Jane Friedman and Bob Miller Launch Utopian Publishing Experiment at HarperCollins

The publishing world was stunned yesterday by two major resignations, as Rob Weisbach, founding president of Weinstein Books, and Bob Miller, founding president of Hyperion, both announced that they were vacating their positions to pursue other opportunities.

No word yet on what Mr. Weisbach’s next move will be—he hasn’t returned our calls, though a Weinstein spokesman told us he does have a job in publishing lined up—but Mr. Miller is heading to HarperCollins, where he will head a new, nontraditional publishing “studio” that will put out 25 short, low-priced hardcover titles per year. Mr. Miller will work with a small staff and report directly to company CEO Jane Friedman, with whom he has been friends for almost 30 years.

Mr. Miller’s last day at Hyperion will be Wednesday, but yesterday afternoon Ms. Friedman welcomed him to the HarperCollins fold with a champagne toast outside of her office on the 11th floor of 10 East 53rd Street.

“The seed was planted at a drink date with Jane on Feb. 29, I think,” Mr. Miller told The Media Mob in an interview. “We were at the Omni Berkshire hotel, at the little bar in there. I was just talking about the frustrations of the business, which is what book people do when they have drinks, and she was sharing some of her own. I was talking about how, wouldn’t it be cool to start over from scratch and do it all differently? And she said, ‘Why don’t we?'”

What will Mr. Miller be doing differently? First off, he’s going to try to work with bookstores to develop a method of distribution that does not involve returns, an ancient industry-wide policy that allows booksellers to send back any books they haven’t sold and get refunded for them. This policy has long hurt publishers because it places the entire burden of risk onto them rather than the bookstores, meaning that the buyer at Barnes & Noble can order a million copies of the new James Frey novel without worrying that much about whether that’s too many, since, if the book flops, they can just send whatever they don’t want right back to HarperCollins and force them to swallow the printing costs.

“The return rate is now up to 40 percent on average,” Mr. Miller said. “It’s not healthy. I want to try to work with bookstores to come up with terms that allow us to sell non-returnably.”

Reached in her office this afternoon, Ms. Friedman said she hopes Mr. Miller’s as-yet-unnamed entity will yield an efficient new distribution system that can one day be adopted more broadly.

“It’s not as if we’re saying today all of HarperCollins is going into a non-returnable situation,” she said. “This is an experiment. My hope is that we will work very closely with the booksellers and we will all come to a happy place and be able to adopt these practices in a broader way.”

Mr. Miller also wants to try paying authors smaller advances upfront, but compensate by splitting profits with them 50-50. This would be a drastic departure from standard practice, which often results in publishers losing huge amounts of money on books after paying their authors enormous advances.

Whether or not Mr. Miller’s experiment will lead to an industry-wide revolution remains to be seen, obviously. For now, the main thing people are talking about is The Last Lecture, the book that Mr. Miller signed to Hyperion this fall for a reported $6.7 million dollars. That book’s coming out next week! With Mr. Miller gone, who will be its shepherd?

Jane Friedman and Bob Miller Launch Utopian Publishing Experiment at HarperCollins