Marchbooks' Blog

September 1, 2009

Revolutionizing the Publishing Model

Filed under: On Writing and Publishing — marchbooks @ 3:37 pm
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Viva la Revolucion. If you have been reading my blog, you know that I believe the publishing industry has some catching up to do. It seems as though they have been napping for the past hundred years or so. The current publishing model. The result is a very wasteful industry that offers less and less for their non A-list authors. Change has to come, even if it comes kicking and screaming. Has it arrived? Are publishers finally starting to see the light. This wonderful article by Bob Miller gives me hope that the revolution is upon us.

What a wonderful concept: a fifty-fifty split. The author brings his creative work to the table and the publisher brings his bank book, they then split the profits. Now, each party is completely vested in the publication, marketing and promotion of this book. I can hear the nay sayers screaming and beating their breasts from here. ‘It’s not fair. Publishing is expensive. We’d be losing money hand over fist. It’s just not fair!’

What is not fair is asking an author to hand over the rights to the product of their labor for a meager 5-10% royalty.  Even without layering promotion/marketing money and time by the author, this does not seem equitable. The author is at the bottom of the totem pole as the bookseller takes their 35% and the publisher distributor takes the lion’s share after printing costs, leaving precious little for the author. That author has become a second class citizen in the sale of his own book, despite the fact that he is essentially creating jobs for everyone in the food chain. So why are there only scraps left for him?

This model presented by Harper Studio is overdo but very welcome. Congratulations on your creativity, responsiveness and bravery in beginning changes in an industry that is entrenched in the past – kudos to you. I hope that more publishers will follow your lead.


  1. The 50-50 model may work just fine for deep-pocket conglomerate publishers or those who have managed to maintain a healthy line of credit. I also agree it’s a step in the right direction. However, once again there’s a tendency toward the one-size-fits-all mindset that just is not viable any more than the traditional model is. The issue is that small presses that operate on a cash basis won’t survive on a 50-50 split because, like it or not, production costs of a book are more than half of net. If our company tried to give authors 50% royalty, we would have to all but have a guarantee the book would sell at least 5,000 copies. I know this because we used to give 40%, and there was literally nothing available after operating costs for marketing or anything else. And that was doing everything in-house without paid staff.

    In other words, without those fat checkbooks, small publishers wouldn’t dare do what we do now, which is to take a chance on unknown authors and books that jump outside the boundaries. That’s assuming we could survive at all, which is doubtful.

    So, yes, for the mainstream it’s a terrific idea. However, suggesting it’s the best reinvention of the industry since Gutenberg reveals a rather narrow focus.

    Comment by Elizabeth Burton — September 1, 2009 @ 4:15 pm | Reply

    • I told you that I could hear the screaming and breast beating from here, lol. Just kidding. Let’s not take ourselves too seriously here. Nothing is written in granite, this is just a discussion.

      I am only saying that it is nice to see the pendulum swing in the author’s favor for a change. I don’t believe that there should be one model to fit every situation. But, that has been the way of it in the publishing industry up until now, for the most part. And that way has always been for the publisher to call the shots, offering whatever they deign to the lowly author who should be grateful for whatever he/she gets. It may sound a little harsh, but I think it is fairly accurate.

      Now, in your situation, Elizabeth, I would guess that the relationship you have with your authors is much more equitable than is traditionally found in the big houses. I would venture to say that your authors may even get to be parties in negotiating the terms of your contracts. Dealing with big publishers, with ‘fat checkbooks’ lacks that kind of equal footing (it is more like a customer dealing with a big insurance company) and there are no big publishers, that I am aware of, that are offering 40% royalty or interest in the venture.

      The thing that excites me the most about Harper Studio’s model is not so much the split as the obvious intent to make the author a partner rather than an indentured servant (something it sounds as though you are already doing).

      I am only suggesting that publishers should start to give credit where it is due. Publishers are asking for well edited and proofed manuscripts that they will then put the finishing touches on before sending them out into the world. Without the creative element, there is no product – period. Without out the author’s part, you have nothing but an airplane with no engine. It may be pretty to look at, but it is not going to get you anywhere.

      We have to acknowledge that, without the creativity of the author – the editors, proofreaders, cover illustrators, interior designers, sales, marketing, distributing and printing folk are all out of a job. I think that merits a little bit more than a 5% royalty.

      Comment by marchbooks — September 1, 2009 @ 5:30 pm | Reply

  2. Nicely said… twice. I think that if the technology is there use it. We (meaning people) have the ability to do a print on demand type service so instead of wasting anything (money, time, resources) with ‘unwanted’ and an ‘unnecessary’ large amount of books published to be shipped out to stores when the publishers big or small could just print a small number at a time to send out, it should be done that way. If it is not done that way and the publisher is the one making the largest profit AND they are the ones saying print a ton of books why is it the author, who has little to no say, that gets the short end of the stick? Not to mention that if the publisher is making a high profit, advertizing so people will know about the book is the least they can do for themselves. If it takes 5,000 sales or 10,000 to make back the money spent why place that on the back of an author, they are expected to do both advertize and survive. California’s population alone it 36,756,666 (July 2008) it should not be that hard to interest 5,000 people, schools, libraries, reviewers, and media, if the publisher and agent were interested finding 5,000 other people should not be that much of a struggle. All it takes is a little advertizing and a book can go a very long way. Libraries will buy several books at a time if there is a demand. Make the book known and don’t punish the author for the choices left up the publishers.
    As for the 50-50… that is nice, I truly think that a 25-75 split would even be fair, since yes, the author is the engine of the book but there are no seats without the publisher. If the author made 25% publisher 75%… but the publisher covered 75% of the advertizing and the author was given 25% of the book sales but split 25% of the advertizing… it would be nice. And by the split I do not mean the same as labeling food in the fridge I mean this, the author goes to book signings and pays for everything but the plane ticket or train ticket. The publisher helps to book the tours, places ads in magazines, makes posters, and promotes the books in everyone they can. The author then has the responsibility so go to the book signings (buy their own food, pay for the hotel), to have t-shirts made if they want to (that is not up to the publisher), to have a website and keep it up to date, tweet, blog, talk fairly about the publisher and talk a lot about their book. The author should be given more percentage and also know what they NEED to do for their book and the publisher since they are taking the lions share need to make sure that everyone knows about that book, because it is theirs too. As for the royalty that should be up to each individual contract so there is some give and take room to negotiate.
    Above all no one should hurt in order to sale a book, the marriage should be a happy one with understood boundaries and to know who is doing the dishes and who takes out the trash.
    Sorry if there are typos I am having a fast typing day with many mistakes.

    Comment by sarahwinters — September 2, 2009 @ 4:17 pm | Reply

  3. A couple things aren’t clear from your post.

    1. Is the split 50/50 on sales or profit? (I’ve done some calculations on this, and a 30% share of profit equals approximately a 10% royalty on an aggressively marketed book that sells well. It’s less if the book doesn’t sell well because so many expenses come up front.)

    2. Does the author get an advance?

    Those two details would make a big difference in how close a “50/50 split” deal is to a traditional advance-plus-royalty deal.

    Comment by Sarah — September 4, 2009 @ 6:03 pm | Reply

    • Sarah,

      If you follow the link to Bob Miller’s article, you will get more details on the model. It is Harper Studio’s model. As I said in a previous model, the exact percentage is less important (to me in any case) than an attitude that makes the author a partner in the venture. The traditional model usually plays out like this – the author writes the book, the publisher (after much fanfare and gnashing of teeth) finally deigns to publish the book. At that point, the author must sign over all creative control and step back in exchange for whatever the publisher decides to give them. For the majority of authors, that means a 5-10% royalty and little, if any, advance. The book will then sink or swim on its own because few large publishers are investing much in marketing books by authors with no name or following (kind of counterintuitive).

      I am just in agreement about making the author more of a partner in the exchange. Let them hash out a contract with terms that are fair to both parties and give them both a reason to agressively push for the success of the book.

      The way things are now, it is much like a business hiring a crew of commission workers. Once the overhead costs are paid, there is a good argument for hiring as many of these workers as possible. Some will succeed and some will fail but there is little lost on the ones who do not succeed.

      Provided the publisher does not do a large initial print run, royalties will only be paid on sales and even on the remainder table, the book should be able to cover its print cost, which is good for the publisher but cuts the author out of the equation.

      The bottom line is, that these publishing houses have their staff and operations in place, presumably on salary. Those people will either be editing, formatting, designing and selling books, or they will be sitting idle. Therefore, the only real expense the publisher undertakes with a new author is the cost of the initial print run. It is not as risky an endeavor as some make it out to be.

      Comment by marchbooks — September 5, 2009 @ 12:01 pm | Reply

  4. Hi, thanks for pointing me here from Patty’s blog. I will have a deeper read and consider next week when I have some time, but I did want to say that I’m a huge fan of Harper Studio. I do think, though, they made a huge mistake and sent out a massive wrong message with their much-vaunted hire of Jessica Wiener as marketing director. Nothing necessarily wrong with the hire, but heralding her as “the wizard behind the curtain of the campaigns for Mitch Albom, Randy Pausch, Candace Bushnell, Nigella Lawson, Jamie Oliver, Kelly Corrigan” sends out the WRONG message for an imprint that prides itself on breaking the mould. It feels like they’ve got cold feet – like central office have committed the cardinal Miramax sin of setting up/acquiring an indie wing because it’s great to have new fresh thinkers (and anyway “indie’s in”), and then imprinting central policy on them. Small and fresh is exciting. But big publishers wanting to be on the bandwagon have to let their small, fresh imprints act small and fresh – even if that means causing big brother embarrassment on the way. Do that, and kid brother may just live to outgrow big sibling

    Comment by danholloway — September 30, 2009 @ 6:56 am | Reply

    • Hello Dan,

      glad to have you aboard. You will find the posts here a bit eclectic. Our authors post here. M. J., likes to take on animal advocacy issues. Janus adds the occasional political rant and I, for the most part, stick to the world of publishing (as we know it).

      Re: your comment, I agree. I would prefer to see the big publishers preserve the autonomy of the smaller publishers – however, I don’t think that is necessarily realistic in today’s environment (perhaps the expectation is realistic). However, at the end of the day, big publishers are just another arm of big corporate America. There, the order of the day is to fall in line and conform, because after all, the big corporations have all the answers, don’t they?

      Comment by marchbooks — October 1, 2009 @ 4:19 pm | Reply

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