After a Hundred and Fifty Years, It Just Might Work Again

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.

Author: Andy Le Peau

I've been an editor and writer for over forty years. I am passionate about ideas and how we can express them clearly, beautifully, and persuasively. I love reading good books, talking about them, and recommending them. I thoroughly enjoy my family who help me continue on the path of a lifelong learner.

3 thoughts on “After a Hundred and Fifty Years, It Just Might Work Again”

  1. This is a real sore spot with me. In essence, what’s going on here is the author’s saying, “I’ll take whatever you choose to give me.”

    If you want to specify that the only direct production costs such as printing, shipping, warehousing, etc. are applied to the account, fine. Then split the rest, half to the author and half to the publisher to cover their admin. and general expenses. I say that’s a fair deal. But you and I both know that’s not how it will be.

    The publishers keep the books. Remeber the joke about a businessman hiring an accountant? He asked, “How much is two and two?” The sucessful applicant replied, “How much do you want it to be?”

    Let’s suppose a book is doing really well and generating lots of cash flow. Suddenly the publisher decides to remodel the executive suite, or hire more assistants, or move to swankier offices. Meanwhile, the poor author is standing there hat in hand wondering why his book never made any money.

    The estate of JRR Tolkein has yet to see a penny from the LOR movies. They grossed something like 3 billion dollars, yet never made a profit. Strange, huh?

    And don’t tell me the CBA publishers are different. The CBA market already pays on the net instead of the list. If you’re going to do that, to be fair you should pay twice the royalty rate of the NY pubs. Do they? No. Also, if they cut a deal with a certain chain to move a lot of books, part of that discount is coming out of the author’s pocket. Is he/she consulted before they do it?

    Like Stephen King said, “There are publishers who’d steal the pennies off a dead man’s eyes.”

  2. I’m not sure that the 50/50 model will work unless the author has some say in what costs are incurred–after all, he or she is liable for half of them.

    However, the low-or-no advance has got to come back. At this point, publishers are shouldering 100 percent of the risk, which doesn’t seem fair either.

    In the days ahead, I think it’s going to be much harder to make money from publishing than from writing.

  3. Ed and Larry:

    Compensating authors fairly has been a point of contention as long as there have been publishers. Ed, you are right that the movie industry is especially vulnerable to the criticism of not sharing profits with authors. The music industry is similar. Publishing, I think, is generally on better footing since using the standard royalty model (whether retail or net) is not based on profit (which can be manipulated) but on income or sales. So the publisher may in fact lose a lot of money and the author will still get compensated as long as there are sales.

    So I’m not advocating the 50/50 model in particular. It would need a lot of careful work to make it fair and balanced. My main point was that it is a different idea. And the past is a good place to go if you are looking for “new” ideas–things that haven’t been tried in a while, sometimes a long while.


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