Bob Miller's Studio 'Experiment' Already Tried and Tested – On Small-Press Scale

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The book world jumped a little in its seat last week when HarperCollins C.E.O. Jane Friedman announced that she’d hired Hyperion president Bob Miller to form an “innovative and creative” new publishing unit. It was shocking enough that Ms. Friedman had managed to hire Mr. Miller away from Hyperion after 17 years to run the new shop. But the business model the two of them had in mind? To split profits with authors 50/50 instead of paying them huge advances, to develop a distribution structure that wouldn’t allow retailers to get refunds for unsold books, to publish just 25 short, low-priced commercial hardcovers per year? All of this struck many in the industry as downright radical.

Others thought it was a lot of baloney, and they weren’t quite sure why all the papers were treating it like it was the beginning of some revolution.

“It was galling, that he was being given this amazing coverage. This made the AP wire by the end of the day!” said Dennis Johnson, who runs an independent press in Dumbo called Melville House Publishing with his wife Valerie. “The fact of the matter is that the discussion is about certain innovations in restructuring basic author contracts that small independent publishers … have been using and developing for years already. For someone not to acknowledge this either reveals a rather shocking ignorance of the business world around us… or it’s simple, old-fashioned intellectual plagiarism.”

Mr. Johnson, who rose to some prominence as a critic of the book business years ago with his blog Moby Lives, said the model Mr. Miller is proposing has been working for independent publishers for a long time, but is unlikely to succeed in the big leagues.

“The thing is, we need to be publishing like that, so it’s really a very refined, worked out system with us,” he said. “Bob Miller is a commercial publisher. He does very commercial books, and it’s hard for me to imagine him in our world.”

Other small press publishers had milder reactions to Mr. Miller’s experiment, but generally agreed that the model he is proposing does rather resemble theirs.

“My slightly snarky response to what happened last week was, ‘Duh! This is exactly what we’ve been talking about and attempting to do to varying degrees all along,’” said Richard Nash, publisher of Soft Skull Press. “But I don’t think they were like, ‘oh, let’s look at what independent publishers do and steal it!’ I think Miller looked at problems in corporate publishing and said, ‘okay, here are some things I could to fix it.’”

Akashic Books publisher Johnny Temple, who is something of a figurehead in the small press community here, said he is used to seeing good ideas generated in the indie world only to be repackaged and used by bigger companies amidst a howl of media hype.

“I’m so familiar with that dynamic that I’m comfortable with it,” Mr. Temple said. He added that he is friendly with Mr. Miller, who he said has historically been supportive of Akashic.

Mr. Miller, for his part, readily acknowledged that some aspects of his proposal were inspired by independent presses.

“It’s absolutely true that small presses have been experimenting with author terms for years,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Many small presses… have also been marketing creatively with limited resources in ways that the larger trade houses would do well to emulate. The new venture at HarperCollins simply puts together a number of these elements–profit-sharing with authors, non-returnable sales to booksellers, distribution of e-books and audiobooks as part of the physical book’s sales–in one place.”

For Mr. Johnson, though, the notion of adopting small press tactics in a corporate context is a preposterous one. He said that if Mr. Miller plans to publish books by authors as commercial as the ones whom he published at Hyperion—David Halberstam, Mitch Albom, Caroline Kennedy, et cetera—he’s going to run into some insurmountable structural obstacles.

“I don’t think the level of writers he’s used to working with are going to go for [the no-advance policy],” he said. “Their agents won’t permit that. I’ve been there–I’ve gone to those kinds of writers and said, ‘here’s an idea for a book that no one else will do—your publisher won’t do it, no other big publisher would do it.’ And the writer says, ‘I love it, let’s do it. Talk to my agent.’ And the agent says drop dead.”

As a result, Mr. Johnson, Melville House doesn’t deal with agents very often, and when they go after a writer as famous as, say, former Harper’s editor Lewis Lapham, whose book With the Beatles Melville published in 2005, they deal with them directly and offer only a nominal advance. “The pie is just not big enough in the small press world,” Mr. Johnson said.

He added later: “I hope [Miller] makes a liar out of me. If he can pull off everything he’s talking about, he’s a hero. But there are a lot of heroes who are already pulling it off.”

Bob Miller's Studio 'Experiment' Already Tried and Tested – On Small-Press Scale