Jane Friedman was known as the Queen of the Backlist during her publishing days at Random House and HarperCollins
In the past six years as CEO of Open Road Integrated Media, she has made more than 10,000 titles by more than 2,000 authors available in digital form.
Let’s just say she’s now Queen of the E-Backlist, and like many queens, she is outspoken—saying that the Big Five publishers have hurt their ebook sales by keeping prices too high.
“The Big 5 have had a little difficulty,” Friedman told me. “My opinion? They raised the prices too high. That’s my opinion. I’m not running a Big 5 now. I don’t know the circumstances. But that’s my opinion.”
I interviewed her for this week’s Kindle Chronicles podcast. “It’s been quite a ride,” she said. “It is, in my opinion, ‘Mission Accomplished.’”
“I had always had the mission and the vision of bringing the greats back to life in a format that was convenient and somewhat inexpensive,” she said, “and with the right kind of marketing I felt I could recreate a time of the past and bring it to the present.”
That is the mission she and her team at Open Road have accomplished as Friedman takes on her new role as Chairman and Executive Publisher at Open Road. Paul Slavin, whom she hired in September as President, was named CEO on May 31.
Friedman will continue to work at adding great backlist titles to the company’s digital offerings.
“There’s a lot left to do,” she told me during a 30-minute telephone interview recorded from her home on June 21st. “The truth is that every day we find other books available and other authors are revealed to us. We are sometimes shocked that the books haven’t surfaced until now.”
Open Road has recently published ebooks by the late British author Allan Silitoe, whose works include The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner. One of the company’s biggest successes so far has been Pearl S. Buck (1892-1973), whose novels have generated more than $1 million in revenue for Open Road.
There are still a few big-name authors whose work is not available in digital form, Friedman said. They include Graham Greene and J.D. Salinger.
The Open Road chairman did not reveal other backlist work she is currently seeking, but she did say her team has a white board with the names of authors “we have been pursuing for a very, very long time.” The work of obtaining digital rights to books is made more difficult by the complexity of family relationships among estate holders, she said.
“There are children, there are ex-wives, there are in-laws, there are uncles and aunts,” Friedman said. “So a lot of it really just takes time.”
As for the time it will take for ebooks to find their place in the world of reading, Friedman said the format is following an established pattern for technological breakthroughs.
In 1985 Random House was the first book publisher to launch an audiobooks division, Random House Audio Publishing, and Jane Friedman was its president.
“I’ll never forget Barnes and Noble, when I went to talk with them myself about audiobooks, it was so new,” she recalled. “They wound up giving me a half of one shelf for my audiobooks, and at that point the audiobooks were by Michener and Gore Vidal and Truman Capote, because I had access to Random House’s great backlist. I laughed and said, ‘Oh, you’re going to be sorry you’re only giving me a half a shelf,’ and they said, ‘Oh, people are saying it’s the hot new thing, but we don’t know.’”
Audiobooks today are a billion-dollar business.
As CEO of HarperCollins, Friedman was also an early believer in ebooks, but she never thought they would destroy print, reaching 80 percent of the market or some other totally dominating share.
She said, “I thought it would have its day in the sun, which it did, when everybody was running out to buy his or her device, but that it would level off at a nice—I think, still—a nice 50 percent of the market.” The latest report she has seen puts the ebook share of trade book sales in the U.S. at 37 percent. She thinks that will continue to grow.
Open Road’s ebook sales have continued to grow even while the Big 5 publishers have not enjoyed the same increases, due to charging too much.
Although Open Road “has cracked the marketing code” enabling it to sell more eBooks this year than last, the company has yet to generate a profit for its venture capital investors, who have put nearly $30 million into the business.
Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg in The Wall Street Journal reported that Slavin, the new CEO, “is expected to intensify its e-commerce efforts and other new revenue-generating opportunities.”
Those initiatives include Open Road’s EarlyBirdBooks.com daily deals newsletter and The Lineup, its site for original and aggregated true crime content. Friedman said the company will probably initiate another community site very shortly, but she did not identify the genre.
For her part, the chairman plans an active role convening monthly telephone board meetings and quarterly in-person meetings, as well as passing along a constant flow of ideas for Open Road.
“The other day I spat out a statement that I won’t do, because we’re on the air,” she told me at the end of the interview. “It was something that I want to do next, and somebody said, ‘You know, Jane, you’ve never run from a challenge.’ And I think that’s how I would like to be known.”
I’d say Jane Friedman has already established that reputation. I have put a tickler on my calendar to ping her in about six months to see if she will be able then to reveal her new project and how it’s going.
Open Road’s chairman has proven that her vision for the book industry is clearer than most, so I plan to keep in touch with her for future conversations on the Kindle Chronicles. Stay tuned!