Back-Loaded Book Deals: The Biggest Bright Spot in Publishing’s Future?

Jane FriedmanBy Jane Friedman, Publisher & Editorial Director, Writer’s Digest

Industry optimism may have been witnessed at its most profound during the “Back-Loaded Book Deals” panel at the 2010 Digital Book World Conference, featuring two publishers and two agents—a combination that could’ve resulted in tremendous verbal duels, but rather conveyed a spirit of collaboration, innovative thinking, and true partnership between authors, agents, and publishers. The idealistic tone reached such heights that moderator Lorraine Shanley of Publishing Trends sardonically remarked that she might cry.

But it was indeed a moment of remarkable insight into what the engine of publishing is, and what valuable purpose publishers serve.

The two publishers on the panel, Robert Miller of HarperStudio and Roger Cooper of Vanguard, opened up by explaining their motivations to find a new publishing model: to avoid unearned advances, huge returns, and little return on big investment. Both wanted to focus more on quality. Cooper said of the old model, “There were a huge number of books being printed and shipped, but very few books being published.”

[NOTE: DBW Members can access the full audio of this session here.]

Their new models summarized:

  • HarperStudio offers its authors a 50-50 profit share and low advance—though one might question if $100,000 (the max advance amount) might be considered low. They have the back-end resources of HarperCollins, but only six people dedicated to acquisitions, editorial, marketing, and publicity. They limit their publication schedule to 2 titles per month.
  • Vanguard offers no advance, but high royalties, and also publishes 2 books per month. They guarantee a substantial marketing budget in the contract, and Cooper emphasized that they have a unique SWAT team for executing each title, built of experts who may come from outside the company. Because there is no advance, Vanguard pays royalties 90 days after publication and then on a monthly basis.

Originally, Miller intended HarperStudio to go solely nonreturnable with their business. While several large accounts have gone along with that deal, they had to offer returnable as well, since most retailers would not take their titles otherwise.

The Secret: Transparency and Collaboration With Authors

But what really drew everyone’s attention and created the Kum Ba Yah moment was the focus on transparency, collaboration, and communication between publisher and author. While at one time it was unthinkable to ever share a book P/L with an author, Miller says that HarperStudio reviews financials with authors so they can come to mutual decisions on how much money to invest in a title’s print run, marketing, publicity—and anything else that might impact the bottom line.

Miller said, “This is a collaboration, and let’s decide every bit of it together. What money can we spend that will make money? It’s much easier, I find, than obfuscation and pretending you don’t know what co-op is. … It’s amazing how often you come to a consensus when you have the same information in front of you.”

Cooper agreed: “The idea is to learn from others, to learn from an agent, to learn from an author, to learn from another member of the team. You can come up with extraordinary ideas.”

The Agents’ Perspective

So what about agents’ take on this innovation?

Ira Silverberg of Sterling Lord Literistic said, “As an agent, I’m the first person who will say, ‘The writer’s always getting screwed.’ We’re now trying to figure out how everyone can make a little bit of money, and also how we can keep everyone in business.”

The most important point from the agents’ side was that low-advance and no-advance models can tremendously benefit authors at the top of their game. The ones who have the most to lose are the mid-list authors, who can make a book-to-book living on the advances that publishers still pay.

However, Ira added that, in the future, he doesn’t think many authors will have paper-based books—that maybe print-on-demand or e-books would be the standard for most authors.

Mary Ann Naples of Creative Culture pointed out that—far from being fans of traditional publishing—most authors are now disillusioned and eager to find new models. Or, Naples said, she might have a savvy author who says, “I’m not interested in the traditional model because I’m in self-publishing and I’m into other businesses, and unless I can make more money doing it, I don’t want to do it the traditional way.”

A Little Tender Loving Care Goes a Long Way

Even though HarperStudio and Vanguard have small staffs and arguably limited resources, they have time to concentrate and focus on each book’s release, and can give each title and author the time and dedication it needs to succeed. Miller said, “No book goes unnoticed. A book gets a real opportunity to get distributed and marketed in a real, strategic way. I prefer that to 2 books out of 10 that get that attention.”

This line of conversation provoked the most Twitter praise and favorable commentary after the session. But it also made sense from a business perspective and emphasized what makes publishers special in a time of many DIY options.

Silverberg said, “There will be very high-end authors and very low-end authors who will go direct to Amazon and Google because they can make more money. But what’s not in these platforms is a group of knowledgeable people to get these works out into the world, and help the author with networking with a group of informed readers.”

The big-picture takeaway? Publishing is much more collaborative and transparent now than it was even 10 years ago, and will have to remain so if the business is to successfully transition into the digital age. The importance of meaningful connections—and trust—between editors and authors is of the highest value in facing publishing’s greatest challenges.

Jane Friedman is the publisher and editorial director of the Writer’s Digest brand community, where she oversees Writer’s Digest magazine, Writer’s Digest Books, and the Writer’s Market series.

4 thoughts on “Back-Loaded Book Deals: The Biggest Bright Spot in Publishing’s Future?

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  2. Jan Rider Newman

    This is a very exciting time in writing and publishing. Fewer people are getting traditional book deals, but other opportunities are opening. A lot of writers, like me, are caught in the middle but figuring it out. It’s good to know there are agents and editors also looking for answers.

  3. Patricia V. Davis

    My start-up publisher, Harper Davis, works very much like this, on a much smaller scale, of course. And they have added some other goodies to the mix for writers- more editorial control, bookings at local bookshops guaranteed, etc. While many appear to be shaken up by the changes in the industry, a number of us see opportunities everywhere. This is mirrored in the film industry where digital film and miraculous IMacs and Final Cut Pro have made film making easier and more portable. young indy filmakers now have screenings of their work on Tuesdays nights when theaters traditionally undersell regular movie tickets. Half the take goes to the indie filmmaker, half to the theater. Who can NOT see all these changes as opportunities? Probably the guys who have had their “cheese moved”.

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