135-Year-Old Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Plays to Its Strengths

In English Language by Edward Nawotka

With Linda Zecher, a former Microsoft executive, at the helm of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the publisher is focused on its core competencies, notably education.

By Edward Nawotka, Editor-in-Chief

LInda Zecher, former MIcrosoft Executive, now leads Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Linda Zecher, a former Microsoft executive, now leads Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Education companies have been digitizing for a long time without getting outcomes. Can adaptive learning change this?

“We all know a child is not going to learn Russian just because you give them an iPad,” said Linda Zecher, President and CEO of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt at the Digital Book World conference last week while speaking about the company’s future. “But we do think setting up individualized learning will allow children to learn at their own pace.”

But if a child is being taught by a machine instead of a human being, how does that work at an individual level?

“Good teachers matter, and knowing how to leverage technology matters. I believe it always comes down to the teacher, but this [adaptive learning] way we can serve up supplemental material and content that best serves the individual needs of the child.” A teacher can then intervene when appropriate. “The more that we can do with our content and use technology to make it smarter, the better off we are.”

Houghton Mifflin HarcourtSubscriptions as an issue was raised. “We have to constantly look at new business models. How we can provide content, chunk content, curate content, put it into gamification…there are a variety of new ways people are going to consume content and we have to explore those options.”

As for whether subscriptions are cannibalizing traditional users: “Subscribers have “been small, so we can’t definitely say what kind of user there is.”

As for the trade side: “I think we have always been a mid-sized publisher, so we focus on areas where we are very strong. Young readers, for example. Also fiction and cookbooks. As we look at our trade brands. One of the things we have seen is that since our customers are parents, students and life-long learners, our content is going into a lot of cross-over between what we are doing in trade and education.”

One of the questions posed by Zecher was how do we get more women in leadership roles in publishing?

“As one of 11 women executives at Microsoft — at the time — I know what it’s like to often be one of the few women in the room. When I arrived [at Houghton Mifflin] there was a wall of shame: a hallway lined with black and white photos of men. And so I put up my own photo…in color. I think we need to have gender be considered as part of diversification.”

There is lot of history, a lot of institutional memory.

On the advice offered by the popular book Lean In, she says “I left work, and came back, and am now the CEO of a company. So I don’t think taking off time to be a mom hurt me.”

Looking forward, she notes, “We were founded in 1880 and there is lot of history there, a lot of institutional memory — some people are now celebrating decades of working at Houghton Mifflin. Today it is a changing industry. The challenge is that as you sell more digital content, you’re delivering that over a longer period of time. How does digital change the metrics? If you are going through subscriptions, you’re bringing in less money upfront, but building a subscriber base.The business is the same, but your cash comes into the company as deferred revenue on your balance sheet. We have had to change our metrics  over time, had to educate the financial community.”

As to whether she plans to face the company forward into the future and abandon company’s traditions, Zecher is pragmatic: “Sometimes you have to step back to move forward. You don’t have to do this overnight, you can have multiple modalities for selling your content and having people pay for your content. It’s not an either-or; it’s a both.”

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.