Hugh Howey’s prescription for fixing the Big Five: Become more like the indies
January 13, 2014 | 1:53 pm
Hugh Howey, author of the Kindle Direct-published Wool SF series that was optioned by Ridley Scott, has a very interesting pair of blog posts on how he would “fix” the publishing industry, or at least one particular company in the publishing industry. As a thought experiment, he lays down what he would do in his first and second months if he were picked as HarperCollins’s new Chief Executive Officer. (He chose the publisher at random; it could as easily have been any of the others of the Big Five.) And while he does tend to overlook that these changes would probably have to be vetted by the board of directors, not to mention that HarperCollins’s News Corp overlords might have something to say about it, that doesn’t lessen the breathtaking audacity of the plan he lays out for turning the company around.
Howey starts with the observation that the list of top-ten bestselling science fiction authors on Amazon is (or was when he wrote the post anyway) evenly split between self-publishing SF writers and traditionally-published established SF writers—people with big backlogs such as David Weber or George R.R. Martin. There weren’t any new traditionally-published SF writers. Howey isn’t entirely sure why this is, but his guesses include that self-publishing authors have more flexibility in release schedules than tradpubs, and that tradpubs simply aren’t as focused on genres as they might be.
This is a head-scratcher, and it nearly caused a bald spot when I was working in a bookstore. I knew where the demand was, and I wasn’t seeing it in the catalogs. Readers wanted romance, science fiction, mystery/thrillers, and young adult. We had catalogs full of literary fiction. Just the sort of thing acquiring editors are looking for and hoping people will read more of, but not what customers were asking me for.
Howey’s prescription for turning HarperCollins around involves making the traditional publisher act more like an independent one. Fostering better communication among authors, and having the publicity department pay attention to and learn from what indies are doing are part of his order of the day for month one. He thinks that every format should be issued as soon as it’s ready—e-books first, since they don’t have to be printed and shipped, then hardcovers at the same time as paperbacks so that paperbacks can benefit from the same buzz that sells hardcovers. He also suggests giving away the (DRM-free) e-book free with the hardcover, and bringing back mass market paperbacks and paper-on-board hardbacks (hardcover books with a paperback-style cover, no dust jacket to get torn up or lost).
He also wants no more “escalator clauses” that require payment of higher royalty rates to all authors upon payment of them to one, and no more “non-compete” clauses that keep authors from publishing multiple books at once. In fact, if books are part of a series and they look like they’ll do well, he wants to hold back publishing them until the first two are ready and the third is scheduled, so that they can come out in sequential months and build buzz for each other, rather than waiting until the first one is stale in people’s minds before coming out with another.
Other changes in the first month include getting rid of sales reps, who frequently convince bookstores to buy more books than they need, contributing to the waste of material and energy that comes in returns. He wants to go to finite terms of license: a set five year period, renewable if both the author and publisher agree, rather than limited by in-print/out-of-print status. He also wants to take the money that had been spent on (fruitless) publicity, ARCs, and so on and instead put it into editors and acquiring new authors—and work with whatever new promotional ideas Amazon comes up with, instead of against them.
He would also cut costs by moving the publisher out of New York City and into “a low-slung building in an industrial center near a nice airport. Houston would be a good choice.” Savings from this would go into paying higher royalties; Amazon’s 70% would look less attractive compared to 50% rather than the 25% authors get now. And he would go to monthly payments and share sales metrics with authors—if they could get it by self-publishing, they ought to be able to get it from traditionally-publishing, too.
Howey’s plan for the second month is even more audacious. He would have HC end the returns system, using the cost savings to lower cover prices of its books. He would also wholesale the books at a flat 50% across the board retail price discount, so that publishers can just mark down anything that doesn’t sell to the wholesale price and break even on it, rather than having to pay shipping costs and wages for employees to box them up instead of doing something else.
He would also have HC make all its backlist titles available through in-store print-on-demand solutions like the Espresso Book Machine, so that authors on those five-year contracts would never have to see their book go out of print, and even have a rotating spotlight on some older book that didn’t sell well, calling it a work of “Lost Literature.” There would also be a monthly free e-book from each genre, and a “buy ten books, get one free” program.
Howey would have HC scrap its current confusing system of imprints in favor of branding with simpler ones that would mean something to readers. It would put an emphasis on branding by author, rather than by imprint, and encourage the authors to talk about themselves and the stories around their books in book tours rather than trying to force them to focus on the plot (which readers will find out about anyway when they read the book). Book tours would also be more localized affairs, saving money over the current practice of flying the most popular authors all over and putting them in four-star hotels.
Many of these things are things that smaller publishing houses are doing already, but they haven’t been tried by a major publisher of this scale before. Howey points out that the real competition is with the other things readers could be doing instead of reading. Rather than trying to focus on the bookstore as the customer, publishers should be focusing on bringing writers and readers together, Howey writes. “Because both parties are rapidly learning that they can do this on their own.”
If these things were done, could traditional publishers turn their game around? Maybe. Of course, doing them would be a major disruption to business—and for that matter, even getting to do them would require going against the culture of the megacorporations that own them. I remember when Tor tried to do something groundbreaking, selling e-books via Baen without any DRM, a panicked corporate exec pulled the plug after only a couple of days. It took them several years to get back to just going DRM-free, and that’s leaving aside all the other changes Howey calls for.
They probably won’t happen, of course. But we can dream, right?