Bringing down the (publishing) house…or maybe not

If you subscribe to Publishers Lunch (which you totes should if you’re an aspiring writer/editor–if you’re either of these things seriously, I think it’s a good investment to fork over the $20 a month it takes to get a paid subscription, because then you get access to the infinitely helpful Who Represents? and Deals features, as well as many other things I don’t use because I’m lazy; the Daily Lunch email, though, is free), you will have noticed that you got a bonus email about half an hour after Lunch was delivered to your mailbox on Friday. Bob Miller, the president of Hyperion, resigned because he’s moving over to HarperCollins to “‘launch a new global publishing program based on a non-traditional business model’ starting on April 14 described as a ‘creative publishing “studio” that challenges conventional trade publishing standards.'” I read that and was like, “Whatever the eff that means.”

Well, this is what it means. Apparently, some things bug Miller about the industry: 1.) returnable product, and 2.) huge advances that are never earned out. These are the same things that bug me! And almost every other writer, even the ones who get the huge advances because they are pretty hard to earn out, especially if publisher enthusiasm over the project dwindles throughout the editing/production process and in the end they don’t give the book a big marketing push, which happens a lot. “Returns”, for those who don’t know, refers to the practice of bookstores ordering books, not selling them, and shipping them back to the publishers’ warehouses. The publishers even foot the return shipping bill. I was pretty shocked when I heard about this, and now that I think about it I might’ve first heard about it from Bob Miller himself, because he was the kickoff speaker at the Denver Publishing Institute the year I attended. (Sidenote: he is very nice and personable.) I don’t know of any other industry that allows stores to return product. It allows bookstores not to take responsibility for managing their inventory, and also gives them no incentive to sell any given title. I think everybody on the publishing side of the business–authors, agents, definitely publishers–hate this practice, and good for Bob for not standing for it anymore. I’m sure they won’t go to a 100% non-returnable basis immediately, and truthfully everybody needs to get on the bandwagon, it can’t just be one new imprint to make a considerable difference in the way business in this industry is conducted, but it’s a great start. Even Robert Gruen, the EVP of merchandising and marketing at Borders, said, “We generally support the idea of looking at potential solutions to a return system that is not working well for the industry as a whole.”

The advances…well, I am of two minds. I don’t like the idea of them paying no advances. I think that shows a lack of faith. Also, if the publisher doesn’t make an initial investment, what’s to keep them from just abandoning the project halfway through, or ditching it once it’s released and not marketing it? Not much is stopping them from doing the latter anyway, and it happens all the time, but at least when there’s a substantial advance on the line there’s a financial.

HOWEVER. As someone pointed out to me today, this is not actually such an original idea. There’s an imprint of Perseus Books Group already using this model, Vanguard Press. Roger Cooper, the founder of Vanguard, spoke about his model at BEA last year. They don’t pay advances at all, but the royalties are high by industry standards–not as high as, say, 50% (Miller’s new imprint at HC proposes a 50/50 split between author and publisher; obvs, the authors agent would get a cut of the author’s half), more like 15% on trade paperbacks, but that is higher than anything else that I’ve heard of for any authors other than those in the lofty J.K. Rowling/Stephen King/Nora Roberts/John Grisham stratum. Here’s what the author gets in return: Every book is assigned a freelance editor, and every book is assigned a freelance publicist. Every book gets Internet marketing. Authors retain all of their rights, which is a biggie. And best of all? There is a marketing/publicity budget built right into the contract. I don’t know their policy on returns, but they seem to be doing quite well, relatively speaking. They don’t usually take risks on debut authors, and I’m sure that Miller’s imprint won’t, either. That would be too much of a risk on the author’s side as well as the publisher’s. Vanguard’s list is mostly comprised of authors with an established following, those that usually sell between 27,000 and 30,000 hardcover copies per book.

So, here’s my analysis. This is an interesting model, one that works for another imprint. The 50/50 split is generous, especially if they commit to a marketing budget and plan in the contract, because then the author knows that the publisher is doing everything it can to sell their book (note: I don’t know if Miller’s imprint plans on doing this). The elimination of returns as much as possible is something I definitely support. I think that authors with more stability in the industry could benefit from the no advance-high sales payout model quite nicely. I’ve always thought it was ridiculous to pay people like Dan Brown and Nora Roberts such huge advances, because if the math is off and the book sells big but not as big as everyone expected, the publisher could end up actually making very little profit in the end. We want publishers to make a profit. It’s good for the industry, it’s good for the author. This is not an imprint where a debut author would be well served. There’s just too much uncertainty in that situation, and I’m sure they will not be acquiring anything from a brand new author. However, I think it’s interesting, if not completely original, and if we could all just move to non-returnable product like every other industry, that’d be really great. Thanks for kicking it all off for us, Bob! I’m sure that the imprint will flourish under him, as Hyperion has done well in his 17-year-tenure. Vive la revolution!

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