Did HarperCollins Make Sibling Rivals? Enter Steve Ross

Last summer, HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman gathered her executive staff in a conference room on the 11th floor of the book publisher’s office and introduced a smiley, excitable fellow who had just been hired to make some big changes at the company. As ambitious as he was affable, Steve Ross, 49, had been made president and publisher of Collins, one of HarperCollins’ adult trade divisions, and had been given a mandate to turn what had been a quiet, humble operation known mainly for reference, business and self-help books into one of New York City’s most powerful publishers of narrative nonfiction.

Since last July, Mr. Ross has been feverishly laying the infrastructure for the new Collins, acquiring books and hiring editors faster than any other publisher has in recent memory. These hires, announced one by one over the past few months, came with some fanfare, and have stunned not only literary agents and Mr. Ross’ competitors at other publishing houses, but also colleagues within HarperCollins. Some editors at the Harper unit, which has long been HarperCollins’ flagship imprint, are said to be bracing themselves for intense and frequent competition with Collins for big nonfiction books.

Just a year ago, Collins was a name most people in the publishing industry associated with practical titles like The Portable Pediatrician and How to Make a Fortune on the Information Superhighway. In other words, Collins hadn’t exactly jumped to mind for literary agents sending out big nonfiction proposals. At HarperCollins, agents would call an editor at William Morrow, Ecco or Harper, all of which were established in the business of publishing big-ticket nonfiction, with known editorial tendencies and years of experience.

Ms. Friedman and her colleagues atop HarperCollins figured that another imprint in the game would mean more big books, and more big books would mean growth for HarperCollins Inc. The company’s first attempt to build a better Collins roughly four years ago had not worked out as well as its architects hoped. Although the division, which united a handful of business and self-help imprints, had become profitable, thanks largely to the massive blockbusters The Dangerous Book for Boys and The Daring Book for Girls, for the brand to be as big as it needed to be, Collins would have to become a destination for politics, history, current affairs and big ideas.

And so HarperCollins turned to Mr. Ross, a famously assertive and competitive book hunter who at his previous job as head of Random House’s Crown group acquired titles like Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope and Valerie Plame’s Fair Game. He eagerly agreed to lead the way.

Mr. Ross’ first task was to assemble a team of editors that would attract interest from top literary agents and send a message to competitors that the Collins nonfiction list was going to be a formidable one. To this end, he called up an editor named Bruce Nichols, who had shown a singular talent for politics and history during his 15 years at Simon & Schuster’s Free Press imprint, and asked him to head up the team.

“Steve had called me before when he was at Crown and tried to lure me there,” Mr. Nichols said last week. “And I had never been interested, because I loved the job I was doing. This time he called and said, ‘Look, now I have a job you can’t refuse. This is a $100 million division, we’re [going after big books], and we’re hiring a bunch of new editors.”

Mr. Nichols said he agreed almost immediately, and was soon interviewing prospective editors. He eventually lassoed four full-timers—Gillian Blake from Bloomsbury, Nancy Miller from Ballantine, Serena Jones from Simon & Schuster and Adam Bellow from Doubleday. He also hired Bill Strachan, who was most recently at Hyperion, as editor at large.

“My basic philosophy has been to hire the very best editors I can find with strengths in unique areas, and to let them go after whatever they want to go after,” Mr. Nichols said.

So what happens when those editors go after books that editors at Harper also want? It’s inevitable that will happen, since, according to agents who know their tastes, Collins’ editors are interested in many of the same kinds of books as Harper editors.

“When Bruce was at the Free Press, his list and [Harper executive editor] Tim [Duggan]’s overlapped pretty profoundly,” said one agent who has submitted proposals to both of them. “Tim publishes fiction and Bruce doesn’t, but I think you could say that the heart of each editor’s list is a certain sort of serious nonfiction: history, politics, current events, issues, ideas.”

Mr. Duggan, for his part, said he’s not worried. “As far as I’m concerned there’s nothing wrong with a little healthy competition,” he said in an e-mail. “No one has a monopoly on good books, and if Collins is taking a new tack for their nonfiction program, I’m looking forward to seeing how it evolves.”

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