My Second Month on the Hypothetical Job
Wow, my hypothetical first month as CEO of New HarperCollins went by in a flash! It feels like it’s only been a week. Goes to show how much we’ve done and how far we’ve come. I thought it would be a couple years before we overtook Random Penguin as the #1 publisher in the land. I mean, it used to take us a year to produce a book. But with Elle Casey as our guide, we now know what’s possible. And even though I’m something of a slacker CEO (it takes me two months to go from blank page to publication), my team has really impressed me with their energy. I think those long NY lunches were wearing them out. Now we have a free buffet and a climbing wall in our Houston offices, which means no one ever feels like going home. Productivity is through the roof. It’s like a startup over here. Shelly from accounting even on-sighted that 5.14a that Ned said was impossible.
But now we’re in the second month, and we’ve got the easy changes behind us: DRM is a thing of the past; hardback sales have shot up with the ebook bundling; our authors are using the forums and coming up with great ideas (that we actually listen to and implement). Things are great. But they could be better. Now that we’re #1 and have some leverage, we’re gonna drop the bunker busters.
1. New HarperCollins announces an end to the returns system. Holy crap, that’s right. We just did the unthinkable. We told bookstores that if they buy our products, we won’t take them back for a full refund. Instead, we’re doing two things: We’re lowering the price of our mass market paperbacks by a dollar and hardbacks by five dollars. We’ll fund this with the money we’re saving by being outside of Houston and by not having to process returns (and print so many books that we never sell). We’re also enticing bookstores by offering 50% discounts on our titles rather than the industry norm (which can range from 35% to 46% for non-bulk orders). Bookstores pay less; the consumer pays less; our margins are squeezed, but we don’t take returns.
Which is okay, because most of our sales are through online retailers these days, and they manage inventory more efficiently. We also know, having worked with bookstores for generations, that they don’t like the returns system either. What other retail industry allows all of inventory to be returned for a full refund? My mother ran a knit shop. She had to be judicious with her buying; she had to make smart choices. What didn’t sell went on sale. With a 50% discount from us, bookstores can mark what doesn’t sell at half price and do better than returning the books (bookstores pay the shipping for returns, and they pay employees to box up the books). Getting all of their money back will be an improvement on a small loss, and it’ll bring readers into stores again. Amazon can’t compete with their prices!
At the last bookstore I worked in, our bargain section was one of our busiest areas. It didn’t exist when I was hired. Within a year, it ruled our sales sheets. We bought in bulk from remaindering companies (which meant these books were shipped around the country several times, damaging the environment. A no-returns system will avoid this). New HarperCollins’s earth-shattering policy will mean fewer books bought by bookstores but ZERO books returned. It will mean more of New HarperCollins books will be read by consumers. Our competition will continue pulping theirs. (They used to burn them!)
Making this announcement will solidify New HarperCollins as the T-Mobile of the publishing industry. We’re the un-publisher. Even folks at Amazon are turning to each other and saying, “Why didn’t we think of that?”
2. In month two, we embrace print on demand. We already employ Lightning Source for small fluctuations in demand and emergency print runs, but now we’re going all-in. Our entire backlist is being made available to in-store printing systems like the Espresso Book Machine. In month one, we assured our authors that their contracts wouldn’t lock them down forever. Now, we’re assuring them that their books will always be available.
As part of this program, we’re announcing the Lost Literature initiative. Every month, we’re going to take a book that we believed in, that we still believe in, one that didn’t do so well upon release, and we’re going to promote it as a work of Lost Literature. Small numbers will be printed and sent to book club members and be made available to retailers. We will also send letters to the authors of these works and apologize for not printing that trade paper we told them they would get in their contract but then didn’t after we saw their hardback didn’t sell so well. “Our bad,” the letter will say. Rumor of these two words escaping a publisher’s lips will echo through the halls of those publishers still up in New York. They’ll whisper about it over expensive lunches.
3. The reason we’re able to promote backlist titles is because of a revolutionary change in our operational philosophy: We no longer see our own books as competitors. This is currently a major problem, one that never served us or our authors well. Every book will be seen as equal to every other book. We don’t worry about lowering the price of a backlist title and having it compete with a new release. Hitting bestseller lists is no longer our goal. Getting books in the hands of readers is our goal. The competition is no longer our other books, the competition is twofold: It’s those other publishers like Penguin House. But more than that, it’s all the other things people can do that’s not reading. We want to prevent people from not reading. Lower prices help and faith in our backlist helps. You know what helps even more?
4. Free books. That’s right, we’re going to offer free books. Neil Gaiman demonstrated the power of free when he convinced his publisher to put American Gods up on a website, gratis. He suspected something awesome might happen. What happened was even awesomer. American Gods print sales went up 300% for the entire month that his publisher offered the book for free. Neil begged them to leave the book up for longer, but the publisher had had enough of this sudden onrush of profits. They pulled the book down. The print sales returned to normal. The word correlation never came up, much less causation. The experiment was not repeated.
The books we love here at New HarperCollins that aren’t gaining traction? You know, like a great book with good reviews that won’t take off because the name Rowling isn’t on the cover? We’re going to offer the entire text for free on our website. One title per genre, rotating every month. Come and read our great novels rather than scroll through your Facebook feed. Come read our great novels rather than pay too much for Randomly Penguinish’s environmentally-unsound returnable tome. Oh, another way we’re giving books away:
5. Cereal boxes. No, we’re not going to print our books on the back of your Frosted Flakes (am I the only one who did most of my early reading on cereal boxes?) No, what we’re going to do is something else I remember as a kid. I remember clipping UPC codes and turning them in for free stuff. For every ten New HarperCollins books you read, you’re gonna get a free one. We’re going to partner with online retailers to make this a cinch. All of our product pages will feature our new company logo, so readers know the book qualifies for the deal. Amazon, Kobo, iBookstore, B&N, Google Play . . . everyone can deliver a book of the reader’s choice for every ten NHC books purchased. We pay the distributor the full cut, so it behooves them to participate. It’s free money for them. It’s an extra sale for every ten they make. And now we’re really branding ourselves as the publisher to beat.
In the case of print books, just cut out the last page in every book, which details the program and lists qualifying titles in the same genre or by the same author. Mail those pages in with your selection checked or written in, and your free book arrives in the mail!
Again, at Amazon, executives are saying to themselves, “What will these crazy cats in Houston think up next?!”
6. Speaking of branding, we’re going to do a better job of that. We’re going to start by getting rid of our imprints. They’re dumb. Nobody knows what they are. Nobody cares. Not outside of the publishing houses. Readers certainly don’t. It took me years of working in a bookstore to know which publisher I needed to call to order a book without scanning it in the system or hunting the tiny print on the copyright page. The book jacket would list the name of a previously-independent small publisher that had been gobbled by a bigger one. Or more likely these days: the name of an imprint concocted as a favor to an in-house editor. Publishing imprints are akin to producer credits on Hollywood films: Meaningless badges whose significance seems paramount to the two or three people involved and no one else. They’re gone.
We’re replacing them with very clear genre imprints. It’s a pretty open and damning secret, but readers don’t buys a Penguin Home book because it’s a Penguin Home book. They don’t look and they don’t care (which is why, as I glance at the top selling books on Amazon in science fiction right now, self-published authors dominate. Readers don’t care how books are published). Well, we’re going to make them care. One of our strongest advantages is curation. Aware of the brand loyalty to genre-specific publishers like Orbit, Tor, and Harlequin, we’re going to replicate that in-house. Our science fiction imprint will be called Worlds, or something equally clear. Our romance division will be called Bella Andre, H.M Ward, and Similar Titles. (Or something else. I can’t have all the ideas around here). We’ll even have a literary fiction imprint, though it will of course get less attention than our bestselling genres. Because.
The point is, readers will see that NHC logo and know they’re going to qualify for a free book and that they’re going to get a perfectly edited book that they’ll enjoy. No more readers wandering around the bookstore, thinking they’ve read everything, not wanting to take a chance and be disappointed. “Squee!” they’ll say, when they see a new NHC book. “I haven’t read that one yet!” And they’ll buy it without even flipping to the back.
7. Speaking some more about branding, here at New HarperCollins we know that our authors are a brand, not their books. This is difficult to acknowledge, because it requires letting go of the ego we have about creating bestsellers that would otherwise languish were it not for our expert wisdom. But we’ve seen self-published authors dominate us in gross sales, so we know it’s about the writer and not the book. Moving to Houston has made it easier for us to admit stuff like this. We no longer sit authors down in our offices and beg them not to talk about themselves on book tour. We don’t give them really bad publicity advice like, “Let’s not discuss your personal journey and just stick to the plot. It’s a great book. Focus on the book. Don’t talk about yourself too much.”
Because that’s been done before. I’m pretty sure. But our authors know better, and now we know better. Blabbering about plot turns a reader’s brain off. Yes, we know it’s about people who do something. Is it any good? Oh, it’s been optioned for a film? Oh, you’ve sold how many copies of your other books? Oh, you went from nearly losing your home to making six figures a month like that sweet couple I saw on CBS? Damn, it must be good. No, don’t tell me what it’s about; I wanna be surprised. GIMMEE!
We’re going to celebrate the personal stories behind the written stories. We’re going to present authors as human beings. Readers will enjoy this. They’ll want to meet their favorite authors. They’ll want to subscribe to their book clubs (a month three initiative). We’re going to take a backseat and bring the author front and center. Let them become the brand. We don’t have to worry about them taking that brand elsewhere because we’re paying 50% net on ebook sales and offering limited terms of contract. Remember?
8. More letting the author shine. Readers love meeting authors. New HarperCollins has already brought its authors together in a private forum meant to strengthen loyalty, generate ideas, and increase enthusiasm. Now we’re taking that database of authors and putting together local events that they can afford to travel to. In conjunction with libraries (which we are treating better by offering sane prices for ebooks) and indie bookstores (which are the future of the printed word) we are doing once-monthly literature events that bring together authors from within a reasonable radius to discuss their books, announce new releases, and meet readers.
We will be able to afford this by getting rid of our current book tours — which spend ridiculous sums on 4-star hotel suites that exhausted authors hardly see — and we will spread that money across our entire stable of authors. By allowing our authors to drive no more than three hours to local events and shoulder that much smaller cost (a vast improvement over current industry practices of expecting authors to fly to national conventions and pay their own travel and hotel costs) we will have plenty of money left over for food, drinks, and freebies. Readers will come and listen to readings, attend panels, and participate in workshops on the craft of writing. They will walk away with swag, signed books, and full bellies. They will also know better where their local libraries and bookshops are located. The gallery crawl model will come to the book world. Indie shops and libraries will benefit greatly. As will our authors and our readers. Every writer in the world wants to be a HarperCollins author. Bookstores are crazy not to order our nonreturnable books.
9. If month one was about letting go of ego, month two is about understanding the long tail of publishing. Less concentration on blockbusters. A fairer investment in our authors. By bringing back lost works and embracing POD, we give writers a second chance. By putting together regional author events, we make sure that our bestsellers and our freshman authors are able to share the stage. We don’t want them going anywhere else. Low prices for backlist means more revenue streams, which all add up. We care less about how many times we grace the New York Times bestseller list (which isn’t even a true reflection of sales) and we care more about how many books we have ranked in the top 10,000 on Amazon. Hey, we would love to at least catch up to self-published authors in this regard. Maybe even surpass them!
We can dream, right? After all, this is all fantasy. And yes, small publishing houses already do many of the things New HarperCollins is tackling in these first two months. Without the promise of large advances and major bookstore distribution, small publishers have to sweeten the pot and be nimble where they can. None of these ideas are unheard of. Few of them are untried. But nobody our size has tried this. Other major publishers may be content to reap record profits off the growth of ebook sales while paying authors practically nothing for digital books with far lower production and distribution costs, but we wouldn’t feel right doing that. Authors are people too. Readers are people. That’s our new focus here at HarperCollins. Less worrying about ourselves, less focus on the bookstore as our customer, and more about bringing writers and readers together.
Because both parties are rapidly learning that they can do this on their own.