What Happend to Harper & Bros.?
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: What happened to
Harper & Bros.?
MICHAEL BESSIE: Oh, lots of things.
It depends on when you want to start the story?
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: From when you
were there till when you left.
MICHAEL BESSIE: Well. When I joined,
in the fall of 1946, it was 130 years old; it
had started in 1817, and had been, in the latter part of the 19th century, the largest English-language publishing house in the world.
It published books and magazines, lots of them: Harpers Bazaar, Harpers
Weekly, Harpers Monthly, and so forth. But, shortly after the turn of the
century, it was going bankrupt; it had been bled by the various partners, a characteristic
thing of a family-owned business.
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: By then, the
second or third generation?
MICHAEL BESSIE: Oh, yes: at least
third. Four brothers started it, four brothers from a farm on Staten Island, like the
Vanderbilts. It was saved by Tom Lamont, who was then the partner of J. P.
Morgan, I think for the total of, I dont know, two million bucks, which then was a
large sum. And it went through various hands; and in the middle of the 1920s
was joined by a fellow named Cass Canfield, who came from a wealthy family, and who
actually joined it to run the London office. Harpers at that time, and from early in
the 19th century, was Harper and Brothers, New York and London,
publishing in both places. Then Canfield came back to America, and he wasnt head of
the house, but he became so in 1944; he might as well have been, he
was the principal stockholder by that time. The stock wasnt listed, it was privately
held; he bought the largest part of it -- he had about 22, 24% of
Anyhow, when I joined it, he was then the head of the
house and principal stockholder. And, in addition to being an able businessman and
administrator, he was also a publisher, a person who knew about and cared about books and
edited a lot himself. Indeed, the jewels of the Harper 20th century
list were his: Aldous Huxley and all the English, Thornton Wilder and that generation of
Americans: they all were people whom Cass personally published, something which is rare in
In any event, what was the house like then? It was one of
the two or three -- along with Doubleday, and Macmillan, maybe -- largest diversified
publishing houses. It published all kinds of books: medical, school, college, religious;
and its trade department was certainly one of the two or three dominant trade departments.
It had begun to seem predictable, by comparison with the new generation of the 1920s and 30s houses -- Knopf, Simon & Schuster, Random House, and Viking, etc.: they were brighter; the
scene was brighter. They were more contemporary, although Harper still had great strength.
Cass, for example, had an almost proprietary relationship with the New Yorker,
because he had published the Thurbers and the E.B. Whites and so
forth. He didnt maintain that monopoly, because it got passed around; but when I
joined, most New Yorker writers published still with Harpers. The staff of
the trade department was essentially Ivy League. Not everybody came from Harvard, Yale, or
Princeton, but most did. Women were beginning to play a role editorially, though they
tended to be assistants -- not in the role of secretaries. The place had a singular
advantage in Harpers Magazine, which brought in young writers and gave us
first crack at em. We got a lot of people that way
Anyhow, that was the house that I joined in 46.
And I was there for 15 years, and then came the Atheneum adventure.
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: What became of
MICHAEL BESSIE: I left in 59. In about 1962 or 63,
Harper & Bros. became Harper & Row,
because elementary and secondary publishing became enormously expanded in those years, and
there Harper found itself, in the early 60s, without a
schoolbook department. [So it bought Row Peterson, a textbook publisher, and added the
new firms name.]
The Harper that I left in 1959 was
doing about $20 million worth of turnover a year, which was about as
much as anybody else. The Harper I returned to, in 1975, was doing
nearly $100 million. But in the meantime, Harcourt-Brace, for
example, had gone to about $300 million. Subsidiary rights had
become considerably more important: book club, paperback, movie, etc. So, the things that
we are now so aware of were beginning to develop. The increase of money, in every sense:
Capitalization. Money needed for marketing. Money needed for advances. Everything got more
competitive, more expensive. General publishing became more closely allied to show biz.
The Harper I returned to was dominated by numbers: P & Ls,
numbers, and by marketing, in the sense that the firm I had left 16
years before was not.
When I returned, as the senior publisher of the house and
one of the corporate triumvirate who were supposed to run the place, I had to go through
about a three-week indoctrination, because I had to learn a new business. I learned what
had happened to big publishing during that time. Of course, it happened to every other one
of the big places: it had become corporatized.
I went back to Harper -- I was then 59
-- under an arrangement in which I would be senior vice-president, publisher, etc., until
I was 65, and when I was 65, Harper would set
up Bessie Books for Cornelia and me, as an imprint under Harpers aegis,
independently. We would own it, but we would have publishing and money arrangements with
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: What did
Cornelia do in the meantime?
MICHAEL BESSIE: Cornelia had been
working for Atheneum, actually, until we were married; when Pat Knopf, who saw his mother
in Cornelia, became impossible for her to work with, she went off to Dutton. But when I
went back to Harper, she came into Harper; or shortly thereafter.
So that was the deal. And for the next -- well, from 75 to 81, I was at Harper. In 81, we set up Joshuatown Publishing, a small corporation which is
ours, which is Cornelia and Michael Bessie Books. They kept me on the Harper board. I was
on till 87, when we sold to Murdoch and the board disappeared.
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: And you
werent in favor of that sale.
MICHAEL BESSIE: I was very strongly
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: Why were you
MICHAEL BESSIE: Because I liked
Harper independent, and also because I didnt like Murdoch. The easiest way to answer
your question is, Because I foresaw what has happened.
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: And what has
happened, that you foresaw?
MICHAEL BESSIE: Harper has become,
or, starting in 87, became, huge. It became a minor interest,
namely a cash cow, for Murdoch. See, he bought it for two reasons: he wanted a publishing
house; he by that time had 40% of Collins [William Collins
Publishers], in England.
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: Which was a
respectable firm as well.
MICHAEL BESSIE: Oh, it was a great
firm. It was a great old publisher, and a printer as well, Scottish printer. But under
English law, once he acquired 40% he had either to stand still or
take on the whole shebang. But he had a vision of a world-wide English-language
book-publishing enterprise. I think at the time he had that dream first, he didnt
realize that his real dream was going to be movies and television. He also suffered, as
did many another -- why did Paramount buy Simon & Schuster? --
from synergy. It was a widely-spread notion.
So, I was opposed to it, as were almost but not quite half
the board. Harper was being headed by a fellow named Brooks Thomas, a lawyer by training,
but not a book person. The firm was having a hard time adjusting itself to the situation
that has since developed in big-time publishing. It was still, in the view of Wall Street,
bound to the old-fashioned notion that you published books because you liked them, and so
forth, and so forth. And it was beginning to have cash problems: it was profitable, but at
too low a level.
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: Ah, yes; that
MICHAEL BESSIE: Well. RCA
became disillusioned with Random House and sold it because they realized, as others have,
and I suspect Mr. Newhouse [S.I. Newhouse, head of Advance Publications,
a family-owned company which owns Random House, Knopf/Pantheon/Vintage, and other
imprints, as well as The New Yorker, Vogue, Vanity Fair, and a number of other
glossy publications] now has, that book publishing, even under present
circumstances, is very unlikely to return more than five or six percent net profit. In a
very good year, you might; but almost nobody does. Its certain nobody does over a
long period of time. Almost anything else in media can and does do better. Theyre
also capable of generating larger losses. But, you know, they gamble for bigger stakes.
You know what the economics of trade publishing are: about
two-thirds of the books that you publish dont make a profit. So if youre good,
the loss is smaller; the loss narrows. About a third of the books that you publish make a
profit; and if youre good, some of em make a big profit. Thats the
economics of trade publishing. And in most instances, year in and year out, now, the
profit comes from subsidiary rights. You may break even on the sale of books, but
its book club, paperback, movie and television, foreign rights, etc., where you make
money. And one of the effects of the increased power of the agents is that publishers have
a smaller and smaller share of subsidiary rights. For example, in the new world, the
electronic world, agents of popular authors dont give book publishers an inch
of electronic rights.
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: They think
theres going to be a windfall there.
MICHAEL BESSIE: They think that
there may be, and theyre negotiating from strength. And you know, when people start
paying five, six, seven, eight, nine million dollars to acquire a popular author, as they
do, theres a competition set up, and so, one of the first things the agent makes
clear is this.
Now, just as in the old days -- by which I mean, before my
time -- publishers would have 50% of movie rights, or more. It was
then reduced to 10%, and then eliminated. Thats, by and large,
Its amusing that whats left of Atheneum [the imprint, except for childrens books,was closed in 1994 by its
newest owner, Simon & Schuster, itself owned by Paramount, which is owned by Viacom]
-- since thats one of the things we share -- is childrens books, and
theyre doing quite well.