Eric, what was your first impression of the HarperCollins announcement?
The Harper announcement seemed strange to me at first. Why should Robert S. Miller, a publishing star, move from his perch at Hyperion to what at first glance appears to be a fairly insignificant publishing startup? I also felt a tinge of self congratulation as I have been operating Beaufort Books for the past three years using essentially the same publishing model. And when it was announced last August that Beaufort would publish the O. J. Simpson confessional If I Did It, I received a great wave of criticism for operating nothing more than a vanity press. But compared to HarperCollins, Beaufort is at the other end of the long tail, making the no-royalty-advance model sensible, if not absolutely necessary, to survive in a tough bookselling environment. So I felt a level of gratification tempered by curiosity.
Why do you think HarperCollins is moving to this model?
Whenever I get the chance to speak to groups of publishers, I focus on what I call the “bookselling revolution.” My hypothesis is that over the past 20 years, most of the changes within the book publishing universe have been initiated by booksellers and not book publishers. The exception to this would be the vast and diverse group of smaller independent publishers who live by innovation day in and day out. If my contention is right, then the larger publishers have been benefiting from the initiatives within the bookselling community, thinking perhaps that their growth in sales over the years was a result of their own prowess. On the other side of the coin was a financial squeeze that was becoming more evident every year. On the one side you have escalating royalty advances and on the other you have the ever-growing cost of producing bestsellers. Something had to give.
The other day, Rupert Murdoch said this: “â€¦technology will continue to destroy all the old ways and old assumptions, especially in the media.” While he may have been referring to the newspaper business, I cannot help but think he had HarperCollins in mind as well. Perhaps Harper’s charter to Robert S. Miller is to begin to crack some of the walls of convention which defined the ways that publishers have done business for years and years.
Why do you think Harper decided to do this now?
Rupert Murdoch and Jane Friedman are great business people. I suspect they peered into the future and did not like what they saw. And there is no time like the present. Once you have come to believe that the “old ways and old assumptions” are no longer justified, you must begin to seek out better ways of achieving profitable results.
Do you think having a non-returnable book is even possible in this market?
As I see it, HarperCollins is attacking on two fronts. On the author/agent side they are saying that we love you but we need to find a better way. Unearned advances are killing our bottom line and we are not going to sustain these costs forever. They would never say this publicly because they do not want to offend. But on the other hand, they do not want to be held hostage to a paradigm that may have seen its better days. On the other front, they are concerned about the huge cost of returns of unsold books. Publishers created this mess in the 1930’s and have tried sporadically to wriggle out of this stranglehold, but with little success. I am not sure myself whether they even need to go non-returnable. The real problem for publishers today is what might be called “big bookitis.” The disease begins with editors working on a non-economic model of paying more for less. Perhaps you could sell returnable if you did not insist on over advancing books into the book channels.
Does this somehow legitimize the Beaufort model of publishing?
The Beaufort model was always legitimate because we were trying to bring good books to market profitably. The Beaufort model was proved out with If I Did It. Yes, we have taken returns, but the project was profitable for everyone: the authors (the Goldmans), the publisher and the distributor, not to mention booksellers and wholesalers.
Do you think this model works best for certain types of books/authors?
The model works best with what was once termed “midlist.” We would rather under advance a title and then steadily reprint as demand requires. We have one title called The Presence Process which is now in a fourth printing. And sales keep growing month by month. This is a model that allows for an appropriate investment with a promise of ongoing profitability.
What do you think the future holds? Will more publishers move to this model?
Right now I believe that HarperCollins has taken a shot across the bow of convention. I have no idea how they will develop this model in relation to all their other activities, but they have opened a door that could lead to significant change. The bookselling community underwent “creative destruction” in the 1990’s. Maybe book publishing is about to experience their own brand of this powerful force. I hope so.
Very insightful interview. For many writers such as myself traditional big publishers began the demise of the current system of excessive advances given to “name” auhtors or the latest “gee whiz” celebrity or person of nnotority, with unrealistic expectations of book sales recovering the cost. Change will happen, and is happening. Authors need to understand that it’s “Nothing personal. Just doing business.”
But for those of us who love books, and who also write them, it’s definitely a sea change.
I run a small publishing company. We don’t give advances. We also lost 1000s of dollars last year due to returns, trying to get into bookstores. NEVER AGAIN. Returns are the reason 90% of publishers are Not in bookstores. And if something can be done to combat the evil reasoning of returns, Everyone will win.
E-publishing is the way of the future for authors. Large (nearly 40%) percentage royalties and virtually no overhead for the publisher and the author doesn’t have to wait two to three years to see their book or get paid. I know there’s an old world elegance to books and what a physical book represents to book lovers, but with the new e-readers like the Kindle and others, making the switch is easy, practical and lucrative for both author and publisher. Win-win. Print is dead – E-print is coming.
It has always seemed ridiculous that book stores would not only receive 40% mark-up, but also have their entire stock on consignment. The humbe grocery store not only works on somewhere around ten percent, but also must rely on the operators good judgement as to how much of an item will sell. They have no return option and much of their stock is marked with “sell by” dates after which the product is considered unsaleable.
One of the benefits I foresee is that all publishers (and, yes! authors, too) will begin to look at a book (all books!) for quality instead of dismissing a huge share of them based on the kind of press they were printed on.
And, if you are right and some publishers make book stores responsible for their own inventory (as they are in every other retail industry I can think of), we may see more profitability rather than less. For the publisher, for the authors. Even for the distributors. I mean, think of the bookwork and time that could be saved if books weren’t moving back and forward from warehouse to bookstore shipping rooms and back again.
By the way, most retailers could not survive on 40% markup. 50% or more is the norm. For a no-return policy to work, bookstores would need to get a better return per book. In my opinion, it would be a very beneficial tradeoff for all concerned.
Of course, that might mean less business for shippers. I suspect they would survive.
Award-winning author of books printed every which way!
Blogging at http://www.SharingwithWriters.blogspot.com
A point or two of clarification. Most bookstores and all wholesalers buy books from book publishers at well above 40%. The range is big, but I would estimate that wholesalers buy at 50% off retail and in many cases they buy at an even higher discount. Retailers, depending on size, can buy in the range of the high 40’s and in some case for even more.
Also, one of the reasons Independant Publishers have done well over the past ten years is their tremendous flexibility in negotiating contracts. The importance of the Robert Miller/HarperCollins announcement is the implicit recognition that there may be a better way of doing the same thing. In other words, the lion has finally recognized the virtue of the friendly mouse. And as we all know, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
If we are going to survive in this industry, we’re going to have to throw out outmoded, antiquated thinking.
Often being small has its advantage. (Why do you think the cockroach survived the Ice Age when the dinosaur did not?)
E-book and P.O.D. publishing is an idea which time has finally come. Given this present economy, it will definitely help with profitability in the book business. It will also help support and save the environment.
Black Butterfly Press