Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Mainstream Publishing Takes A Giant Step

Unexpected news came out this week from NYC publisher HarperCollins. The company plans to launch a new book imprint that won't accept returns from bookstores and will pay little or no advances to authors. The new HC imprint is an experiment that will try to fix everything that’s wrong with the publishing business, according to the 51-year-old publisher who will head it—Robert S. Miller, founder of Disney’s Hyperion adult books division.

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.


  1. I've observed for most of the last decade the sense of entitlement both writers and booksellers have about advances and returns--both of which policies, it might be mentioned, were started during the Great Depression when writers often did need an advance to pay for food and shelter.When that need no longer existed, advances still continued because "they indicate the publisher's commitment to the book." So, for the next, what?, sixty-seventy years, writers have been cheerfully signing up for what amounts to indentured servitude--and demanding to do it.One shudders to think how many talented unpublished writers may have abandoned their writing because they believed the "it's a scam" nonsense and couldn't get their work even looked at by the establishment.Although, come to think of it, that definitely would cut down on the competition for those writers who so vocally defend the status quo as being the only acceptable business model. ;-)

  2. I'm with the group that says it's about time many things are "fixed" within the industry. I also like that they are testing things out, and being open about it, unlike the methods Amazon has employed over the last couple of weeks.One other note about the comment which says that ebooks generally sell for less. I've been learning about print publishing while learning about internet marketing at the same time. One of the things I've noticed is that in the info-marketing world, ebooks of less than 100 pages can sell for 20 or 30 dollars and sometimes more if audio is packaged with it etc.On the flip side, those in the print world only see ebooks as alternate versions, worth a few dollars less than a typical paperback.As HC and others truly wade into the digital realm, it will be interesting to see where things go for both sides.Cheryl

  3. HC's goals are lofty but even this tiny shift in the tectonic plates of the mainstream publishing world is worth watching.Three thoughts occur to me:My own experience with bookstores when books are perceived as un-returnable leads me to agree with others that the stores will refuse to sell anything published by that imprint, major publisher or not.You're absolutely right when you say authors published by that imprint will face the same issues as any self-pub or small pub author. No contests, refused membership in many organizations and not allowed to sit on panels at many conferences.And finally, the fifty-fifty profit sharing is fine as long as the publisher computes sales accurately and fairly.Let's watch and learn...

  4. So sue my I doubt a guy from Disney and a Rupert Murdoch company are really getting into the spirit of things, c.f. just not paying advances and grabbing the chance to charge $20 for category length novels--and spinning like crazy.

  5. [...] What will it take to change the returns system? Small independent publishers like me don’t have the clout to start a movement to abolish returns in the book business. Major publishers will need to stop accepting returns and most are afraid that doing so would result in drastic cuts in their orders from bookstores. And large publishing houses can easily pay for their returns on the backs of their bestsellers. However, a new HarperCollins imprint (see my April 10 blog) plans to make its books nonreturnable. We’ll see how this experiment turns out. [...]