Thursday, May 14, 2009

May 14, 2009: No advances for writers: Heresy or common sense?

From Cover to Cover radio show hosts ReShonda Tate Billingsley and Pat Tucker discussed the “HarperCollins Experiment” on their May 7 show. Unfortunately, I didn’t catch the show. Nor, for some strange technical reason, could I listen to the archived version. I assume from the show’s PR blurb that the “HarperCollins Experiment” they mean is the phenomenon that sent both the MSM and the blogosphere buzzing last April, from writer Roger L. Simon, to the Future Perfect Publishing blog, to as far afield as Britain’s Guardian Media Group web site.

Basically, HarperCollins launched the HarperStudio imprint last April. One key difference from the parent company: HarperStudio does not accept returns from bookstores. But that’s not the part that drove people nuts; this is. In lieu of advances, this radical upstart gives authors a larger share of the profits from their books. Though, it does seem, from this NPR piece posted in January, that they’ve backpedaled a touch, saying that they don’t pay an advance larger than $100,000.

So, does this truly signal the death of the writer’s advance? I interviewed former Kensington Books editor Rakia Clark for my column at, and she says that the advance is one thing that separates publishing apart from other media. According to Clark, “The advance was traditionally set up so the author could live on it, but most books don’t earn out. With a successful book, the profit margins, in relation to that of other industries, are quite low.”

For your average midlist author, I don’t think that this is the tragedy that some envision. Only the Chosen Few of us live off our earnings as writers. Most of us have kept our day jobs. After all, over a year after HarperStudio appeared, my world looks pretty much the same. Just like Obama’s tax hikes will only affect those making a quarter-million dollars or more, this abolition of hefty advances would probably only affect those who could potentially receive them. Like Kathy Griffin, who just sold her memoirs for over $2 million to Ballantine. Or Alaska governor and former vice presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, who won’t even reveal how much she got from HarperCollins for her book, due out in 2010.

Of course, y’all know me; I have concerns. Agent Kristin voices many of them here in her blog, Pub Rants. I’m especially perturbed about #4 on her list: If publishers are not giving advances to authors, will publishers pony up extra money on their end for marketing and promotion efforts? Regardless of whatever new paradigm publishing ends up sticking with, the fact remains that the industry sells books, not drugs. And, unlike drugs according to Chris Rock, books don’t sell themselves.

Of those who weighed in on HarperCollins’ experiment with HarperStudio, writer Roger L. Simon makes a point that resonates for me.

My question then is - what’s the point of the publisher?

Well, there’s editing (which one can get elsewhere) and the fancy publishing house imprimatur, maybe a little help with production and publicity (again available elsewhere - many authors pay for their own publicists anyway). It [sic] this really enough? The author can do much better on percentages, I am sure, by self-publishing. And that same author may know his or her way around the Internet better than the publisher, when it comes to publicity.

To which, like Eddie Murphy in Boomerang when Robin Givens asks why he’s in bed with her instead of Halle Berry, I say… Exactly.

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