So HarperCollins made big news with the creation of a new division that is trying out “new” techniques in selling hardcover books. The most salient news is that they’ll eliminate advances in favor of higher royalties on the back end. Read: a kind of profit-sharing. From what I know of corporate accounting, though, mostly through the movie industry, is that when corporations promise money on the back end, authors should smile nicely, then try to grab as much as possible as soon as possible. Because it’ll all be fuzzy math. What makes me so suspicious is that some sources have reported that the profits will be split 50/50. To go from 15% to 50% sounds dubious enough to have all kinds of catches and caveats hidden in the small print. Nonetheless, if the math could be worked out properly, and a more realistic rate such as 20% was offered, then this wouldn’t be a disaster for writers.
But despite the media hoopla, this no-advance-but-higher-royalties stratagem is hardly new. In terms of the whole financial spectrum of how authors are reimbursed, small presses operate on a similar plane: miniscule to very small advances, with standard royalty rates. Or, for another example, go to mid-level publisher, MacAdam/Cage. MacAdam/Cage offers non-existent or extremely small advances, yet does a wonderful job promoting their authors and ushering them through their career. While MacAdam/Cage’s inner financial cogs and wheels aren’t entirely visible to an outsider, their model seems to be working quite well both for authors and publishing house. So the only thing real news is that a major publisher is adopting this route.
My only complaint is that it didn’t come sooner. In the broad sense of things, this advance-reducing move is the appropriate counter-measure for an industry that began by offering sensible advances but yet in the last few decades has escalated into offering inflated numbers to land writers of dubious marketability and talents. I would guess that this current pendulum swing will be too far — that in order to counter gigantic advances, advances will shrink too far — but I still argue that smaller advances across the board, rather than a culture of poverty-or-superstar-writer, would benefit, in the long run, the mid-list writers.
One other proposal of the new HarperCollins division is to stop giving chains money for advantageous placement of books — a practice online pharmacy usa that essentially amounts to a bribe to place the book on the round table at the front instead of hiding it in the general section. Yes, please stop it, yes, please yes. Please stop this senseless waste of money. This is one of the more despicable practices in the publishing industry, one that rewards well-funded but often mediocre books, and creates a culture teaching the importance of baksheesh rather than the importance of quality. Spend the money on any other kind of marketing, anything but this. [Sidenote: I think it would be wonderful for laws to be passed that alert consumers, something like a mandatory sign at those round tables in chains that warn that the books here are only present because publishers paid the big bucks, and that their placement does not confer any kind of notion of quality, and certainly not that any employee actually read and enjoyed the book.]
The last proposal is to stop accepting remaindered books. This seems like a great idea — for publishers, although not for booksellers — and although I have no idea how they would get books into stores without offering to remainder them, they can go ahead and give it a try. They’ll most likely give up within a few months or a few titles.
What I really want, as a writer, is to have my work read. It would be depressing to receive a huge advance and then to have sales flop. It would also make it extremely difficult to sell a second novel. So overall, I’m in favor of a model that offers small to moderate advances with decent royalties. My only fear is that with no royalties, publishers would feel even more free to abnegate their responsibilities as gatekeeper and simply publish a huge number of novels and see what flies. But the costs of copy-editing, setting and printing still would represent some kind of investment, and, in addition to that, the expenses of marketing. If the publisher is willing to properly fund the marketing of the book, then that is the biggest signal that they believe in it. The only larger gesture of belief would be . . . well, a huge advance.
UPDATE: The Millions also points out that on the British side of things, MacMillan New Writing has a similar business plan.