harper-collinsOne of the rallying cries of author advocates and Amazon adversaries alike has been that publishers should start selling their books direct to the public instead of letting middle-man Amazon have so much power. Another rallying cry is that publishers should pay authors bigger royalties. Well, Publishers Weekly reports that HarperCollins is combining those two suggestions, in a way—it’s offering authors an additional 10% royalty rate if they use an affiliate link on their web site to sell their book, e-book, or audiobook from HC’s direct sale site. (The PW article isn’t clear on the math; I’m assuming this means an additional 10% on top of the 25% of net they normally get, for a total of 35%.)

This is a wise move on HC’s part as far as it goes, but there are just a couple of problems with it. First of all, if HC is acting as retailer and wholesaler, why are they only willing to jump up an author’s purchases by a paltry 10% of net (7% of gross)? If they split the 30% agency commission 50-50, that would be over twice what they’re offering as referral incentive.

If those self-same authors used an Amazon affiliate link (in the states where Amazon is still offering it) they’d get 5% of the retail price of their book, which works out to maybe half that 7% of gross, but they’d get it on anything else the consumer bought from Amazon at the same time, too—even if they decided not to buy the author’s book after all. And they’d get that commission every month as long as they did at least $10 in referral business that month, instead of every quarter as part of their royalties. And, frankly, because of the second problem, consumers would be more likely to buy from Amazon anyway.

The second problem is, HC is selling its books at the suggested retail price. (You know, the same one that Hachette’s authors are complaining Amazon is pricing their books at?) To take one example, the HC retail site hardcover/paperback/e-book prices for Partials by Dan Wells are $17.99/$9.99/$9.99. (Though they’ll throw in the e-book for $2.99 if you buy the print version, so there’s at least some savings there, but you have to order at least $49 worth of stuff to get free shipping.) On Amazon, those same prices are $14.23/$8.99/$5.69.

(HC’s front page lists sale discounts on selected books, which is nice as far as it goes, but if a customer wants a book that’s not there, they’ll probably be paying full retail.)

If HC isn’t going to split the 30% agency commission with its authors, it should at least split it with consumers and bring the prices a little closer to Amazon’s. People might be willing to pay a little more if they knew it was more directly supporting the author…but if they were willing to pay full retail, they’d be doing so already and publishers wouldn’t have any reason to be so scared of Amazon.

So, anyway, HarperCollins is dipping its toe in the water, and I wish them success as far as they can go. But they’re going to have to go farther if they seriously want to compete with Amazon.


  1. Chris: Whatever about how much better an author will be becoming a sales affiliate for HC, if this is really intended to be a toe-to-toe with Amazon, then the breaker or maker of it will be about what readers want, not authors. This means price, shipping cost and speed of turnaround to the customer’s front door. That’s where I see big publishers struggling. As you eluded to, publishers are not retailers and wholesalers, no more than they are printers. I’m wholeheartedly behind the move, so long as it’s not a half-way house and a way of leveraging authors as an answer to a long-tail game they are unwilling to fully commit to. But when you have historically shifted the control of your business into the hands of external partners over decades, it’s tough to arrest that control back.

  2. @Chris- I saw this yesterday and spent some time thinking on it. I’m glad you covered it. From a reader’s view, I came to the same conclusion you did.

    I didn’t see a FAQ page on the site but I’m assuming you have to use the HC app? Life is too short and my TBR file too large to spend time reading on an app rather than e-ink. FWIW, the app didn’t seem to have very good reviews on Google Play.

    I only checked one of the highlighted books, Gutenberg’s Apprentice, and found that HC had the highest priced hardcover between HC, BN and AMZ but they also had the cheapest ebook version plus the bundling option. For $.80 more at Amazon ($3.20 more at BN), I can get what I want. Guess where I’m going to buy?

    Why would I give one more retailer access to my payment information? I stopped using PayPal a long time ago and I’m not going to start up again just to do business with HC.*

    I could not care less about the bundling option. It’s been more than five years since I have read fiction in paper. As I get older, it’s less likely that I will ever return to paper. My eyes are starting to insist on the adjustable font thing.

    Maybe the hardbacks are priced higher to discourage buyers? You know, to avoid all that fulfillment stuff? I also suspect that they don’t want to be undercutting BN everywhere so that might play into it.

    I think this is just another option and while an improved one for HC authors, it is not really competition to Amazon. I’d be all for paying a bit more to put more in the author’s pocket but not at the expense of having to read long form fiction on a backlit screen or giving payment information to one more retailer.

    *Maybe they should add Amazon payments as an option?/s Seriously though, I was considering making a donation to a project the other day and it was the fact that I could use Amazon payments that made me pull the trigger.

    PS: I know this post was all about me(!) but I think I’m saying the same things you’d hear from most of my digital reading friends and family.

  3. The issue most independent authors have today with most traditional publishing companies always centers around the paltry percentages being offered. The only reason my husband and I publish with the giant conglomerate that is Amazon is because we get 70% of every sale. We could not find that anywhere, let alone the amount of traffic that said company gets on their website, every day. Like or dislike Amazon, we’ve had an unexpectedly stellar year as virtually unknown writers with them (made over $5k in March alone on just eBook royalties) and that’s how we’re basing our decision to stay.

    HC gets kudos for trying, I suppose, but their offering is both amusing and sad if they think that 35% (at best) will draw authors away from Amazon. This kind of announcement is indicative, in my opinion, of the traditional publishing industry’s slow and impotent reaction(s) change.

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