From a press release (excerpted):
NEW YORK, NY (April 3, 2008) - HarperCollins Publishers today announced it has signed publishing veteran Robert S. Miller to develop and launch a new global publishing program based on a non-traditional business model ... Miller will publish approximately 25 popular-priced books per year in multiple physical and digital formats including those as yet unspecified, with the aim to combine the best practices of trade publishing while taking full advantage of the internet for sales, marketing and distribution. Authors will be compensated through a profit sharing model as opposed to a traditional royalty, and books will be promoted utilizing on-line publicity, advertising and marketing ... "Bob Miller is one of the most talented publishers in the business, and we are thrilled have him join the HarperCollins team with the objective to re-define publishing for the 21st century,"
As a person with a foot in both camps I find it fascinating how this one announcement has been received with glee in some quarters and despair at others. So what is the truth of the matter, is this good for authors or bad? The answer is yes... or no, or it depends.
The thing of it is there is an advantage to a system that pays advances. The author knows what they are going to make, the publisher is committed to the book (after all they've already paid the royalties sup front) and it is basically up to them to make the book perform up to the standard they predicted. It is a model of selection and investment. If the book does even better than they predicted the author gets further royalties, if it does worse they keep the advance--but may never place another book with that publisher.
There is also an advantage to a royalties-only model. The publisher is less invested in each book so they can take more ch aces, they can take on more book and give more authors a go. Each author is probably going to get less attention and make less money. But they have a foot in the door and if the book doesn't do all that well it is unlikely to cause that much of a negative impression. So this may be a deal that will allow an author to graw a little rather than having to come out of the gate at full gallop.
So it's good, and its bad. Its not as good a deal per se, but more authors will get a chance at at. The most worrying thing may be that this sort of thing blurs the models in a way that doesn't always thrill people. Like Kensington's now defunct line with a similar model, like paying Kirkus for reviews or a commercial press with a same-name subsidy imprint. Personally I feel that unless this imprint is set up with a distinct brand and identity it may really be over-stretching the HarperCollin brand--leaving the impression the want the same sort of books as for their mainstream lines but just don't want to pay for them up front like they used to. I mean, do you remember Levi's tailored suits? No? They didn't last long; that service just didn't fit under that brand. Oh, and also it's just not what they are good at doing.
Maybe this will be seen as me being down on alt. publishing models again, but really my point is that if anyone deserves the kudos for developing POD, royalties-only, internet-retailed, generally unreturnable, but perhaps innovative books perhaps it should be the guys who have been pioneering the approach from the beginning and deserve to be on the forefront when it starts to really pay off. Rather than some Johnny-come-lately Rupert Murdoch imprint spear-headed by a much touted wunderkind most famous for founding Disney's Hyperion books and putting out such cutting edge literary stuff as... celebri-books by Oprah, Steve Martin and Chris Rock and cookbooks by Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson--oh and celebrity cookbooks like the Oprah Magazine Cookbook. Nor is the idea of paying around $20 for a "short" book all that appealling to me as a customer.
Frankly if this is the guy who is going to "re-define publishing for the 21st century" I will buy a hat so I can eat it. But I guess we shall see, what do I know. Pundits are a little worried about how Hyperion will do without him.
p.s. I spent ages trying to find photo of Miller online. Can't find one. What is this guy, the invisible man?