Peeking under the hood of Jane Friedman's secret e-book start-up

There is life after Rupert Murdoch. Jane Friedman, the former HarperCollins CEO who left abruptly last year amid rumors she'd been forced out, has returned to the book-publishing world in a well-funded new venture. Friedman has raised $3 million for a start-up called OpenRoad Integrated Media, a company whose purpose is intriguingly vague.

PaidContent says OpenRoad plans to be a publisher of e-books that will also function as "multi-platform plays." I've heard a bit more detail. The buzzword Friedman's been throwing around for the past few months is "legacy titles." Rather than sign up a bunch of new authors, she's apparently looking to secure the digital rights to books that already exist -- but, say, might no longer be in print.
One house she has talked to is Kensington Publishing; a source says Friedman is interested in doing a deal with Kensington because of its extensive backlist of romance titles. "She seems to think romance is where the future is, and the money," says the source. (Indeed, sales of romance novels have been remarkably strong despite the recession.)

"We have had some discussions with Jane, but we haven't concluded any arrangement yet," says Steven Zacharius, Kensington's CEO. He adds that the company is not considering a sale of its backlist titles. Asked whether the arrangement being discussed is a licensing deal or partnership, he declined to comment further.

Publishing insiders believe that's more or less what Friedman has in mind. "What she might be thinking about is essentially buying up good backlist titles that maybe have been under-tended over time, or have franchise ability," speculates publishing consultant Brian O'Leary of Magellan Media.

A publishing executive who preferred not to be quoted by name said that the wholesale consolidation and downsizing in the book business over recent years has created the perfect conditions for a venture based on snapping up and monetizing forgotten books. "A lot of editorial intelligence and institutional memory has been laid off or merged out of existence," he says. "There's a lot of owned intellectual property that's radically underexploited."

Friedman didn't return a message left for her Tuesday, but earlier this summer I asked her about rumors that she was raising funding for an e-book operation based on legacy titles. "I'm not ready to talk about my new venture, because there isn't even a new venture yet," she said at the time. "I've been talking to a lot of people about a lot of things, but I never like to talk about things that aren't fully formed."
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