman has a lot of work ahead of her.
But that’s one thing a startup CEO has in common with the CEO of a major publishing house: The work is never done.
On the left is Jack Taylor, post-production manager, and to the right is Danny Monico, director of digital entertainment.
They are working on Open Road produced videos
From bottom left to right: Samantha Goettlich, Allison Underwood, Justin Mitchell, Laura De Silva, Lauren Naefe
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