Monday, April 7, 2008

The HarperCollins Experiment

Bob Miller was restless and frustrated with the same old publishing paradigms.  He was already the founder of a successful publishing company, Hyperion, but evidently he wanted more.  In a surprise move last week it was announced that he would be moving over to HarperCollins to try something new.

His new (and as yet unnamed) venture is conceived of as more of a studio than a publishing venture. He is proposing some revolutionary (for the stodgy publishing industry) ideas:

  • 50/50 profit share with authors (and minimal advances)
  • selling everything on a non-returnable basis
  • taking full advantage of the internet for sales, marketing and distribution
  • selling hardback books at around $20 per copy
  • experimenting with selling other formats
  • releasing eBook and Audio book for free when you buy the hardback edition (this is very speculative)
  • publishing books that might not otherwise emerge because new authors find it harder and harder to be published at all

The Wall Street Journal, New York Times and every publishing blog spent most of last week commenting on how unique and wonderful his idea is. 

Hmmmm -- seems to me that there are many independent and eBook publishers that have been doing all these things for quite some time.  So what's the big deal?

Aside from my cynicism, there is one big deal in all of this -- the selling things on a non-returnable basis.  The most shocking thing to me as a new publisher was the whole returns/remainder thing. 

Did you know that when a bookstore orders 20 books if only 2 of them sell that the bookstore can just ship them back to the publisher for full credit?  How strange is that!  I do not know of any other business where a retailer can stock inventory at virtually no risk -- if it doesn't sell you send it back. 

All costs associated with returns and destruction of the unused books is the publisher problem. This is like consignment selling on steroids. 

And you wonder why the the cost of books is so high!

Ending the practice of returns would go a long way towards putting money in the authors pockets. 

And speaking of the high cost of books, another big offender is the advances.  Millions of dollars get paid to a Bill Clinton or Carl Rove but the ordinary author is lucky to get his book published, never mind the advance!

I would love to know what percentage of the advance money is actually realized and how much of it is "wasted" on books that don't make the anticipated sales.  

Even the authors who get big advances have to "pay back" advances from books sales using an accounting system that no one really understands.  The point at which an author actually pays back the advance is a moving target . And then to add injury to insult an author will typically only receive 15% of sales in royalties. 

Although I would argue that Miller's "revolutionary" publishing concept has been used for years by ePublisher and small presses, I do applaud his stand against "Big Publishing." 

Here's to you, Bob.

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