William Collins, born near Glasgow in 1789, set up business in 1819, initially publishing religious pamphlets, sermons, and prayer and hymn books. In 1824, he produced his first dictionary and obtained a licence to publish the Bible. His son William introduced modern printing processes, and the quantity and variety of the Collinses' publishing expanded to include low-value classics, travel and scientific books, encyclopedias, and dictionaries. The first Collins atlas was published in 1856, followed by a succession of well-produced school atlases, strengthened in the 1930s by the fruitful association with Longman under the Collins-Longman imprint. At the beginning of the 20th century, Collins began to publish original fiction, including their first Agatha Christie novel (in 1926). This business flourished in the 1950s with the introduction of the low-value paperback.
William Collins was one of the first British publishers to move into the Australian market. During the years of the gold rush in the mid-nineteenth century, Collins was represented by agents Bright Bros. of Sydney. In 1872, John McLeod arrived in Sydney and set up the firm's first office. Under McLeod, and later Thomas Walker, the company developed a thriving business, initially in the supply of bibles and school books. In 1874, Collins published A Geography of Australia, the first book designed specifically for the Australian market. The first book to be wholly typeset and printed in Australia by Collins was Eleanor Dark's The Timeless Land (1939). Books published by the Australian Collins were marketed world-wide.
Collins's Australian managers included W. L. Cunningham (1881-1887), George Brown (1887-1895), W. Angus Stewart (1895-1911), R. E. Jones (1911-1916), Harold Dixon (1916-1924), Alec C. Glen (1924-1946), F. O. (Freddie) Howe (1946-1961) and Ken Wilder (1961-1985 ). In 1881, William Collins, the third chairman of the company, visited Australia, beginning a tradition that continued throughout the life of the firm. During the 1970s, Sir William Collins encouraged emerging Australian authors such as George Johnston.
Collins's children's literature imprints include Armada Lions, and their Australian children's list was accelerated in 1972 with the appointment of Anne Bower Ingram as its children's editor. Fontana is the adult paperback imprint of Collins and a new paperback imprint, Imprint, developed by Tom Thompson, was announced in March 1988.
Collins became wholly owned by News Corporation in 1989 and was renamed HarperCollinsPublishers.