Books and Publishing in the Digital Age
HarperStudio, an imprint of HarperCollins, was created by Bob Miller and Jane Friedman in 2008. The boutique imprint publisher looked unlike any of the big six publishing houses. Staffed with the few employees needed for design, editing, production, and management, the experimental agency decided against offering authors advances over $100,000. The smaller advances would come with the promise that profits would be split 50/50 between the publisher and the author.
In “The Last Book Party: Publishing drinks to a life after death,” Lewis-Kraus remarks on the powerful publishing industry players in attendance at the 2008 Frankfurt Book Fair. Lewis-Kraus points out a few of the CEOs who were responsible for a shift towards offering authors large advances. Also at the fair is his uncle, Bob Miller, who had gained publicity for his new publishing venture, HarperStudio. Lewis-Kraus notes that a few in the industry hailed Miller as a hero for his innovative concept.
The large royalties and advances that the big publishers offer to well-known authors have ballooned to an exorbitant amount that cannot always be earned back. Publishers pay these large amounts with the hope that the book will become a bestseller. The expectations are high and publishers demand bestsellers constantly. When a book is unable to sell near the expected number of copies, publishers are less likely to take chances on an author who sells a much smaller volume.
The variations in the advances are not entirely measured out by the quality of the content. An author who has an on-trend book that will appeal to the masses might garner a larger fee than say an established critically acclaimed author who does not sell an extremely high number of copies. This also means that publishers are less likely to take a risk by signing an unknown author who might not write a financially successful book.
Advances, royalties, and commissions are part of the reason that the publishing industry is not earning the level of profits that it desires. HarperStudio was created as a possible solution to overpaying for work that does not return high profits. A modest advance would provide new authors with a respectable income, and if the book sold well the profits would go to both the author and the publisher.
The duration of HarperStudio was too brief to determine whether such a model could work successfully over a longer period of time. In March 2010, Miller announced that he had taken a position at Workman Publishing. The rest of the staff found employment within the HarperCollins company. It is quite possible that the business model could work with the right factors and circumstances, but the short-lived existence of HarperStudio might convince new publishers to seek a different model.