Here’s Hugh Howey’s report on his second month in charge of “New HarperCollins”.
1. New HarperCollins announces an end to the returns system. “Holy crap”, you think we’ve not thought of this before! In fact, wasn’t a division of HarperCollins, HarperStudio, set up right from the get-go not to take returns? It didn’t work out. In a world where all your competitors do x, refusing unilaterally to do x, can be painful. We all know that returns are crazy, and everyone would like to get rid of them. Publishers originally accepted returns because the offer to make books returnable removed one of the barriers to a bookstore’s taking lots of stock. We always believed that if there were huge stacks of a book in shops, the customers would be gulled into a belief that it must be good, and would thus buy a copy. No stock on hand, no impulse sale. It’s so entrenched that we even accept returns on print-on-demand books (see my post on Print-on-demand) and, mind-bogglingly, on e-books. There’s room for improvement — many publishers have negotiated no-returns deals with Amazon and other retailers. It’ll get better, but only gradually. Publishers certainly don’t want to be accused of putting the last nail into the bookstore coffin by suddenly stopping returns.
2. In month two, we embrace print on demand. There may be a publisher somewhere who’s not doing POD, but you’d need to look hard. The Espresso machine may or may not be the best answer — it’s certainly filling a need, but mainly (I think) for local self publishing. It can only make a paperback book, of course. I have an earlier post about it.
3. We no longer see our own books as competitors. This is a slightly opaque objective. It seems to involve lowering prices on back list, which is fine I guess.
4. Free books. I think publishers know this — people will glom onto free stuff. Before e-books, this wan’t an option: every book cost something to print and bind, and giving it away was a quick route to queer street. With e-books it can be done, as Neil Gaiman demonstrated. If you offer a book on the Kindle Daily Deal, you may sell thousands at the steeply discounted price. The fascinating thing is however that the next week or so the book will sell way above its average daily sale, the offer (missed by many) nevertheless stirring up demand. Free is extreme — but steep discounting is already being used by publishers. HH’s rotating free offer would work with genre fiction — which is of course what he knows. Other sections of the list might be riskier.
5. Cereal boxes. No objection here: clip ten tokens and get a free book. This sounds very familiar — I think it must have been a retail technique in the 1950s. There is of course a logistical and admin cost.
6. We’re going to start by getting rid of our imprints. They’re gone he says, but they are going to be replaced by genre imprints. Much of the imprint accretion comes as a result of mergers and acquisitions: should the historic Scribner name be abandoned just because it was bought by Simon and Schuster? And if you do abandon it, what do you do with the warehouse-full of books saying Scribners, which came with the sale. No doubt some individual imprints are granted to an editor who threatens to leave, but I would guess that at least in anticipation, most were set up with the intention that they would specialize in something. Time has mussied them up a bit: cleaning house is pretty uncontroversial.
7. Speaking some more about branding, here at New HarperCollins we know that our authors are a brand, not their books. Despite the implication, this too is uncontroversial, and almost everyone in publishing would agree.
8. More letting the author shine. “Readers love meeting authors.” However not all authors love meeting readers. Getting rid of the book tour will certainly not be helping in achieving this aim.
9. If month one was about letting go of ego, month two is about understanding the long tail of publishing. Less concentration on blockbusters leaves you a long way away from the long tail, but who can argue with bringing back lost works and giving writers a second chance. Almost everyone is in agreement here. In reality this sort of up-beat “let’s go team” rhetoric has little real effect — still everyone would support Hugh Howey’s right to shout it out.