Everyone is hailing it as a great innovation in publishing. Actually, it’s just an excellent example of bringing back a very old idea in a new context.
True, it was a bit of a bombshell that Robert S. Miller, founder and president of Hyperion, announced he was leaving the company to head up a new imprint for HarperCollins.
What also got everyone’s attention was the business model Miller intends to use at the new division. First, short “popular-priced” books. (Not much new there.) Second (and here’s what people noticed), pay authors low advances—or none at all. Of course, high advances have long been problematic, making even bestsellers not very profitable.
So how will he lure in the big names? Here’s the old idea many have unwittingly christened as a totally new, completely revolutionary, never-been-thought-of idea (trumpet fanfare): share profits equally with authors. Actually this was one of the standard ways publishing was done over a hundred and fifty years ago.
In 1851 John P. Jewett contacted Harriet Beecher Stowe about publishing in book form her very popular serialization of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. He offered Mrs. Stowe a choice. Either she could have a straight ten percent royalty or he would split costs and profits with her fifty-fifty. As John Tebbel tells the story, “Mrs. Stowe’s husband asked the advice of a family friend, Congressman Philip Greeley, who gave them perhaps the worst advice in publishing history: he told them to take the 10 percent.” The book became the bestselling novel of the 19th century.
There is great potential value in mining the past, looking to the history of publishing to revive an idea that may have not been tried for a century or two.
Sometimes a publisher can learn from its own history about what not to do. But sometimes someone else’s history is worth repeating.