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Re-thinking the Publisher/Author Partnership

By Robert Miller


Bob Miller is the President and Publisher of Harper Studio (photo credit: Adrian Kinloch)

NEW YORK: I’ve just read M.J. Rose’s editorial from last Friday, “Publishers Must Change the Way Authors Get Paid,” and I couldn’t agree more that it’s time to re-think the publisher/author relationship.  M.J. deserves credit for moving this conversation forward; indeed, for years M.J. has shown by her own example how authors can and should be full partners in the marketing of their books. If anyone has earned the right to question author compensation, it’s M.J. Rose.

However, I don’t think that the solution is to have authors paid a higher royalty in exchange for their marketing efforts.

First of all, how would this be judged? What amount of marketing effort should be expected of the author before their royalty changes?  Shouldn’t author and publisher alike be doing everything possible to make a book succeed, without needing to count up who has gone beyond the call of duty and who hasn’t and trying to calculate how that should translate into how they share the proceeds of their success? What if the author and the publisher have both made herculean marketing efforts, but the book has lost money? Should the author get a higher royalty, even as the publisher is taking a loss? (Similarly, I don’t see how publishers and authors would know how to apply the author’s marketing expenses to their advances, as M.J. suggests here.)

This approach reminds me of those group housing experiences we all had just after college, when inevitably the refrigerator would get divided up into separate grocery bags with cranky “this is mine, don’t eat it” notes on them. When that happens, the household stops being a fun place to live…and I don’t think it’s a good basis for sustainable publisher/author relationships, either.

I don’t think that this solution goes far enough. I believe that publishers and authors should be equal partners, sharing profits fifty-fifty, as we are doing in all of our deals at HarperStudio. The author brings their creative work to this partnership, and their commitment to do everything in their power to help their book succeed. The publisher brings their financial risk (under our model, the publisher puts up the publishing costs, including the advance to the author, from which the author can decide to help the marketing effort if they’d like, or not), their passion for the project, and their staff time (we don’t charge any overhead to the profit split; the authors don’t charge for their time spent marketing the book either).

This financial structure requires both parties to think responsibly about costs, since both parties will be charged for those costs at the end of the day. The result is that the relationship is much less adversarial.

The question each day is, “What should we be doing for this book?” not “What have you done for me lately?” It feels healthier to me.

So, M.J., got a book for HarperStudio? If so, we have a structure that I believe would reward you fairly for your impressive efforts, without turning us all into dueling accountants. The new chapter has begun.

Robert Miller is the president and publisher of HarperStudio, which he founded in 2008. The first books from this new imprint are published next month.

VISIT: The HarperStudio Web site.

FOLLOW: The HarperStudio blog, The 26th Story.

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  1. Posted August 31, 2009 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    I love the 50-50 idea; what took so long? In world marketing, I don’t think it’s a question of who does what marketing, or who should be paid how much for marketing, but — how effective is the book industry’s marketing. It doesn’t matter whether the marketing is done by a publisher or an author, as long as it’s effective.

    I’ve always been amazed that we see and hear actors and musicians, as well as music producers and film directors on popular media outlets talking about upcoming work. Yet, other than one or two major international million-selling authors, the public has no idea what books are in the pipeline. More people in book publishing should get into the public arena where folks are talking about upcoming films, songs, performances — books.

    I remember one editor telling my agent that her publisher would not consider my manuscript about DNA and ancestry, because it had received too much pre-publication publicity. How insane. What is too much pre-publication talk? I discussed what I was working on in the New York Times, CBS-TV, and some international publications.

    And another thing, besides pre-publication publicity, why is there so little glamour, excitement and celebration in the book industry? Where are the award shows for the general public? Do we think writers are too boring?

    I’m lucky, because my pre-publication publicity has led to my topic’s popularity on the speaker’s circuit. When my nonfiction book comes out, I don’t see myself foregoing paid speeches to publicize the book at free events.

    So great article Mr. Bob Miller. Great thinking outside the box. With ideas like 50-50, you will move ahead of the pack. We need more innovative-thinking, more creative MBA-types in publishing. Or more authors who can’t wait to be fed. We need new authors who get out there and market their ideas and books and earn a living from their art and ideas, while publishers play catch up.

  2. Posted August 31, 2009 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    While I certainly believe that publishers bear a lot of responsibility for the current mess that the industry is suffering through (using an antiquated business model is perhaps the most egregious example), they certainly are not the only guilty party. Authors, too, must face the fact that they have willingly allowed the problems to escalate as well.

    Starting at the most basic level, most authors have a very poor understanding of the business into which they so willingly enter. Perhaps they read Publishers Weekly; but most do not. Perhaps they have worked in a bookstore and have a comprehension of the selling process; again, most have not. So rather than having eyes wide open, full of understanding, most authors stumble into this business knowing only that they have this “idea” they hope some day turns into a book. As a result of willful ignorance, they are forced to rely on professionals who do understand it; professionals who, in all honesty, make their living to a large extent off that same ignorance. Do the majority of authors know how to read a contract? Do they understand what a “reversion of rights” clause is? Do they know what “reserves against returns” are? In many ways this is akin to buying a car and then needing a driver to cart you around.

    I have no doubt the industry needs a major overhaul. But there is more guilt to share than just that being lobbed at publishers. Authors need to not be “creative MBAs” as Pearl suggests, but entrepreneurs who refuse to even see the existence of a box. Why do so many authors only sell their content as a printed book? How many read Fortune Magazine or other business and tech journals so they might see where new technology will impact content delivery? Authors themselves need to not only understand every aspect of publishing but also how tangential industries affect it – film/TV, video gaming, ebooks, cell phone technology, PDAs, the Internet, etc.

    We all hear the grumbles of “I just want to write my book.” That’s fine. But more authors need to realize that if they settle for swimming in a mud puddle, then the extent of their career will be defined by that same environment. Moreover, how much complaining is even justified when the authors themselves are so willing to do only so much?

    What is needed is a fundamental paradigm shift in how authors conduct their business and themselves. I agree with Pearl that it would be great to see some more glamour associated with the biz. But I ask this in all seriousness: have you seen what some authors wear to supposedly ritzy dinner functions? Have you seen what they wear to book signings? When authors start treating themselves with more dignity and self-respect through an understanding of business, entrepreneurial spirit, and how the public responds to its need for celebrity, then perhaps things will change.

    It takes two to tango.

  3. Posted August 31, 2009 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    The problem with this – and I say this as somebody who sympathises with the authors, not the publishers – is that it is the publishers who take the financial hit if the book never succeeds. Sure, an author will spend money whilst writing and may be reliant upon a publishing deal for future income, but that is an incremental process with ‘escape clauses’ along the way.

    A publisher, on the other hand, will have to fork out cash when making the leap of faith, and will be taking the financial and reputational risk with the book. It is, therefore, in both parties’ interest to make the book a success, but the publisher, as the business, must have financial incentives to take these risks in the first place.

  4. Andrew
    Posted August 31, 2009 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    Book cover designers bring their creative work to the partnership. Ad copy-writers and ad designers bring their creative work to the partnership. Book typesetters bring their creative work to the partnership. And yes, the publisher also pays for the printing, warehousing, distribution, marketing, sales, returns, rights management, Library of Congress and copyright paperwork and buys and manages ISBN numbers. I can go on and on.

    If any author wants to share 50% of the cost, I’m happy to offer 50% of the profit.

  5. Posted August 31, 2009 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    In the computer book publishing world, the publisher is often working against you — by publishing numerous books about the same topic. How can I have a partnership with a publisher is who is also working with other authors on books that directly compete with mine?

    And what of the other partners in a book project? One of the books I’ve worked on through TEN editions has the software publisher earning a higher percentage of sales than I do. Does that sound fair to you?

    Yes, I know — it’s time to find a new publisher. That’s why I just walked away from the eleventh edition of this book. Let them find someone else to do it.

  6. Posted August 31, 2009 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

    The disconnect here is the lack of clarity on who does what. Bob Miller’s model is interesting, but any author who believes that once the ms turns over that their work is done is sadly mistaken.

    Publishers have a privileged relationship with retailers and media. AUTHORS have a privileged relationship with readers. There is no so-called “marketing” that a publisher can do that will motivate someone to buy a book! Not copy, endorsements or the book jacket – SORRY! Certainly no advertisement in a newspaper or magazine. And a stack of books at the cash wrap won’t make a bit of difference.

    Any publisher’s advance must be treated like “seed money” by the author. Just as any VC firm might identify an opportunity, the publisher is investing in the author. The author is a small business, if you will. It is the job of the author not only to write the book but just as importantly (if not more) to think about how they will connect with their readers, engage them, motivate them to become fans and give them the tools so that they will evangelize and advocate with their friends and associates. Publishers who specialize in a vertical may lend their brand and help in this endeavor, and many of those publishers are doing quite well, thank you, even in this difficult market.

  7. Posted August 31, 2009 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

    I agree that publisher’s should do more for the author. Not all publishers pay the cost for the author. I paid for the editing and printing of my new book and yet most of the marketing is my responsibility. I have been reading everything I can about marketing but a lot of the options cost money that most of us don’t have.

    Here is my press release and marketing address provided by the publisher. The rest is up to me.

    Gateway To Dream World
    PRLog (Press Release) – Aug 20, 2009 – On their way home from baseball tryouts, Brad Colby and his two sons are involved in a terrible car accident that leaves six-year-old Pete in a coma. When Pete awakens, the family is crushed to learn that he is paralyzed.

    Meanwhile, Pete’s eight-year-old brother, Jason, has been having powerful dreams that lead him to a mysterious realm known as DreamWorld. Jason discovers that all of his desires can come true in DreamWorld, but the time is fast approaching when he will have to choose between his two worlds.

    And when more devastating news strikes at the heart of the Colby family, Jason and Pete set out on a desperate attempt to find the Gateway to DreamWorld and save their family. With time running out on their dangerous path, will Jason and Pete’s fear of the Unknown keep them from reaching the paradise of their dreams?

    The book is available through Amazon.com and Barnes&Nobles.com

  8. Posted September 1, 2009 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    […]Bob Miller, President of HarperStudio shares his views this week with PublishingPerspectives.com on how he sees the need for the relationship between publisher and author to become more of a partnership of commitment.[…]

  9. Posted September 1, 2009 at 3:59 pm | Permalink


    Congrats on an extraordinary piece. It is wonderful to see some changes being made in this woefully archaic business model.

    I loved this article so much that I added a link in our latest blog entry. I hope that is alright with you.
    Here is the link to our post http://marchbooks.wordpress.com/2009/09/01/revolutionizing-the-publishing-model/

  10. Lyn
    Posted September 3, 2009 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

    Hi Bob,
    I don’t understand your comment re. HarperStudio not charging any overhead to the profit split. Because wouldn’t all your overhead already be charged, leaving whatever’s left as the profit, which is what you then split 50/50 with your authors?

  11. Posted September 8, 2009 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    As an auther and publisher, I have to pull myself in both directions. My efforts to promote and market my books and ebooks, which I must self-publish since no traditional publisher or agent has ever made an offer, are 110%. This means I do ALL the work of writing and publishing as an individual with no prospect of a reward except for the success or failure of my books. As I strive to compete with the larger houses I am up against a monumental series of challenges, yet I persevere with the hope that one day I will have more than 1,000 people read my work. That authors are expected to carry their share of the load is only natural to me. But over the last few years, the perceived expectation on the part of authors is that the publishers assume the burden of promotion and selling along with all the other concerns, and are quite able to spend whatever is necessary to make the book successful, without understanding how much promotion and advertising costs. I have read numerous posts on community forums about this, and my response has always been: “but you are proud of your work, aren’t you? So why are you not out there helping?” At the very least, authors should learn how the process works before they submit a manuscript anywhere. A book does not hit the NY Times Bestseller List without having a great deal of promotion done already. Books do not appear there by magic.

  12. Posted November 21, 2009 at 1:08 am | Permalink

    I think it’s a great idea doing the 50/50 thing. It means lots of money for both partners and a good team working environment. I can see most authors pushing their books through social networks, blogging and doing interviews with radio and TV shows. Lately I’ve noticed that people are making trailers and stuff for their books on youtube and there is where you will find the international market. I think author’s should also post information on their blogs in different languages, so that they can appeal to a bigger market place. Especially if you like writing a romance, mystery or suspense type of book. That will appeal to everyone. :) I will be looking up the information for HarperStudio. I just finished writing a chic lit book for the NaNoWriMo Challenge and I’ve got several other book ideas.

  13. Publisher
    Posted May 23, 2012 at 5:08 am | Permalink

    Erm, no! Or why bother with a publisher in the first place? People generally, not just authors, don’t tend to understand just how much work, stress and money goes into keeping a publishing house going, maintaining industry contacts and marketing titles. I speak from both perspectives here – I am an author who set up a publihing company to publish my own book and I have since taken on other people’s titles.
    The author’s job is to create a book that speaks to their readership, which is something that a skilled author worthy of publication is able to do from day one. It’s also important that they are able to be gracious to their readers at signings – no divas please! Plus if they wish to, they can contribute to the marketing of it in their own way. It is, after all, their ‘baby’ and it’s common sense to want it to succeed. Some will put in more personal effort than others but that is the individual author’s prerogative.
    As for the genuine publisher, it is our job to identify books that speak to the intended readership, written by authors with people-friendly personalities, and add them to our list. A publisher worthy of their job title will be able to do that from day one! If not, find another job…
    It is our responsibility to register the title, negotiate with the author’s agent, navigate the legal minefield, draw up mutually agreeable contracts, pay members of staff to prepare the book for publication, maintain positive relationships with major retailers and wholesalers internationally, not just in our own country, act as distributor sending costly shipments to retailer warehouses, or find one if we are dealing with a foreign territory, maintain an eye on profit margins and the price of the product to ensure that it is in line with other titles of a similar ilk, and that there is enough profit to allow continued reinvestment into the title (which benefits the author of course) keep the taxman happy and pay both taxes and author royalties on time, deal with suppliers (eg printers – a whole other thread, believe me!) develop and maintain relationships with news media and PR agencies to allow effective marketing and a whole ton of other responsibilitiesthat I can’t recall off the top of my head right now! All of these things cost A LOT of money – especially the legal side of things.
    Put simply, publishers are responsible for far more than authors or anyone else might imagine. It is us who take the hit when a book doesn’t sell because, quite frankly, we were the ones who accepted it onto the list. Sometimes a book doesn’t sell despite our best efforts, but a sensible publisher will do their homework and research the market for the title before taking it on!
    So no, a 50-50 split is not fair at all. For an author, extra marketing and networking is optional and is to their benefit. But for the genuine publisher (ie not vanity press) these things are compulsory. If we agree to take someone’s book on, we’d better make sure we register, market and print it on time! This is a matter of honour and integrity as much as it is about a business deal.
    I think 50-50 is unrealistic and I think it’s unfair to publishers. Otherwise, go ahead and do it yourselves by all means! Just be aware of the stress and sleepless nights that go with it! It’s not just about creating books…

  14. Publisher
    Posted May 23, 2012 at 5:13 am | Permalink

    @ Brenda – it sounds to me like you didn’t go with a genuine publisher hon. If you can get out of whatever contract you might have with this ‘press’ (which sounds like a vanity press) I suggest finding a good agent willing to take your manuscript on and help you get a deal with a legitimate publisher who won’t charge you a bean!

  15. Publisher
    Posted May 23, 2012 at 5:14 am | Permalink

    Well said Theresa M Moore ;)

13 Trackbacks

  1. […] réaction qui vient d’être publiée dans Publishing Perspective, suite à l’intervention de MJ Rose, estimant que les éditeurs doivent rémunérer leurs […]

  2. […] Here’s an excerpt of a recent article he wrote for Publishing Perspectives: […]

  3. By Positively Positive Publishing « Happy Hour Lit on August 31, 2009 at 10:20 pm

    […] these, albeit in a larger publisher, smaller presses that has adopted this philosophy. In a recent article on publsihingperspectives.com, Robert Miller, HarperStudio’s president and publisher, said […]

  4. […] out Bob’s recent piece on PublishingPerspectives.com about why the relationship between Publisher and Author should be a […]

  5. […] an important conversation for authors and publishers to be having. Bob Miller of HarperStudios suggests that authors and publishers should be partners, splitting the profits 50/50. This, of course, is a situation in which an author does not accept an […]

  6. […] Links: Tintin to be sued in France for being racist and xenophobic; Two views on how publishing contracts ought to change […]

  7. By Publisher/Author Partnership | justlikeme.nl on September 6, 2009 at 7:56 am

    […] NEW YORK: I’ve just read M.J. Rose’s editorial from last Friday, “Publishers Must Change the Way Authors Get Paid,” and I couldn’t agree more that it’s time to re-think the publisher/author relationship.  M.J. deserves credit for moving this conversation forward; indeed … there is more […]

  8. By Authors as Marketers | Beneath the Cover on September 9, 2009 at 1:46 pm

    […] Bob Miller of Harper Studio responded to Rose’s editorial with one of his own: Re-thinking the Publisher/Author Partnership. Miller is an authority on new business models, as his Harper Studio has become the first to adopt […]

  9. […] “I believe that publishers and authors should be equal partners, sharing profits fifty-fifty,” says HarperStudio’s Robert Miller. […]

  10. By Publishing is dead, big whoop! « Happy Hour Lit on October 13, 2009 at 2:54 pm

    […] change so as to keep advances low all around. This is a win-win situation and one that HarperStudio is already doing and the rest of publishing should follow […]

  11. […] “I believe that publishers and authors should be equal partners, sharing profits fifty-fifty,” says HarperStudio’s Robert Miller. […]

  12. […] To learn more about Robert Miller’s philosophy of publishing, see an earlier piece he wrote for Publishing Perspectives called “Re-thinking the Publisher/Author Partnership.” […]

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