My Second Month on the Hypothetical Job

Wow, my hypothetical first month as CEO of New HarperCollins went by in a flash! It feels like it’s only been a week. Goes to show how much we’ve done and how far we’ve come. I thought it would be a couple years before we overtook Random Penguin as the #1 publisher in the land. I mean, it used to take us a year to produce a book. But with Elle Casey as our guide, we now know what’s possible. And even though I’m something of a slacker CEO (it takes me two months to go from blank page to publication), my team has really impressed me with their energy. I think those long NY lunches were wearing them out. Now we have a free buffet and a climbing wall in our Houston offices, which means no one ever feels like going home. Productivity is through the roof. It’s like a startup over here. Shelly from accounting even on-sighted that 5.14a that Ned said was impossible.

But now we’re in the second month, and we’ve got the easy changes behind us: DRM is a thing of the past; hardback sales have shot up with the ebook bundling; our authors are using the forums and coming up with great ideas (that we actually listen to and implement). Things are great. But they could be better. Now that we’re #1 and have some leverage, we’re gonna drop the bunker busters.

1. New HarperCollins announces an end to the returns system. Holy crap, that’s right. We just did the unthinkable. We told bookstores that if they buy our products, we won’t take them back for a full refund. Instead, we’re doing two things: We’re lowering the price of our mass market paperbacks by a dollar and hardbacks by five dollars. We’ll fund this with the money we’re saving by being outside of Houston and by not having to process returns (and print so many books that we never sell). We’re also enticing bookstores by offering 50% discounts on our titles rather than the industry norm (which can range from 35% to 46% for non-bulk orders). Bookstores pay less; the consumer pays less; our margins are squeezed, but we don’t take returns.

Which is okay, because most of our sales are through online retailers these days, and they manage inventory more efficiently. We also know, having worked with bookstores for generations, that they don’t like the returns system either. What other retail industry allows all of inventory to be returned for a full refund? My mother ran a knit shop. She had to be judicious with her buying; she had to make smart choices. What didn’t sell went on sale. With a 50% discount from us, bookstores can mark what doesn’t sell at half price and do better than returning the books (bookstores pay the shipping for returns, and they pay employees to box up the books). Getting all of their money back will be an improvement on a small loss, and it’ll bring readers into stores again. Amazon can’t compete with their prices!

At the last bookstore I worked in, our bargain section was one of our busiest areas. It didn’t exist when I was hired. Within a year, it ruled our sales sheets. We bought in bulk from remaindering companies (which meant these books were shipped around the country several times, damaging the environment. A no-returns system will avoid this). New HarperCollins’s earth-shattering policy will mean fewer books bought by bookstores but ZERO books returned. It will mean more of New HarperCollins books will be read by consumers. Our competition will continue pulping theirs. (They used to burn them!)

Making this announcement will solidify New HarperCollins as the T-Mobile of the publishing industry. We’re the un-publisher. Even folks at Amazon are turning to each other and saying, “Why didn’t we think of that?”

2. In month two, we embrace print on demand. We already employ Lightning Source for small fluctuations in demand and emergency print runs, but now we’re going all-in. Our entire backlist is being made available to in-store printing systems like the Espresso Book Machine. In month one, we assured our authors that their contracts wouldn’t lock them down forever. Now, we’re assuring them that their books will always be available.

As part of this program, we’re announcing the Lost Literature initiative. Every month, we’re going to take a book that we believed in, that we still believe in, one that didn’t do so well upon release, and we’re going to promote it as a work of Lost Literature. Small numbers will be printed and sent to book club members and be made available to retailers. We will also send letters to the authors of these works and apologize for not printing that trade paper we told them they would get in their contract but then didn’t after we saw their hardback didn’t sell so well. “Our bad,” the letter will say. Rumor of these two words escaping a publisher’s lips will echo through the halls of those publishers still up in New York. They’ll whisper about it over expensive lunches.

3. The reason we’re able to promote backlist titles is because of a revolutionary change in our operational philosophy: We no longer see our own books as competitors. This is currently a major problem, one that never served us or our authors well. Every book will be seen as equal to every other book. We don’t worry about lowering the price of a backlist title and having it compete with a new release. Hitting bestseller lists is no longer our goal. Getting books in the hands of readers is our goal. The competition is no longer our other books, the competition is twofold: It’s those other publishers like Penguin House. But more than that, it’s all the other things people can do that’s not reading. We want to prevent people from not reading. Lower prices help and faith in our backlist helps. You know what helps even more?

4. Free books. That’s right, we’re going to offer free books. Neil Gaiman demonstrated the power of free when he convinced his publisher to put American Gods up on a website, gratis. He suspected something awesome might happen. What happened was even awesomerAmerican Gods print sales went up 300% for the entire month that his publisher offered the book for free. Neil begged them to leave the book up for longer, but the publisher had had enough of this sudden onrush of profits. They pulled the book down. The print sales returned to normal. The word correlation never came up, much less causation. The experiment was not repeated.

The books we love here at New HarperCollins that aren’t gaining traction? You know, like a great book with good reviews that won’t take off because the name Rowling isn’t on the cover? We’re going to offer the entire text for free on our website. One title per genre, rotating every month. Come and read our great novels rather than scroll through your Facebook feed. Come read our great novels rather than pay too much for Randomly Penguinish’s environmentally-unsound returnable tome. Oh, another way we’re giving books away:

5. Cereal boxes. No, we’re not going to print our books on the back of your Frosted Flakes (am I the only one who did most of my early reading on cereal boxes?) No, what we’re going to do is something else I remember as a kid. I remember clipping UPC codes and turning them in for free stuff. For every ten New HarperCollins books you read, you’re gonna get a free one. We’re going to partner with online retailers to make this a cinch. All of our product pages will feature our new company logo, so readers know the book qualifies for the deal. Amazon, Kobo, iBookstore, B&N, Google Play . . . everyone can deliver a book of the reader’s choice for every ten NHC books purchased. We pay the distributor the full cut, so it behooves them to participate. It’s free money for them. It’s an extra sale for every ten they make. And now we’re really branding ourselves as the publisher to beat.

In the case of print books, just cut out the last page in every book, which details the program and lists qualifying titles in the same genre or by the same author. Mail those pages in with your selection checked or written in, and your free book arrives in the mail!

Again, at Amazon, executives are saying to themselves, “What will these crazy cats in Houston think up next?!”

6. Speaking of branding, we’re going to do a better job of that. We’re going to start by getting rid of our imprints. They’re dumb. Nobody knows what they are. Nobody cares. Not outside of the publishing houses. Readers certainly don’t. It took me years of working in a bookstore to know which publisher I needed to call to order a book without scanning it in the system or hunting the tiny print on the copyright page. The book jacket would list the name of a previously-independent small publisher that had been gobbled by a bigger one. Or more likely these days: the name of an imprint concocted as a favor to an in-house editor. Publishing imprints are akin to producer credits on Hollywood films: Meaningless badges whose significance seems paramount to the two or three people involved and no one else. They’re gone.

We’re replacing them with very clear genre imprints. It’s a pretty open and damning secret, but readers don’t buys a Penguin Home book because it’s a Penguin Home book. They don’t look and they don’t care (which is why, as I glance at the top selling books on Amazon in science fiction right now, self-published authors dominate. Readers don’t care how books are published). Well, we’re going to make them care. One of our strongest advantages is curation. Aware of the brand loyalty to genre-specific publishers like Orbit, Tor, and Harlequin, we’re going to replicate that in-house. Our science fiction imprint will be called Worlds, or something equally clear. Our romance division will be called Bella Andre, H.M Ward, and Similar Titles. (Or something else. I can’t have all the ideas around here). We’ll even have a literary fiction imprint, though it will of course get less attention than our bestselling genres. Because.

The point is, readers will see that NHC logo and know they’re going to qualify for a free book and that they’re going to get a perfectly edited book that they’ll enjoy. No more readers wandering around the bookstore, thinking they’ve read everything, not wanting to take a chance and be disappointed. “Squee!” they’ll say, when they see a new NHC book. “I haven’t read that one yet!” And they’ll buy it without even flipping to the back.

7. Speaking some more about branding, here at New HarperCollins we know that our authors are a brand, not their books. This is difficult to acknowledge, because it requires letting go of the ego we have about creating bestsellers that would otherwise languish were it not for our expert wisdom. But we’ve seen self-published authors dominate us in gross sales, so we know it’s about the writer and not the book. Moving to Houston has made it easier for us to admit stuff like this. We no longer sit authors down in our offices and beg them not to talk about themselves on book tour. We don’t give them really bad publicity advice like, “Let’s not discuss your personal journey and just stick to the plot. It’s a great book. Focus on the book. Don’t talk about yourself too much.”

Because that’s been done before. I’m pretty sure. But our authors know better, and now we know better. Blabbering about plot turns a reader’s brain off. Yes, we know it’s about people who do something. Is it any good? Oh, it’s been optioned for a film? Oh, you’ve sold how many copies of your other books? Oh, you went from nearly losing your home to making six figures a month like that sweet couple I saw on CBS? Damn, it must be good. No, don’t tell me what it’s about; I wanna be surprised. GIMMEE!

We’re going to celebrate the personal stories behind the written stories. We’re going to present authors as human beings. Readers will enjoy this. They’ll want to meet their favorite authors. They’ll want to subscribe to their book clubs (a month three initiative). We’re going to take a backseat and bring the author front and center. Let them become the brand. We don’t have to worry about them taking that brand elsewhere because we’re paying 50% net on ebook sales and offering limited terms of contract. Remember?

8. More letting the author shine. Readers love meeting authors. New HarperCollins has already brought its authors together in a private forum meant to strengthen loyalty, generate ideas, and increase enthusiasm. Now we’re taking that database of authors and putting together local events that they can afford to travel to. In conjunction with libraries (which we are treating better by offering sane prices for ebooks) and indie bookstores (which are the future of the printed word) we are doing once-monthly literature events that bring together authors from within a reasonable radius to discuss their books, announce new releases, and meet readers.

We will be able to afford this by getting rid of our current book tours — which spend ridiculous sums on 4-star hotel suites that exhausted authors hardly see — and we will spread that money across our entire stable of authors. By allowing our authors to drive no more than three hours to local events and shoulder that much smaller cost (a vast improvement over current industry practices of expecting authors to fly to national conventions and pay their own travel and hotel costs) we will have plenty of money left over for food, drinks, and freebies. Readers will come and listen to readings, attend panels, and participate in workshops on the craft of writing. They will walk away with swag, signed books, and full bellies. They will also know better where their local libraries and bookshops are located.  The gallery crawl model will come to the book world. Indie shops and libraries will benefit greatly. As will our authors and our readers. Every writer in the world wants to be a HarperCollins author. Bookstores are crazy not to order our nonreturnable books.

9. If month one was about letting go of ego, month two is about understanding the long tail of publishing. Less concentration on blockbusters. A fairer investment in our authors. By bringing back lost works and embracing POD, we give writers a second chance. By putting together regional author events, we make sure that our bestsellers and our freshman authors are able to share the stage. We don’t want them going anywhere else. Low prices for backlist means more revenue streams, which all add up. We care less about how many times we grace the New York Times bestseller list (which isn’t even a true reflection of sales) and we care more about how many books we have ranked in the top 10,000 on Amazon. Hey, we would love to at least catch up to self-published authors in this regard. Maybe even surpass them!

We can dream, right? After all, this is all fantasy. And yes, small publishing houses already do many of the things New HarperCollins is tackling in these first two months. Without the promise of large advances and major bookstore distribution, small publishers have to sweeten the pot and be nimble where they can. None of these ideas are unheard of. Few of them are untried. But nobody our size has tried this. Other major publishers may be content to reap record profits off the growth of ebook sales while paying authors practically nothing for digital books with far lower production and distribution costs, but we wouldn’t feel right doing that. Authors are people too. Readers are people. That’s our new focus here at HarperCollins. Less worrying about ourselves, less focus on the bookstore as our customer, and more about bringing writers and readers together.

Because both parties are rapidly learning that they can do this on their own.

64 responses to “My Second Month on the Hypothetical Job”

  1. Wow, and I thought Month 1 was radical. Hugh…you have to stop this crazy train! There is far too much logic being thrown around willy-nilly. I mean, you’re going to stop returns AND lower prices? Helping bookstores, customers, and the earth all at once? Shenanigans!

    Seriously though, have you thought about starting your own company? I mean, EVERY idea you’ve outlined just…makes sense. And it’s things that wouldn’t even be that difficult to implement (somethings obviously more complex than others).

    What really saddens me is that I feel these ideas will go on deaf ears, or take a decade to happen :(

  2. Hugh: This is seriously one of your best posts ever. The freshness of this approach — the idea of stepping back and looking at a better way to do it — is very exciting.

    It almost seems as though you’d have to start a new publishing house to implement some of these plans, though. I can hardly imagine it happening in one of the Big Five.

  3. Well I don’t know why it’s taking so long to implement these changes..they seem pretty self-explanatory and obvious. Now that you’ve come up with them.

    I must say, I have learned more about traditional publishing reading your blog posts than from any other source. I always thought I wanted to pursue traditional publishing, but since learning more about how it works, no thanks. If I ever actually finish anything it will be self-published. Until I can join your utopia.

    In the meantime, I am currently unemployed. I will work for NHC. I’ll send my resume:)

    Hey-how long before HC decides they don’t like being your underlying example for a brighter future? Let me be the first to predict a cease and desist letter. Screw ’em if they can’t take a joke (even if it isn’t).

    Congratulations on the success of Sand. I have been sharing it with anyone who will listen, which I don’t normally do. It really is extra special. Thanks for everything you do for your readers and other writers. I can’t wait to see what Month Three will bring!

    1. Maybe I’ll have to do like Twilight fan fiction — change the names and republish.

      I should point out that 99% of the people involved in publishing will probably agree with most of what I’m saying. They aren’t bad people. I have worked with people in the major publishing houses who want to make these changes, but the decisions come from the very top. And nobody wants to tip the apple cart.

      Several publishers are owned by large conglomerates, and the publisher makes peanuts compared to the parent organization. So there’s no impetus for change. If these guys were independently owned and had to turn profits or perish, things would be different. Instead, it’s like the child of a wealthy parent who’s allowed to go tinker with a banana stand.

  4. Hugh, I am blown away by the generosity of your new ideas as “CEO” of Harpers. Instead of forgetting about the authors who are struggling, you are embracing them. You’ve also emphasized the importance of helping libraries and independent book stores. Your mantra of being NICE shows through in your ideas.

    Previously, I wanted to be published by a publishing house rather than go the self-pub/indie route; it’s a holdover from the past. I write Literary Fiction (yikes!) which is not very popular. You and several other authors I’ve met have opened my eyes to the possibilities of being an indy. Also, I am trying to explore other genres, Magical Realism and yes—Science Fiction! I love to read those genres so why not try to write them.

    Keep imagining a better universe for authors. Someday soon your dreams will come true!

  5. Hugh Howey for President (at least of New HarperCollins). I miss Harper & Row. You think you could set the name back for me, Mr Big Cheese?? Seriously, though, excellent post, and I think you should be put in charge and let’s see what happens…

  6. Ready to call that library lady yet? My money say HC is reading and listening….with all ears. Rock the publishing world son. Simply being “good” is not enough to excel.

  7. The challenge for any industry is to keep that sense of wonder and possibility, even when you promised Karen a corner office for doing that thing, and you need to boost the bottom line a little to pay for it….The reality is, relationships and expectations–and hopes–get entrenched.
    But what you describe is breathtakingly exciting common sense.

    (And nothing’s stopping you from creating this, Hugh. It could all be done by Howey House, headquartered in Florida. Please?).

  8. Point 7 and 8 leave me verklempt. Thank you for that. I’ve worked in branding and marketing for over 15 years and I can’t stress enough to writers that they should think of themselves as a brand.

    Keep these fab posts coming please…

  9. “2. In month two, we embrace print on demand.” – HH

    That’s it. You have my vote for another fiscal year as CEO of NHC. Simon & Schuster, are you paying attention?

    No wonder it takes you two looonngg months to write! You’re too busy promoting Espresso machines (of all kinds.) Two months! Elle Casey is leaving you in the DUST (or SAND)!

  10. wow – I’m looking forward to hearing about how you deal with manuscript submissions!

    1. With a forklift, I expect.

  11. Florida seems like a nice place to open a new publishing house! Seriously, Hugh…You are basically describing a hybrid publishing model that would attract authors from across the spectrum. Set this puppy up as a independent contractor coordinator shop to keep it simple. You’ve got an Asian trip coming up and there should be plenty of folks there looking for a U.S. investment opportunity!

    Crazy? Yes. But a couple years ago you had a pretty crazy idea about a silo….how’d that turn out?

    1. Man, I don’t even get to take weekends off these days. I’d rather the people already in publishing make these changes. I’m pulling for them. I like them. I just like readers and writers even more.

      1. Most large corporations are filled with so much inertia that no change can come unless they are acquired or forced to downsize by massive proportions not chipping away a few percent each year. Too many stakeholders in the current system. It will take an outsider, just like Amazon was an outsider, to further your proposed changes. The changes are spot on though. And well penned.

      2. Writers, publishers (legacy or otherwise), we are nothing without our readers.

        I cherish them.

  12. My favorite job was working in a bookstore. I read your post and just couldn’t help laughing, wondering what we would have thought of these crazy ideas 20 years ago. Oh have times changed! As CEO of NHC, the world will be watching you, Hugh Howey.

  13. Trad pub used to know better. Here’s Susan Witting Albert (the China Bayles mystery series), channeling Rose Wilder Lane, freelancer and unacknowledged co-author of her mother’s Little House (TM) books, describing 1935:

    “[In May] I would retype the stories, and ship the thing off to…Longmans. (I would correct the proofs in the second week of July and receive my advance copy in late September. The book would be published in October and see a healthy sale.)”

    From “A Wilder Rose” by Susan Witting Albert (self-published!)

  14. With well thought out business strategy pieces like this floating around with your name on it someone is bound to throw ridiculous money your way to make them happen…

    Careful what you wish for…but hey, you should know that already! :)

    1. Don’t worry. I can’t be bought. :)

      1. Glad to hear you won’t be bought,Hugh. That said, I’m wondering when you start interviewing for positions? I’m in North Houston, and totally ready to switch careers. : )

  15. FYI, I can totally hook you up with some cheap office space close to IAH in Houston. In fact, with most of your folks working from home, you might fit the whole office in my guest room. We bought the house when we had 5 kids at home plus the in-laws. Now we are down to just us and the twins. I should probably upgrade the network though. Otherwise your internet access will slow to crawl when the boys get home from school and the Smite tournaments start.

  16. […] sensation Wool, has some good ideas for publishers. In fact, he has so many good ideas that he’s written a second column with more ideas, and there are more to come. I think one of the Big Six ought to give some serious thought to these […]

  17. I worked six years for British Petroleum in the North Slope oilfields of Alaska, and we never pumped 100 barrels of oil in anticipation of selling only 50. I have never understood returns.

    Amazon isn’t killing the publishing industry. The publishing industry is killing itself.

  18. I love imagining what OLD HarperCollins execs are talking to each other about over coffee after these two brilliant posts. As for location, I vote for taking NHC on the road, like Kerouac–to Denver!

    1. I doubt they’ll see these. They have far more important things to do. I’m just a dude with a blog.

      1. With the result that traditional publishers will continue to hemorrhage authors.

      2. Dude!!
        You are SO FAR AWAY from being “just a dude with a blog” it isn’t even funny! COngratulations on the brilliant and paradigm shifting thought process (and your NEW job!) Yeah yeah, “they” will sit up and take notice, just like “they” had to when you burst their main stream publishing bubble..

        Good on you to always be at the forefront of this..But then, you ARE the man who came up with Silos!! Thanks for all you do..

  19. You already know how amazing this idea is Hugh, so I won’t add to that… I’m just posting to say if you ever decide owning a publishing house is in your future, I’d be happy to send my resume as a marketing/publicity manager your way! You’re the kind of boss I could definitely get behind!

    In the meanwhile, I’ve been kicking around the idea of how to freelance with a handful of authors in a partnership similar to this… I’ve worked with several indie authors to create virtual marketing strategies and to teach them about branding themselves and what I’ve discovered is that often authors whose work I believe in the most generally don’t have the time or aptitude for marketing themselves effectively. I think this is why there are self pubbed authors who are wishing to work with traditional publishing houses– because they still host a deluded belief that the traditional publisher will take some of the marketing weight off their shoulders.

    I’m not ready to create a indie press myself, but some kind of shared profit co-op where I do marketing magic and writers create wonderful worlds for readers… your pieces give me a little more confidence that my idea has potential.

    1. I am learning tons from the websites of Dean Wesley Smith and Kris Rusch – and they also give online seminars that teach various aspects of going indie, as well as writing. I decided to keep my M/M romance with Dreamspinner Press (good people, good terms), but for other genres, I figured I might as well go indie. I don’t want my work buried, with my rights gone, for eons. Check out Dean and Kris. Currently I’m learning to design book covers and working on aspects of writing. Plowing my modest royalties into learning all this is a good investment.

  20. You’re starting to turn yourself into a national treasure, Hugh.

    1. Oops. Misspelled my own name the first time. Author low-self-esteem complex?

  21. Very good blogs, that give a sense of perspective.

    One point I didn’t think logical, though, as someone who does some signing sessions, is that you don’t sell as much in some bookstores than in others. The same for book events. So, point 8, “local events that they can afford to travel to”, with no more than 3 hours drive for each author, doesn’t seem realistic for me – but as you said, “this is all fantasy”. Besides, I have the feeling book events are shrinking since the rising of ebooks.

    But the main point is not there. I once blogged about the dreams that happen to cost a lot to society. There’s lotto. And there’s publishing. See where I am going? Publishers want bestsellers because bestsellers are what make the eyes of the authors – and of many readers – shine. That’s a fantastic lever for making forget the public about the fantastic record profits some of them, like the Simon & Schuster link you so bravely mentioned, make by squeezing more and more author’s margins.

    Without this dream, I don’t see very much the difference between New Harper Collins and today’s self-published world.

    A more mature society, able to reject that Lotto Syndrome, may emerge due to the ebook revolution. But it will certainly take time.

  22. I wonder if an ebook seller implemented some of these ideas. Would they succeed?

  23. Phyllis Humphrey Avatar
    Phyllis Humphrey

    For a brief wild moment, I thought this was true. Then the bubble burst. But you could make it true. All of us who commented here would jump on board. As someone said, it doesn’t need the Big-5. Amazon was an outsider and look what happened there.

  24. Dude – I think you’ve successfully outlined your next stories. Might I suggest the series title: “Ink”. – thanks for the great posts –

  25. Dear Big 5: Life, as you knew it, is over. Better get with the program before you get left behind.

    Another blockbuster post. I sure am curious how many of these ideas will be implemented and how many of them will have the current CEOs quaking in their boots, shoving their heads deep into the sand. You can bet some of those behind-the-scenes phone calls will be made so they can discuss and find ways to manage the fallout. It’s a big change in attitude, a radical one, and so far, the big guys haven’t been that excited about change.

    I think I’m going to go read A Tale of Two Cities again. :)

    P.S. Thanks for the shout out!

    1. They are making record profits from the margins on ebooks and from paying authors like crap. So they can afford to muddle along for quite some time, I’m afraid.

      The only thing that will improve their contracts (since we don’t have a writers’ union worth a damn) is for writers to hold off and refuse to sign these abhorrent things. My overseas publishers are fair. Domestic publishers? Not so much. The screenwriters stood together years ago and made real progress. Authors need to do the same thing.

      As soon as publishers drop the non-compete clauses, pay 50% (or an escalating royalty) on e-books, and limit the terms of their contracts to 5 or 7 years, I’ll stop complaining about them. Until then, no one should do business with them.

      1. My e-pub partner is making a good living on a 25-75 split. I get the 75, he gets the 25. No reason traditional publishers can’t do the same.

  26. Genius, all of it. I’m sending this to my friend who runs a small press.

  27. Next, kill all the lawyers.

    I’m not entirely kidding.

    Publishing contracts are some of the most bloated, unwieldy, and unconscionable contracts in the industry.

    When I signed with Amazon for Shaken, the contract was two pages long. It was clear, concise, and fair for both parties.

    The Big 5 need to rethink how their legal departments approach this business, and cut away all the fat and decay.

    Also, several years ago I told the Big 6 that I would stop blogging if they paid me a million bucks.

    They should have taken me up on the offer, because they lost a whole lot more than that because of my big mouth.

    I suggest they also pay you to shut up, because pigs will be flying on a cold breeze in hell before they hire you as CEO.

    Nice work. Keep it up. ;)

  28. Aha! I see where this is going. Fess up, Hugh, you don’t really want to make the book industry a fairer and more profitable place for everyone, this is all part of some hideous plan for world domination.

    For the record, I’m totally cool with that if it means these changes actually happen.

    In all seriousness, something needs to happen about the way worldwide rights are divvied up into sections. It might have made sense once upon a time when physical books would have had to been transported from English-speaking territory to English-speaking territory on the other side of the world (ditto for most of the European languages; those darn empires ruined it for all of us :) ) and there were small proportions of foreign language learning in other countries.

    Now? I have no name recognition and I still sell a book or two at the non-English Amazon stores each month so I can only imagine the demand for more popular authors. This is even easier now since, would you believe it, most of these countries actually have printing presses and publishing companies who could do the printing. It’s no longer just the expat markets but all those hungry readers who want to improve their language skills and/or read god authors in their language rather than filtered through a translator.

    Or maybe I’m just tetchy because, as an Australian, I get hit with higher costs than Americans and (while it has been better the past few years) there was a time not too long ago where there were actual delays between foreign releases and when we finally got it. Frankly, if it weren’t for J.K. Rowling, it probably would have taken a lot longer for the simultaneous releases to become the norm. Still, though, there is still the occasional new release that just can’t be bought in Aus.

    Ah, well, at least it’s not as bad as in New Zealand, where paperbacks tend to be between NZ$23-$30 (US$19-$25) from what I saw.

    1. Hear hear Emilie! In South Africa print books are hideously expensive, and Kindle books cost $2 more for every single book than they do for US readers. Because clearly we readers in the third world are either (a) loaded, or (b) reading is a luxury item only for the weathy!

  29. You truly are ahead of your time, Hugh. Fantastic!

  30. “We want to prevent people from not reading.”

    Amen! This is great stuff! Can I submit a manuscript? :-)

  31. Hugh,

    Very interesting ideas.

    Here’s a question…if the traditional publishing houses eventually disappear, what replaces them? Does Amazon get into publishing? Does some sort of new entity emerge? Do books even still get printed? And has anybody thought seriously about the consequences of Amazon’s growing dominance of the e-book distribution system?

    Saying the publishing houses need to change is the easy part…thinking seriously about what happens in 5-10 years is a bit trickier. As a reader, I already don’t like many things about Amazon…namely the fact that I can’t “rent” a book for 99 cents instead of buying it for $9.99, and the fact that “ownership” of an e-book does not come with the traditional rights of ownership (i.e. to give/sell the book so someone else when you are finished).

    Both from the perspective of authors AND readers, the idea of the traditional publishing houses going away should fill people with a fair amount of trepidation.

    1. They won’t disappear. They’ll change. Just a matter of how soon.

      Non-fiction will be difficult to do any other way. Print won’t die out. Bookstores will survive (and maybe even thrive).

      But authors and writers need to be treated better. These two parties should be the focus of the industry.

  32. […] That would be my first month at the job. My second month, we would really get busy. […]

  33. Mr. Howey,

    I agree with the above comment that posts like these have taught me more about the traditional publishing industry than anywhere else. I appreciate the insight, and thoughts on why they could be better. You’re right. I’m sure no one wants to tip the apple cart. Whoever suggests these changes is likely responsible for them, and might face the consequences if they don’t pan out. Maybe if the management at one of these pub houses adopts NPR’s approach about mandating failure (as in, employees were rewarded for having projects blow up in their faces), we’d have a difficult ballgame. It was a huge success for NPR!

    The main thing I like about indie publishing is that it’s not a zero sum game. I don’t have to sell enough books to justify my advance. I can sell five books or five thousand, and just keep writing. Posts like these inspired me to indie publish, and my first release comes out this spring! Thanks!

  34. Hi Hugh,

    I frequently stop by your blog, but I have to credit JA Konrath for pointing me in the direction of this post. I want to say thanks to both of you!

    You say that this post is fantasy – but it’s not!

    About this time last year Harper Collins established a new imprint called Harper Impulse under the direction of Kimberly Young (formerly of Harlequin). While they’re not officially calling it an ‘experimental’ imprint, since they’re doing most of what you advise, I’d say it is. And I really hope Harper Impulse succeeds so the rest of HC follows suit.

    I was one of their launch authors. Signed a contract in April, first book on sale in May, second in October, third due shortly. A traditional publisher able to turn books around and get them out the door in just a few months?! [Pat yourself on the back – the example you’ve set as Hypothetical CEO has clearly paid off!]

    I’ll try to address your points above in order. If I miss anything, feel free to ask and I’ll answer as best as I can.

    1. Returns. This one I can’t comment on, since HI doesn’t use the same print distribution methods as HC’s more traditional imprints. Harper Impulse is a digital first imprint with print to follow. But it’s still early days for the changes at HC, so don’t discount this yet.

    2. Print on Demand. Done. Harper Impulse books will not be distributed the traditional way. A print on demand process has already been put in place. First sample runs have been done (if you want, I can send pictures of happy authors posing with their books!). The first have been loaded on Amazon, more to follow in the near future.

    I love your ‘Lost Literature’ idea. May I suggest it to the team at Harper Impulse?

    3. All books are equal. Speaking as an author I feel HI have treated us all equally. No one book or author has been singled out as more important or getting a bigger cut of the promotional pie than any other. We are encouraged to work as a team and support each other.

    4. Free books. Harper Impulse already has several tie-in novellas permafree to draw in readers. They also have sample chapters of new releases bundled together as free books to introduce readers to new authors, and another free book written round robin style by a collection of HI authors. They’re also experimenting with pricing. Book prices are not set in stone and are very market related.

    5. Cereal boxes. Not that I know of (yet) but as an author half way around the world from the mothership I’m going to give the team credit for having other ideas I don’t yet know about.

    6. Brand. The HI name and logo are front and centre on all books, and they’re also active on social media promoting the brand. Focus is on women’s fiction and romance, so readers know what to expect within this broad field. The HI team also engage directly with readers and bloggers, which is a plus in my book.

    7. Author brand. So far we’re mostly new authors so only in the process of building our author brands. While we authors are responsible for building our own brands, we receive a great deal of support and advice from HI on promo, and have a forum in which we can ask questions and get direct answers from the editors, marketing people etc which is available to everyone. No question is seen as too small or too silly and all are answered.

    8. Let the authors shine. Yes! And again, Harper Impulse been doing this equally for everyone. Any author willing to do so gets the opportunity to appear on the HI blog. The marketing team got me a spot on the official Nanowrimo blog last week, other authors get included as Kindle Daily Deals, yet others get a spot in the HC newsletter. It’s not one big name author getting all the attention.

    9. Long tail. You managed all that in one month – whew! In the not-so-fantasy world it’s taken a little longer. It’s taken a year to get this far. But as everyone at HI has said at least once: it’s still early days and we’re concentrating on the long term.

    As an author, I can still see room for improvement, but for me Harper Impulse is making an effort and I’m willing to be patient and give them a shot. I’ve tried my hand at self publishing as well, and so far my HI books have done better than my self-published books. If that ever changes… then nothing is set in stone. That’s the joy of this new paradigm, isn’t it?

    1. Wow! That’s awesome to hear, and straight from the source. Congrats on your publication. I do hope this spreads.

  35. i’ve commented on this before, but feel to say it again: your books are fantastic, great reads, but truly, it’s how you do things that got me reading fiction again. your blog – the great mix of topics – some pr but also how-to and personal story – is a perfect consistent flow between your regular ebooks. it’s been years – decades – since i purchased books like this. and yes, i started out by pirating the wool stories, then finding your blog, getting caught up in the great swashbuckling adventure tale that is the online world of hugh howey, then donating, and now purchasing whatever you release.

    and then there’s what you’re doing for my own writing. so totally turned off by a dozen or so brief wadings into main stream publishing, i just stopped trying. the one format that resonated as true was blogging – total control, lightning fast publishing, immediate response from readers, even a little bit of money – which felt like gifts that would show up each month. and all of this is what you now talk about: self-publishing is awesome. it’s like realizing you’re not alone. that you have a whole tribe of folks. nerdy folks who just like to write a lot, and share stuff, and delight one another with weird and lovely and heartful and well-done offerings.

    and so now i have a novel up at jukepop serials, a non-fiction on integral shamanics almost done, and a series of ebooks on modern day shamanism being sketched out. so yeah, thanks for sharing the sparks. brother hugh – you rock. :)

  36. […] article is one of several (including Don’t Anyone Put Me in Charge; My Second Month on the Hypothetical Job; Lil’ Kris in da House and Turning Chaff Into Wheat) that, taken together, could be […]

  37. Shhhh… Hugh dang it! You’re giving the secret to saving a traditional publishing business away for FREE… you should be publishing it in a $30 hard cover. :)

    (note to publishers: I’m a veracious reader, and I wait for paperback because they are easier to read than hard covers, don’t care for hard covers)

    Seriously though, Hugh, in “two months” on the job… you’ve revolutionized traditional publishing. Maybe that’s because there isn’t really a war between self and trad. at all, it’s all just publishing?

    The reader just wants their book. :)

  38. […] has also written a second report on his time as imaginary CEO: I will comment on his suggestions point by point, reserving the […]

  39. […] Hugh Howey’s report on his second month in charge of “New […]

  40. […] do if he ran one of the big publishing houses. He followed it up with a new barrage on 1/12, “My Second Month on the Hypothetical Job.” Even if thoughts about publication are not your daily preoccupation, his ideas are lively and […]

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  42. […] blogged before about what I would do, and it comes down to slashing the waste in the industry and passing those savings along to […]

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