People | The Big Questions

Publisher aims to bridge fictional fun and reality

by Louise George Kittaka

Contributing Writer

Name: Frank Foley
Title: Managing Director, HarperCollins Japan (since 2017)
URL: http://corporate.harpercollins.co.jp
DoB: March 5, 1961
Birthplace: Cork, Ireland
Hometown: Kamakura
Years in Japan: 30


For Frank Foley, joining HarperCollins Japan as managing director in 2017 was akin to coming full circle, as it was also the first company he worked for in Japan. Foley is delighted to be back, and spoke to The Japan Times about recent developments at HarperCollins and in Japan’s publishing industry.

Foley was used to moving around the globe from a young age. Born and raised in Ireland, his family moved to Australia when he was 14. “We left Cork on a horrible wet day and arrived to 36 degrees in Brisbane. I’ll never forget the experience of being hit with a heat wave,” he said.

A few years later, however, Japan was calling. Foley majored in Japanese at Griffith University, which lead to various opportunities, including participation in an exchange program at Daito Bunka University in Tokyo.

“It was supposed to be a year-long exchange, but it unexpectedly turned into two. At end of the first year, the administrators called me from Australia. Bob Hawke had just come in as Prime Minister and the Aussie dollar had been floated, and it jumped in value overnight. They said I could stay an extra year as they struggle to find the budget to bring me home. I think they were joking but maybe not,” Foley said, grinning at the memory.

Upon graduation he initially worked as an interpreter and publications officer in Australia, before joining HarperCollins in 1989. At the time, the Tokyo office consisted of just a handful of people and was primarily involved in the English textbook market. Foley’s time with the firm also included a stint at the Singapore office.

Foley went on to carve out a career in the entertainment and brand licensing field. “I moved over to the TV side, including at the very start of what is now Sky Perfect TV. I was there when they had more staff than viewers,” he said. “Eventually, I had the opportunity to work at a company which owned brands such as Thomas the Tank Engine and Guinness World Records. I learned how difficult it is to get a foreign brand to succeed in Japan.”

In fact, one thing that attracted Foley back to HarperCollins Japan is the success of the Harlequin brand. Parent company HarperCollins acquired Harlequin Enterprises in 2014, and while Harlequin is best known for paperback romances, it has diversified into genres such as digital publishing and manga.

The leadership style of Brian Murray, CEO of HarperCollins, also resonated strongly with Foley. “Brian described his vision for HarperCollins to be the No. 1 international trade publisher,” he said, adding that Harlequin was one of the few such publishers that controls its own brand.

Harlequin’s presence in Japan dates back to 1979, and Japan has not only embraced the romantic fiction genre, but it has also influenced the international market. “Harlequin’s manga were initiated in Japan about 20 years, and then digital versions followed 10 years after that,” Foley said. “Along with digital partner SB Creative, Harlequin launched a new market for romantic manga in Europe, the U.S. and various Asian markets.”

While the Japanese-language novels and manga are currently translated from English novels, there are plans to create original content with Japanese writers in the near future. Moreover, with Harlequin marking 40 years in Japan in September, Foley’s team is taking things to a whole new level.

“My goal is to bring the Harlequin brand to life; for example, pop-up shops, cafes, voice talents reading stories on stage and meet-and-greets with manga artists,” Foley said. “Harlequin is escapism, and everyone wants to escape to a happy place now and then. We are looking at what younger women like and the right format to reach them.”

The centerpiece of the upcoming 40th anniversary celebrations is the “Who will be Mr. Harlequin Japan?” campaign, with readers voting from a shortlist of suitably attractive single young men. Fans will be able to follow the finalists through social media, as they compete in a series of challenges to demonstrate their potential as a romantic hero, and culminating in the crowning of the winner in September.

With regards to general trends in the Japanese publishing market, Foley notes that 80 percent of the overall manga market is now digital and Harlequin’s own breakdown of its manga distribution is 60 percent digital, skewing toward the younger market. However, the opposite is true of printed books. “The relatively small size of Japanese bunko books (small paperbacks) means that they are more portable than an e-reader, and so analog is still more convenient in that respect,” he said.

Foley says that while it is always nice to visit Australia, or take business trips to other parts of the world, Japan is definitely where he wants to be. He believes Japan could make better use of long-term foreign residents like himself in terms of becoming a bridge to the rest of the world. “There are so many of us who live here permanently and understand how things work,” he said.

HarperCollins Japan is 10 times bigger in terms of sales and personnel than when Foley worked there the first time around, and he is well aware that the stakes are much higher. “When I retire, I want to be able to look back and say I made a difference — in a good way,” he said.

“Actually, I have a funny story about returning to the Tokyo office,” he said with a chuckle. “As I was getting ready to come back, I found the office stapler that I took with me when I left the first time.” Some things are just meant to be.


Return augmented by wealth of experience

Frank Foley was born in Ireland and moved to Australia in his early teens. After majoring in Japanese at Griffith University, he worked as an interpreter at Hitachi in Brisbane and as a publications officer at the Australia-Japan Research Centre at the Australian National University in Canberra. In 1989, he began working for HarperCollins Japan. He went on to develop expertise in the field of entertainment and brand licensing, and represented major foreign brands in the Japanese market. Since his return to HarperCollins in 2017, Foley has been drawing on his experience to enhance and develop the firm’s popular Harlequin brand.

The Big Questions is a Monday interview series showcasing prominent figures who have a strong connection to Japan.