New Harper Collins publishing imprint to eliminate author advances and bookstore returns

Posted April 4th @ 10:54 am by Roger C. ParkerPrint

An article in today’s Wall Street Journal describes how a new imprint being started by Harper Colins publishing, responding to the profit crunch affecting trade publishers, will eliminate the traditional advance paid to authors at the start of a book project. In addition, bookstores will not be able to return unsold copies to the publisher for credit.

Although the new imprint is only expected to publish 25 titles the first year, it is a sign that trade publishing is continuously changing. Although not likely to affect “mega-authors,” like the 1.5 million dollar publishing advance Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick is supposedly receiving for his book, the trend is a disquieting one for authors. The lack of any advance, whatsoever, may prevent some authors from being able to devote the time to writing a book to promote their expertise.

Likewise, the “no returns” policy may indicate the publisher’s reduced dependence on book sales through traditional retail, “bricks and mortar” channels. Many online book sellers do not stock every title they sell, and have the titles drop-shipped by others.

What’s your perspective on this issue? Do you see the HarperCollins announcement as a major problem or simply an example of changing times? How will this trend, if it spreads, effect you–or won’t it?


  1. Susan G. Wheeler
    April 4, 2008

    Besides the lack of funds for the beginning of a book project and the restrictions on fulfilling an author’s pre-book needs, this also eliminates another role of the advance. The advance is a sign of a publisher’s support for a book. Yes, there is a contract, but an advance is good-faith money in the author as well as a tangible commitment to the project itself. Without an advance, the publisher could dole out contracts which neither side has a stake in fulfilling. The author could lose motivation and see no “downside” to walking away–perhaps because another project has been accepted by another publisher and includes an advance and better bookseller support. The publisher, on the other hand, could “overbook” authors through multiple contracts in hopes that a certain percentage would not be written (as is the case now). It would be all win-win for them–no stake to lose, no advance to retrieve. All in all, I see this as a continued erosion of the support, and perceived value, of authors and the books they write. Publishers are transferring the risk to authors and booksellers. Bookstores will be less willing to try a new author for fear of being stuck with books that cannot sell. This new model, however, does pose a risk for the publisher. If this imprint is viewed by authors and booksellers as “second tier,” it might not be able to attract good authors and good books to publish, as well as places to distribute them.

  2. David Meerman Scott
    April 4, 2008


    I am always pleased to see experiments in new business models. I think different options for publishing are great. I have self-published (with a distribution deal), worked with a small publisher directly, and worked with a major publisher (Wiley) on a book that was sold via an agent. All were good experiences and each was right for me at the time. I would not be an author if I only had the “traditional” option when I did my first book.

  3. Chris Davidson
    April 4, 2008

    Hmmm, this certainly makes one stop and think. My view is that it will be a significant problem for unpublished authors. I suspect that what it will do is force more of them into the totally digital world, as described in Chris Anderson’s excellent book, “The Long Tail” which should be essential reading for all of us in business nowadays.

  4. Peter Bowerman
    April 4, 2008

    Hey Roger,

    Interesting development. While it obviously seems driven by economic realities in the publishing industry, I’d think it’d have to hurt them. While many authors are just happy to go with ANY publisher that’ll have them (understandable given the mystique around “getting published” and the long-shot odds against it happening), they’ll likely lose promising authors to those publisher sticking with the conventional model.

    As for bookstores, they’re certainly going to hesitate to carry books they can’t return. Look at how bookstores diss POD books, and do not want to carry most of them. And yes, there are a LOT of reasons to diss MOST POD titles, but an easy one is non-returnability, which is usually the policy with POD.

    It’ll be interesting to see how the grand experiment goes, but I’m sure a LOT of other publishers are hoping it works out, just waiting to jump on the bandwagon, and save themselves a few bucks in the process. Needless to say, there are few publishers who wouldn’t just LOVE to have lower financial exposure in the publishing ventures.

    But, taking the 30K view, it’s just one more reason why going the conventional publishing isn’t often an author’s best choice. Even in the traditional paradigm, you give you the rights, control over the timetable and creative process, and most of the money. AND you’re still expected to do most of the marketing. Now, with this publisher, you’ll make even less money AND what little marketing help you DO get is offset by non-returnability, which can’t help but hurt your book’s chances in the marketplace.

    Of course, the irony of this is that getting your books into bookstores is one of the traditional BIG pluses of conventional publishers – making this one more talking point in the case against conventional publishing.

    Goes without saying that I’m a big fan of self-publishing (but doing it the RIGHT way), where you keep control of all the above, and make – quite conceivably – a good living in the process (the message of my title, The Well-Fed Self-Publisher: How to Turn One Book into a Full-Time Living.”

    Anyway, thanks for the dialogue!


  5. Jan V. White
    April 4, 2008

    Perhaps this sounds curmudgeonly, but I gave up hoping to make money on books years ago. Face it, once the MS is delivered the author is the least important cog in the machine. Prior to that publishers feed you lunch. They call all the shots. They know that if you want to do a book, you’ll do it with or without an advance simply because you want to get it out of your system. Why should they risk even a few hundred bucks if they don’t need to? If the bookstores return, how does it affect us (other than hurting our pride?
    Authors love making books each for their own reasons. The book-business business is a separate issue. But remember how dull it would be if we authors had nothing to complain about?

  6. jay conrad levinson
    April 4, 2008

    roger –

    i think the concept of no advances will weed out a lot of brilliant authors and new ideas. i consider the idea to be an affront to literature and information.

    it will favor established authors like me and eliminate budding new authors such as i was and all great authors were.

    i never thought we’d relive the dark ages, but something that forces us to stay in the status quo will definitely dim the lights.

  7. Ron Peck
    April 6, 2008

    Hi Roger:

    As a first time author for a book, I understand the issues but am not too overly concerned. There are basically three ways to get ones book published: Trade Publishing, Self Publishing and Print on Demand. I suspect at this point Self Publishing or POD will be my initial approach. It is probably getting harder and harder to get advances and support from the big publishing houses like Harper Colins unless one is a recognization name or has done some outstanding prepublishing promotion.

    At this point I am personnally not too concerned. After two or three books then I will take a harder look at traditional or Trade Publishing.

    Having Published and Profitable and your direction in helping to bring about my first book will give me the momentum for think bigger on any follow up publications.

    Finally the goal of my book is to bring visibility and media coverage to The Blind Judo Foundation as we reach out across the USA getting children and young adults introduced to the sport of Judo.

  8. John Kremer
    April 7, 2008

    HC’s new policy will hurt new authors because it’s clear by their terms that this new policy will apply to books they have no intention of promoting. Print them, put them in a few bookstores, and see what happens. HC is hoping the authors, after writing the book for no money, will spend time and money on promoting the book.

    HC’s policy is a terrible option for authors. Self-publishing or POD publishing should be better options, much better options.

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