Wow. Fix everything that’s wrong with the publishing business. That’s a big chunk to bite off. But HarperCollins seems to have more of a future orientation than many mainstream publishers. I visited their website and found the following self-description, “Consistently at the forefront of innovation and technological advancement, HarperCollins is the first publisher to digitize its content and create a global digital warehouse to protect the rights of its authors, meet consumer demand and generate additional business opportunities.”
So HC is already using POD printing, at least for their backlist. Now they’re going to experiment with eliminating other sacred cows of the publishing business.
Instead of paying author advances, the new imprint will share its book sale profits with authors, possibly offering a 50-50 profit-sharing. It also plans to release electronic books and digital audio editions of all its titles.
The changes this imprint plans for bookstores are huge. Not only will the books be non-returnable, the imprint plans to focus its sales efforts on the Internet rather than paying for premium display space at the front of bookstores.
Not surprisingly, authors whose books are published by traditional publishers aren’t looking favorably at this HC experiment. Criticisms that I’ve read on group discussion lists and blogs include:
- This shifts the risk to the author away from the publisher. If your book doesn't sell, you don't make a dime.
- Bookstores won’t stock these books unless they are by big-name authors. Why would the bookstores treat this HP imprint any differently from other publishers who don't take returns?• Bookstores will order fewer of these books, which means fewer will sell and authors will make less from their books.
- This is not a new publishing model, it’s a scam on authors.
- A 50-50 split of profits is complicated because it depends on how “profits” are defined.
- The larger the advance, the harder the publisher works to recoup it. Publishers who lay out nothing for a book have no vested interest in pursuing its success.
But I think HC’s new imprint is great news for those of us who are small, independent presses and /or self-publishers. It goes a long way in blurring the lines between us and them. The publishing business is morphing into a new entity as quickly and quietly as the faces on one of those websites that lets visitors click and combine two faces into one new one. Sure this is a small imprint that plans to release maybe 25 titles a year, according to articles announcing the move in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. But is a move by a major publisher. HarperCollins’ revenues top $1 billion annually.
This trial run will surely make the old guard sit up and take notice. Now some authors published by an imprint of a major publisher won’t meet the criteria for awards, reviews, and conferences that require that authors receive specific levels of advances for their books and that the books be returnable. And who knows, HC may decide to use digital printing for some of these non-returnable books. If so, these authors wouldn’t meet some minimum-print-run requirements. How long can the old guard stick with these criteria when a major publisher is ignoring them?
And this could be the beginning of the end of the inefficient return system favored by bookstores who can order huge quantities of new titles and then send them back if they don’t sell quickly. If we didn’t have that system, books sold would actually mean books sold. When we get a big book order, we could rejoice instead of living in dread of having dilapidated books bounce back at our expense. And booksellers who have purchased the books they have in stock are probably more likely to hand-sell them.
Stay tuned. The tipping point approaches.