The HarperStudio credo was bold, to say the least.
“We believe traditional publishing models are broken and are experimenting with new ones,” declared the imprint, founded by former Hyperion chief Bob Miller, when it debuted in April 2008, right before the financial meltdown. “We believe in embracing technology. We believe the future is now.”
The future would be modest advances (no swashbuckling auctions) and profit-sharing arrangements with authors. It would be a sales model that permitted no returns, so bookstores couldn’t pass the buck on risk back to publishers. And, naturally, the future would involve plenty of technology—Web sites and Twitter and Facebook and blogs, to publicize books but also the imprint itself.
“Bob started cello lessons two years ago,” read the profile of Mr. Miller, “but hasn’t practiced once since starting up HarperStudio.”
Mr. Miller announced last month that he would be leaving for Workman Publishing—the publisher of What to Expect When You’re Expecting and of the cartoonist Sandra Boynton—which presumably will give him more practice time. And after a couple weeks of uncertainty, HarperCollins No. 2 Michael Morrison informed staff on Friday, April 2, that HarperStudio will close up shop for good after publishing its last titles this summer.
People were rooting for the imprint—even if they didn’t entirely believe the rhetoric.
“It wasn’t revolutionary; it was evolutionary,” one publisher at a major house told The Observer.
Advances have fallen across the board, many publishers now offer profit shares and who doesn’t tout social marketing?
It’s worth noting that HarperStudio, which acted like a start-up within an established corporate framework, didn’t always conform to its stated principles, sometimes offering hefty sums as part of multibook deals. Publishers Marketplace reported last spring that the imprint had paid Gary Veynerchuk “approximately $1 million” for his marketing manifesto Crush It!, as the first of a 10-book deal.
Meanwhile, the shift downward in the economy had coincided with a major change within HarperCollins—the departure of Jane Friedman, the close friend who had brought Mr. Miller onboard; one top literary agent told The Observer that the closure of HarperStudio was the final component in “the de-Friedman-ization of HarperCollins.”
No matter what the reason for its demise, when your company declares that “the future is now,” you have to be prepared to take disappointments in stride.
“Innovation is a lot like risotto,” tweeted author Merlin Mann on Friday, April 2. “The few who make it well just go make it; the many who can’t yammer about it until you want to stab them.” (Senior editor Julia Cheiffetz bought Mr. Mann’s Inbox Zero [“how to reclaim your email, your attention, and your life”] last summer. It won’t be out in time to appear under the HarperStudio name.)
Harper senior vice president Debbie Stier said that she sensed a divide between the tweeted/blogged reaction to HarperStudio’s closure and the reaction she received from her publishing colleagues. The latter were congratulatory because all of HarperStudio’s employees had landed safely in new positions, she said; the online contingent was more vocally disappointed to see the project end.
“The disconnect between perception and reality is kinda the sine qua non of publishing, isn’t it?” Ms. Cheiffetz told The Observer in an email. “I don’t know what others think; I only know what I think, which is that HarperStudio was a bold, worthwhile experiment. We had a lot of fun.”