Sunday, April 6, 2008

Robert Miller and HarperCollins want to make revolutionary changes in the book industry

The New York Times reported last Friday that HarperCollins Publishers is forming a new publishing group. This is more than just a new unit - it will try to implement innovative concepts, and some of them are green!

The idea behind the new group, explains its leader, Robert S. Miller (until now the founding publisher of Hyperion), is "let's take all the things that we think are wrong with this business and try to change them. It really seemed to require a start-up from scratch because it will be very experimental."

One of these experiments will be to eliminate the very costly practice of allowing bookstores to return unsold copies. And we're talking about big money here - according to the 'Environmental Trends and Climate Impacts:Findings from the U.S. Book Industry', in 2006 there were more than 1 billion returns/unsold books in the U.S., or 25% of the books that were printed that year.

These unsold books are not only a waste of money for the publishers, but also an environmental issue, as besides the virgin paper used to print them, many of them reach the landfills. According the Environmental Trend and Climate Impacts report, the U.S. EPA estimates that books accounted for 762,000 metric tons of paper in Municipal Solid Waste. It results in methane releases that are calculated in the report as 8.2% of the total book industry's carbon footprint. As with many issues in the industry we see that there is a match here between saving money and saving the environment.

How Miller intends to change the current practice and shift the risk to the booksellers? Well, it is not known yet. The Guardian reports that Miller acknowledges that he has not figured out how he would convince booksellers to shift the risk of unsold books from the publishers to themselves.

Miller told the Guardian "I'm going to talk to booksellers and try to find a way to break out of this bind booksellers and publishers are in, with this incredibly high return rate (around 40%)." As you can see, Miller's data of the returns/unsold books (40%) is much higher than the 25% for the whole industry (as the report estimates), which means even more financial loses and more environmental damage.

How booksellers will respond to it? According to the Guardian, Oren Teicher, chief operating officer of the American Booksellers Association, which represents the country's independent stores, said owners were likely to want bigger discounts in exchange for books not being returned. But Teicher said he would be willing to hear any ideas that might spare "the colossal waste of books being shipped back and forth."

Another idea that Miller intends to implement in the new group is lower advances, or none at all to authors. Instead he will offer authors to split 50-50 in the profits, which should be much higher when the publisher won't have to pay for the costs of returned unsold books.

The new group will initially publish around 25 titles a year - hardcover editions priced at the low end of the market, around $20 a copy. Jane Friedman, president and chief executive of HarperCollins, told the NYT that the new group will also release electronic books and digital audio editions of all its titles.

It will be very interesting to see if this experimental group will succeed in its mission, which seems almost revolutionary. One thing is clear - they must find the way to make it a win-win deal to all sides involved including the authors and booksellers. Is it mission impossible? we hope it's not for the benefit of both the industry and of course the environment.

Raz @ Eco-Libris