May 2008


Robert Milller HarperCollinsRecently, HarperCollins announced the establishment of a new imprint that is structuring its business model in an effort to lower two key areas of risk.  According to the New York Times, the new imprint, headed by Robert Miller, will not offer advances to authors and will not accept returns from bookstores.  (Miller, 51, was the founder and publisher at the Walt Disney Co. publishing unit Hyperion.) 

Miller, speaking about the mission of the new unit, said:

Our goal will be to effectively publish books that might not otherwise emerge in an increasingly ‘big book’ environment, an environment in which established authors are under enormous pressure to top their previous successes, while new authors are finding it harder and harder to be published at all.

Advances and returns represent two of the largest financial risks with which a publisher must grapple.  Both risks originate in the uncertainty about whether an author can build an audience for his or her work.  If not, an advance is wasted and returns will follow. 

In lieu of advances, the unit will offer authors a share in the profits.  This sounds attractive, but there are potential issues.  First is the marketing investment made by the publisher.  Typically, less well known authors have used some or all of their advance to market their title.  According to comments by publishing consultant Laine Cunnigham, quoted in Book Publishing News:

A high profit split on top of zero advance means [authors] have to sell twice as many copies to achieve the same reach. If they have no money in the kitty from an advance, the book sinks without a trace.

While the new HarperCollins unit indicated it would utilize more online publicity, advertising and marketing for its titles.  But it is unclear whether the company’s new business model includes an overall increased investment in marketing to offset the loss of marketing dollars represented by author advances.  Cunningham believes more of the authors the new imprint wants to attract might instead opt for self publishing.  Another issue with the new advance policy is the fact that it is based on a percentage of profits rather than a percentage of revenue.  To put it politely, profits are easier to fiddle than revenues.  HarperCollins could wind up opening a new Pandora’s box of litigation and distrust if authors disagree with them over how profits were calculated.  Pub Rants weighed inwith some suggestions for HarperCollins to tune its model and make it more author friendly, including more timely royalty accounting and a faster cycle time for non-fiction works.

The proposed policy of no returns has, not surprisingly, been criticized by many booksellers.  Oren Teicher, the ABA’s chief operating officer, said:

. . . [bookstore] owners would likely want bigger discounts in exchange for books not being returned.” But he said he would be willing to listen to any ideas that might spare “the colossal waste of books being shipped back and forth.”

pile-of-booksReturns have been a drag on the industry.  It is estimated that 30 to 40 percent of books are returned by bookstores each year, at considerable expense to publishers, who wind up having them remaindered or pulped.  The practice originated during the Great Depression as a way for publishers to help keep bookstores afloat in difficult times.   According to an article in the Souther Review newsletter, ending returns has been tried before – without success.  In 1980, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Inc. announced it would provide retailers with larger discounts and end returns. When orders diminished, the publisher reversed itself.  Miller subsequently has waffled on the policy, saying non returns may not always be the case.  Not all the reaction from booksellers was antagonistic.  The story quotes Robert P. Gruen, executive vice president for merchandising and marketing at Borders Group, as saying in a New York Times article:

We generally support the idea of looking at potential solutions to a return system that is not working well for the industry as a whole.

It also recalled that several years earlier, Barnes & Noble Chief Executive Steve Riggio had said that he would prefer to mark down books rather than returning them.  Eliminating returns, he said at that time, would “revolutionize the book business and revitalize the book business.”

HarperCollins is running an intriguing experiment with its new imprint and the industry will certainly watch with interest to see whether and how its new policies work.  But does its new business model address the ultimate source of risk for publishers?  That risk is whether an author can attract an audience for their work in the first place.  Here is another way that the experiment might be conceived.

  • Go with authors – whether previously published or not – who can demonstrate their ability to build an audience.  Blogs, podcasts and the other forms of consumer generated media may offer the simplest and most measurable way to do this. 
  • Partner with these “investment grade” authors early to help them tune their content and better understand their audience.
  • Use a marketing ramp for titles that builds on the audience the author has already established.  The ramp starts with lower cost, lower risk marketing initiatives and uses success there to fund higher cost, higher risk marketing campaigns.

balancePublishing is a constantly shifting balance of power between authors, publishers and booksellers.  Technology and the evolving economics of enteratinment are altering that balance.  HarperCollins’ new imprint is no doubt the first many experiments with established book publishing models that we’ll see int he coming years.  Think of it as the industry’s version of climate change.


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book vid lit iconSheila Clover-EnglishBook Vid Lit

by Sheila Clover-English

Sheila Clover English, the CEO of Circle of Seven Productions, has been a pioneer in book video production, marketing and distribution for authors and publishers.


Nielsen ratings systems did away with using view counts to measure website success and instead switched over to time spent as a way to rate. This way of measuring success is far more indicative of real life engagement by a viewer. You can have 100,000 hits, but if the viewer isn’t there long enough to at least absorb the message of the video those hits are meaningless.

time on internetMatt Cutler, Vice President of Visible Measures, a company that tracks online behavior, estimates that more than 30 per cent of consumers abandon an online video within the first 10 per cent of its stream. He goes on to give an example saying that for every 100 viewers you will have 30 that will click away within the first 10% of the video. This is called “Initial Attention Abandonment.”

Some of the reasons for Initial Attention Abandonment have to do with trust, transparency, engagement and entertainment.

Trust – This has more to do with branding. Is this a brand viewers know they will have a good experience with? Will they get the kind of content they’re promised by tags and titles?

Transparency – Is the video in a place where the person can tell what they’re going to get? Do they realize they’re getting an ad or are you trying to trick them into thinking it’s something else? Not only can you lose a viewer once they realize they’ve been tricked, but this is a quick way to damage your brand.

Engagement – Does the video give them something to do? Be it physical or mental or even emotional, does the first 10% of your video offer them a way to engage the video? Some videos can be a talking head that just delivers a message, but with every viewer sitting there with their finger on the mouse just waiting to go on to the next thing, there aren’t going to be a lot of videos that can be just an ad message delivery system that will be successful.

Entertainment – Give your most gripping, most powerful, most complete message about your story or product that conveys to viewers that they are being, or about to be, entertained within that first 10% of your video. People have so much to choose from to keep them entertained. Why should they watch YOUR video as a source of entertainment? You need to have something that conveys how entertaining your video is going to be for them right away or you will lose them. You can’t “build” your story or message to a climactic end unless that initial “building” is a sensational opening.

What should I include in the first 10% of my video?

christine-feehanYou should have visuals or text that immediately convey all of the above elements. Not an easy task. Let’s take a look at a successful book video that includes all of these elements, Dark Possession by author Christine Feehan. You can watch the video yourself at Dark Possession – Christine Feehan – TV Version.  I chose the MySpace site specifically because MySpace requires a viewer to watch just over half the video before the view is counted. If you watch less than half, the view won’t count. This video has been viewed nearly 20,000 times.

Trust– The title and description let people know what the video is. It is a book video. It is about the novel by Christine Feehan.

Transparency– From the start we let people know it is a book video by stating it is from Bestselling Author Christine Feehan.

Engagement– The engagement here is emotional. You see the couple running for their lives. You’re told two worlds are colliding, the living and the dead. Now your viewer wants to know what’s happening to the couple. What are they running from? Who are they? What are they? You have engaged them by making them want to know more and by putting an attractive couple in a dangerous environment.

Entertainment– The viewer is given a sense of romance, danger and adventure within a short period of time. They get special effects and at the end, “the tease” that leaves them wondering what happened.

People are more likely to share a video like this. There are several elements that are worth having a conversation about. The video, through text and visuals, poses questions while bringing the viewer into the action.

clicking mouseHow can you keep people from clicking away? Well, if I knew that I’d be making the big bucks! But, I can speculate just as well as any major media goliath can. Part of what keeps them from clicking away is the video itself. Part of it is where the video is located. Is it where people who like paranormal romance reside? Part of it is timing. Your video may end up having something in common with a current news topic. There may not be a whole lot of new content out at that time. Part of it is the topic of the storyline. There are so many factors that go into what will make people stay and watch the video that you really have to concentrate on the things you CAN control.

entertainmentMake a great book video. Make sure the first 10% of your video offers enough to keep them watching. Give it a good title, tags and descriptions. Distribute it to the right online destinations. Instruct your client/author/publisher to utilize it. And then, just like CBS, HBO, NBC or any other media giant…hope it goes viral.


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Could our books be spying on us? 

sandy pentlandWhile this might sound like the ravings of a paranoid delusional, marketers, supplied by willing service vendors, and armed with plenty of computing power, are able to extract a fair amount of information about our daily lives from the copious electronic records we leave behind in every transaction.   Consider some of the recent press (e.g. BusinessWeek) about “reality mining.”  Reality mining is the process of extracting information from the usage patterns from cell phones and other wireless devices.  This process is detailed in an article by two leading MIT reality mining researchers, entitled “Reality Mining: Sensing Complex Social Systems.”

cell-phone-unfoldingReality mining is a sophisticated new type of data mining that is enabled by copious bread crumbs of data generated when we use wireless devices.  When these devices are equipped with GPS chips, the data offers a geographical component to the behavior pattern being monitored.  Reality mining has been used for modeling how people might respond to terrorist attacks, help cities ease traffic congestion and help planners determine the best location for schools and hospitals.  In the future it might be used to track the spread of infectious diseases, according to an article in Technology Review.

kindleTheis leads one to wonder whether – as we move more of our reading to portable electronic devices – someone might be combing through the electronic footprints we leave to try and tease our some information we might rather keep private.  As more book reading takes place online – whether as text on cell phones, e-book readers like Kindle, or simply as snippets delivered in your Blackberry’s e-mail – one can imagine that soon publishers and retailers might start collecting information about our e-reading habits such frequency, duration and even where / when (if the device is GPS enabled).  Combine this with the type of sales information already available and it provides a pretty powerful peek into what was once our private literary domain.

maxwell-smartThere are plenty of concerns about privacy.  Not only about the collection and sharing of data without consent, but also the interpretation of that data.  A year ago, the public was shocked by a story in the Washington Post and other newspapers about the existence and extent of a program of profiling of average Americans by the Department of Homeloand Security.  Concerns may shift now to the way in which commercial enterprises might attempt to use reality mining to tease out the nuances of our economic and social behavior.

Perhaps our best hope for defending our privacy in an “always on” society, is that human behavior is fickle and unpredictable.  Computer programs, however powerful, and data archive, however vast, represent past knowledge.  And, as every social scientist knows, the past does not necessarily predict the future.

But just in case, you may want to unplug your Kindle and simply curl up with your cozy – and silent – paper based book.


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