HarperCollins Publishers History

10 East 53rd Street
New York, New York 10022

Telephone: (212) 207-2000
Fax: (212) 207-7065

Private Company
Founded: 1817
Employees: 2800 (1994)
Sales: $1.09 billion (1995)
SICs: 2731 Book Publishing & Printing

Company History:

For nearly 170 years the Harper name has been synonymous with the printed word, having cradled American publishing from its infancy to world dominance in the 20th century. A variation of "Harper" has adorned the pages of a wide selection of materials, from hand-bound editions of the classics to textbooks for all ages, and from today's hardcover and paperback bestsellers to the firm's popular magazines launched in the second half of the 19th century (Harper's Magazine, Harper's Weekly, and Harper's Bazar). Harper publishing not only served as the backbone of the printed word's emergence in the United States--making Conan Doyle, Thackeray, the Bronte sisters, Melville, Henry James, and Mark Twain household names--but shaped the minds of generations of readers with the Harper brothers' precision and prescience in selecting books of abiding value. As the 1990s came to a close, HarperCollins had become one of the largest English-language publishers in the world as part of the vast News Corporation Limited.

In 1817, 22-year-old James Harper and his brother John, then age 20, founded the printing firm of J. & J. Harper in New York City. With a burgeoning population of 120,000, New York was the perfect backdrop for the brothers' ambition, which was to produce and market books of a quality derived from expert printing practices and exceptional writing, as "no works will be published by J. & J. Harper but such as are interesting, instructive, and moral." The brothers' first job was to print 2,000 copies of Seneca's Morals for a bookseller named Evert Duyckinck. After completing the project (with the help of their two younger brothers, Wesley and Fletcher), the elder Harpers filled a second order for Duyckinck. They then decided to print their own edition of Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, and Harper publishing was born. Promising to print booksellers' names on the title page, the Harpers acquired enough commissions to buy more equipment, expand operations and relocate twice (both suffered damages by fire) before settling at 82 Cliff Street in 1825.

Moving to Cliff Street signified a new era for the Harpers, as all four brothers were now involved in the firm. Wesley had bought into the business in 1823 and Fletcher in 1825, for $500 apiece. In the preceding years, the brothers had learned several important lessons: to keep books both in print and in stock; to produce better quality yet less expensive editions than the competition; and to be the first ones on the dock when ships came into harbor. Since there were no international copyright laws at the time, aspiring publishers haunted the docks for the latest proofs from Great Britain to rush them into print before competing firms. The Harpers became so adept at the practice, they often had a new American edition on the streets within 24 hours.

By the 1830s the Harpers' reputation for excellence made them the largest printing firm in the country, and the brothers continued to bring new and important authors into America both in general and textbook form. In 1832, Swiss Family Robinson by Johann Rudolf Wyss was issued as part of Harper's Boy's and Girl's Library, an offshoot of the firm's popular Family Library. The following year, 1833, a revolutionary steam printing press was installed and the company changed its name to Harper & Brothers to recognize the efforts of Wesley and Fletcher. Two years later, Fletcher drafted one of the earliest known contracts between an American publisher and British author Lord Bulwer-Lytton, whose The Last Days of Pompeii, Rienzi, and The Last of the Barons were Harper bestsellers, and the firm launched a textbook series by Charles Anthon of Columbia College.

The next decade brought more bestsellers for the Harper imprint, including Dana's Two Years Before the Mast, the abridged Webster's Dictionary, and a contract to supply the N.Y. state school system. It also brought greater competition, with rivals even breaking into the firm's bindery to steal copies of forthcoming titles. In April 1844, while the firm's largest project, Harper's Illustrated and New Pictorial Bible, was readied for publication, James Harper was elected Mayor of New York City. The late 1840s brought the publication of Thackeray's Vanity Fair, as well as Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights by the Bronte sisters. The latter title caused a considerable stir because of its "obscene" language. One Boston bookseller even returned copies, refusing to stock such profane writing.

The debut of a new publishing venue arrived with Harper's New Monthly Magazine in June 1850, created by James and then run by Fletcher. A chapter from Herman Melville's new book appeared in the October 1851 issue of Harper's to publicize the November issuance of Moby Dick, which gained neither the critical respect nor the popularity it deserved until well into the next century. By December 1853 the Harpers ran 41 presses ten hours a day, six days a week, averaging 25 volumes per minute, producing an income of about $2 million from sales. But on December tenth, 1853, the Harpers faced their third battle with fire. Everything in the Cliff Street operation was destroyed, save a few piles of papers and some printing plates worth $400,000 that were locked in an underground vault. Damages were in excess of $1 million, with only 20 percent covered by insurance. By the end of the day the Harpers announced they would rebuild. Telegrams and contributions poured in from around the country. The result was two new buildings constructed from wrought-iron beams and trusses (deemed fireproof) opening onto Franklin Square, completed by mid-1855.

Harper's Weekly, Fletcher's "Journal of Civilization," began publication in 1857 with top notch illustrations and a wide range of subjects, which became increasingly political in nature. In the 1860s and 1870s publishers dipped to new lows in competitive pricing, forcing many to go under. While Harpers lost money on many of its titles, the company survived and even launched its third periodical, Harper's Bazar (later Bazaar), in November of 1867. On Easter Sunday in 1869, after injuries suffered when he was thrown from his carriage, James Harper died. Less than a year later, Wesley died on Valentine's Day, 1870. His fate was followed by the deaths of John (April, 1875) and Fletcher (May 1877). As if in tribute, a Latin edition of Seneca's Morals, the first book printed by the optimistic James and John, was issued just days before Fletcher's death. It marked the end of an era. While the four brothers had remained involved in the family business, however, five second-generation sons and many third-generation Harpers had been running the firm for many years.

The last 20 years of the 19th century were marked with several highs and devastating lows. High points included the publication of Lew Wallace's Ben-Hur (1880) and the signing of an exclusive contract with Samuel Clemens for his Twain books (1895). The lowest point was Harper's fall into receivership in December 1899. Though Harper & Brothers had been reorganized as a stock company in 1896 with the financial help of J.P. Morgan, profits hadn't rallied and debts mounted. Unable to meet interest payments, Harper was first taken over by S.S. McClure, part of Doubleday & McClure, then by Colonel George Harvey, who initiated a complete reorganization of the firm on February 17, 1900. Harvey installed himself as president with the blessing of Morgan, other creditors, and the few Harpers still left.

Within 15 years Colonel Harvey had restored Harper's tattered image with lavish banquets attended by statesmen (President Taft attended one in 1912), distinguished authors, and New York City's illuminate. Though Harper's Bazar had been sold to William Randolph Hearst in 1913, little of Harper's debt had been alleviated. In May of 1915 Harvey resigned and C.T. Brainard took control with the help of two vice-presidents; Thomas Wells and Henry Hoyns (who began as a clerk with the firm in 1884). Yet Brainard's style was the opposite of the flashy Harvey, and though debt was slashed, many important authors (including Joseph Conrad, Theodore Dreiser, and Sinclair Lewis) abandoned the firm. In 1916 the second of the firm's periodicals, Harper's Weekly, was bought out by the Independent. To celebrate Harper's centennial in 1917, gold-embossed cards were sent to publishers and authors worldwide, and the 118-page The Harper Centennial 1817-1917 was compiled, with President Woodrow Wilson's letter of congratulations given prime space.

Publishing from the onset of World War I provided many milestones for the venerable firm. In 1923, the Franklin Square operations were deeded to the Morgan Company for $400,000 and Harper moved to 49 East 33rd Street (another building was added in 1930). The company then issued preferred stock to Morgan and an additional 25,000 shares of common stock to raise capital. In 1925 a book editor named Eugene F. Saxon joined Harper and set a new precedent for quality literature. Among the writers he signed were E.M. Delafield, Lloyd Douglas, Julian Green, Richard Hughes, Aldous Huxley, Anne Parrish, J.B. Priestly, James Thurber, and E.B. White. Despite the Depression and low sales, the 1930s brought several unknown authors to Harper with spectacular results. Those writers included Louis Bromfield, John Gunther (Inside Europe and subsequent series), Betty Smith (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn), Thornton Wilder, and Thomas Wolfe.

By 1937 the book selling industry had recovered. As WWII wound down, Harper had lost Henry Hoyns (then Chairman of the Board) after 61 years of unflagging service. Wilder's The Ides of March was a sensation, as were Gwendolyn Brooks' Annie Allen (which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1950), and Kennedy's Profiles in Courage (which first appeared in Harper's Magazine in 1956 and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1957). In April of 1962, Harper & Brothers merged with Row, Peterson & Company, an Illinois textbook firm, and became Harper & Row Publishers, Inc. The next year President Kennedy was assassinated and several months later, at the request of Robert Kennedy, Harper agreed to publish William Manchester's Death of a President with the bulk of the profits going to the Kennedy Library. Unfortunately, a series of problems arose over certain passages in the book. After a protracted legal battle, the book finally appeared in April, 1967.

For the next two decades, Harper & Row broadened its scope considerably through the acquisition of T.Y Crowell (1977), J.B. Lippincott (1978), Zondervan Books (1988) and Scott, Foresman (1989). In the midst of this expansion, Harper listed with the New York Stock Exchange in 1983. Then, Harper itself was acquired in March of 1987 by the Rupert Murdoch's conglomerate, the News Corporation Limited, for $300 million. The next several years were marked by transition under the direction of George Craig, chief executive of all the News Corp.'s publishing enterprises. In 1990, Harper began a new line of paperbacks, then was merged with the U.K.'s William Collins & Sons to form HarperCollins, an international publishing firm that the News Corporation hoped to make the largest English-language publisher in the world. Then came the sale of J.B. Lippincott, followed by the merger of the Edinburgh-based Bartholomew with Times Books, and the reorganization of Harper's six West Coast operations into the HarperCollins San Francisco Group.

By fiscal year 1994 (ending June 30), HarperCollins had reached worldwide revenue of $1.059 billion. That figure climbed over ten percent to $1.097 billion in 1995, helped in part by the acquisition of Westview Press, an academic and trade publisher in Colorado, and the launch of two Spanish-language imprints; Harper Arco Iris for children and Harper Libros for adults. While sales remained flat for HarperCollins U.K., Zondervan's evangelical book sales finished the year up 21 percent, Harper Audio climbed 26 percent, adult trade was up 11 percent, and the children's division increased revenue by 25 percent with new releases of C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia and the ever-popular Little House on the Prairie series.

Early 1996 brought more change when HarperCollins announced the sale of its elementary and high school publisher, Scott, Foresman, and its college division, which accounted for combined revenues of $317 million in fiscal year 1995. Proceeds from the March sale were slated to augment Zondervan's general books line. Another transition was the departure of George Craig and the appointment of Anthea Disney, a News Corp. executive, as president and chief executive, effective in April.

Principal Subsidiaries: HarperCollins Publishers Limited (U.K.); Zondervan Corporation

Principal Divisions: HarperCollins Adult Trade; Harper Business; Harper Paperbacks; Harper Audio; HarperCollins Children's Books; HarperCollins Interactive; HarperCollins San Francisco

Further Reading:

  • Baker, John F., "HarperCollins Reports 10% Sales gain in 1995; Profits Up Slightly," Publishers Weekly, August 28, 1995, p. 24.
  • "Craig to Head All Murdoch Book Business," Publishers Weekly, February 3, 1989, pp. 10-11.
  • Exman, Eugene, The Brothers Harper, New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1965.
  • ------, House of Harper: One Hundred and Fifty Years of Publishing, New York: Harper & Row, 1967.
  • "HarperCollins Combines West Coast Companies," Publishers Weekly, November 2, 1992, p. 9.
  • "HarperCollins Launches Spanish Imprint," Publishers Weekly, March 6, 1995, p. 28.
  • Milliot, James, "HarperCollins to Acquire Westview," Publishers Weekly, January 2, 1995, p. 28.
  • ------, "HarperCollins to Sell U.S. Education Units," Publishers Weekly, December 4, 1995, p. 10.
  • "Murdoch Makes it to a New League," Fortune, April 27, 1987, p. 8.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 15. St. James Press, 1996.