Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Two New Approaches to Publishing: Notes from Digital Book World

I’m just back from attending the Digital Book World conference. I thought briefly about attempting to give an overview of  the whole thing, but there’s way too much ground to cover. For what might be called the strobe-light account, I recommend searching Twitter for #dbw, where many participants tweeted updates from the panels. And Publishers Lunch has posted summaries of most of the key sessions.

Out of many informative and sometimes provocative presentations—and unfortunately I missed several because I could only be in one room at a time—two new “business models” that people talked about yesterday especially intrigued me. One might be called an attempt to fix what’s most broken with the traditional big-house trade publishing business. In that sense it’s backward rather than forward-looking, but a smart and promising way of addressing our problems. 

First, the profit-sharing model of HarperStudio, as explained by founder Bob Miller, where instead of traditional advances and royalties (he reports), the publisher pays a small advance, but splits all revenue, minus direct costs (but not overheads) evenly with the author. The beauty of this approach is not only that it drastically decreases the house’s unearned advance risk, but that it aligns the interest of publisher and author more closely throughout the process.

Marketing budgets and strategies, for instance, can come out of a conversation between publisher and author, not the kind of negotiation where the author and publisher haggle over whether to spend on a book party or a publicity tour.  Bob’s account of the warm fuzzy feelings between HarperStudio and its authors sounds almost too good to be true, but as someone who has always tried to make the author part of the publishing team, even with a more conventional contract, I think there is a lot going for his program. (Roger Cooper’s Vanguard Press, which also offers authors less money up front, more later, plus a guaranteed marketing budget, is a similar and also appealing consultative approach.)

If HarperStudio and Vanguard are smart attempts to fix what’s broken in Big Publishing, Richard Nash’s Cursor is an attempt to “skate to where the puck is going to be,” in Wayne Gretzky terms. Looking forward to the likely future (see my post from Monday) when general-interest publishing is a relic and the publisher’s relationship with a community of interest is its key asset, Cursor envisions selling those dedicated readers not just books, but a variety of ways of interacting with authors—expensive, deluxe editions; 99-cent e-books; even classes or other forms of in-person access. As Richard noted in his presentation, paying $25,000 for an MFA, as thousands in our country do annually, is really a very expensive way of buying access to established writers.  Also novel is his plan to make contracts with three-year terms (and no advances), in the belief the publisher should earn the author's ongoing loyalty rather than aking him  (His session, too featured some other innovative models, Eoin Purcell’s Greenlamp and Angela James’s digital-first Carina Press at Harlequin. Cursor seems to me the most ambitious of the three.)

These ventures have been much written about already,  and in truth it's too early to say how well the results will pan out over the long term.  But they look to me like really welcome developments which, if they work, could point the way for publishers large and small to follow. I wish them all success and will be following them closely.