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Lunch at The Four Seasons with Jane Friedman

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-08-22

Jane Friedman confesses that she's a cheerful soul. But 5,000 times each year, she needs to be especially cheery.

That's because her global company, HarperCollins Publishers, brings out some 5,000 books annually through its various imprints in America and elsewhere. As CEO, Ms. Friedman must not only run the company but also be the cheerleader for every title. After all, those books fetched revenues of more than $1.3 billion for the last two years.

Those revenues are steadily growing, even at a time that the $23.7 billion publishing industry in America is generally experiencing sluggish sales.

Indeed, in the last eight years since she left a high-profile job at Random House to move to HarperCollins, its profits have increased by an astonishing 1,000%. Not only is Ms. Friedman the only woman CEO of a global publishing house, she's arguably the industry's most successful executive.

"If I know anything, it's how to publish books," Ms. Friedman said. "I've been doing that, one way or another, since college."

Actually, even before that. While her high-school classmates in suburban Hewlett, Long Island, scrambled to get summer jobs as camp counselors, Ms. Friedman eyed - and obtained - stints at companies in Manhattan. Then at New York University, where she majored in English, Ms. Friedman began focusing on publishing as a career - even though her last summer job during college was at a financial company.

"I was always good at numbers," she said.

She might have added that she was born with printer's ink in her blood. Her father, Bert Lippman, was a graphic artist. He, with her mother Ruth, one of New York original Miss Subways, instilled in their two children, Jane and Robin, a love of books.

That love propelled Ms. Friedman into the publishing world. She got a job at Random House at a low spot in the pecking order: she joined the company as a Dictaphone typist. And the rest, as could be truly said in her case, was truly history.

For one, she is credited with inventing the author's tour, now a staple of the publishing industry. She had a legendary writer to escort around newspapers, television stations and radio stations - Julia Child, the "French Chef." Child, who died last August at 91, would often say, "That Jane, she moves me around like a piece of meat."

Her inventiveness and energy intrigued the editor in chief of Alfred A. Knopf, Robert Gottlieb. He became her mentor, and did not regret it. Ms. Friedman founded and became president of the first audio books division of a trade publisher, Random House. She also became associate publisher of Knopf which meant that she was responsible for the publicity, promotion and marketing of books - which greatly impacted revenues.

"I was an overnight success after 30 years," Ms. Friedman said.

Did it help being a woman in a male dominated industry?

"I could have projected myself as a woman leader or as a leader who was a woman," Mr. Friedman said. "I chose the latter."

She chose well. Even in an industry especially noted for its poisonous politics, Ms. Friedman was almost universally regarded as someone special. Jobs offers landed on her desk, but she resisted.

However, when one came through a trusted colleague of Rupert Murdoch, chairman of the News Corporation, she paid attention. HarperCollins was in poor shape. Mr. Murdoch not only wanted to improve the situation, he wanted the company to start making profits quickly.

"If there was a challenge, that was it," Ms. Friedman said. "On my first formal day at work, in November 1997, I remember sitting behind my desk and saying, 'Whoa!'"

She was not one to be intimidated by such a situation. She'd learned self confidence from her parents. She'd earned respect from her peers through sheer dint of effort. She'd been coached by Robert Gottlieb to be decisive.

She was comfortable working board rooms. She was attentive to the sentiments of subordinates. She adhered to an open-door policy.

She also did not hesitate to fire people when necessary.

"Changes had to be made in the company," Ms. Friedman said. "But I wasn't heavy handed. I had the advantage of being a chief executive who knew the minutiae of publishing."

She also set about making key acquisitions, including The Ecco Press, William Morrow & Company, Avon Books, and Amistad Press. Such acquisitions helped diversify the company's titles. Last year, for example, the Zondervan imprint had huge sales of Rick Warren's "The Purpose Driven Life." Mr. Crichton's thriller, "State of Fear" did very well, and Lemony Snicket's "A Series of Unfortunate Events" was a runaway success.

As a result, in 2004 HarperCollins had 97 titles on The New York Times bestseller list, including 9 titles that reached the number 1 spot. Its British unit had 53 titles on the Sunday Times bestseller list, with 5 titles that zoomed to the top.

Ms. Friedman makes a distinction between people who buy books and those who cannot read them.

"One out every eight people in New York City cannot read beyond fifth-grade level," she said. "That means they often cannot help their kids with homework. Many can't even read street signs. In this great city of ours, how can that be?"

So Ms. Friedman is active in helping Literacy Partners, a nonprofit organization that gets volunteers to teach reading. She's involved in other after-work philanthropic work. The United Jewish Appeal honored her not long ago for her creativity and business contributions.

How she find time for all this?

"Very simple," Ms. Friedman said, cheerfully of course. "I have no hobbies. I don't exercise, alas. I sleep very little. In other words, I work all the time. But I have great fun doing it."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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