Monday, May 19, 2008

Jane Dystel on publishers that think outside the box

A number of our blog posts over the past months have dealt with agents and authors thinking outside the box as they pursue their book projects. Today, I would like to discuss what I hope is the beginning of a trend on the publishing side: Publishers dealing with authors in non-traditional ways whereby ultimately both Publisher and author establish a more lucrative and satisfying relationship.

A number of years ago, I heard of a CDS Books which had been founded as a distribution company but which, after a number of successful years in business had begun a publishing program of one or two books a season. They had a very unusual business model: CDS would not pay any advances to their authors; what they would do however was to “buy” only North American book publishing rights and pay a royalty beginning at 20% and escalating up to 35%. They would also commit to spending a minimum of six figures for promotion, publicity and advertising. They allowed the author to retain serial, book club, audio, video, multimedia, electronic and all translation rights so that he or she could sell these rights themselves.

One of our new clients whose sales had been falling due to a lack of attention on his previous publisher’s and agent’s part agreed with me that being published by CDS might well be an interesting and successful experience. As it turns out, we were correct. That author has enjoyed increased sales of his last two books in all arenas. Since he was first published by this company, it has been sold, and its two founders have gone off to pursue other ventures. Now known as Vanguard Press, the company is beginning to publish more books and my one fear is that it will morph into a traditional publishing organization and will stop paying as much attention as it has in the past to each individual author and book – thereby losing its distinctive advantages in the marketplace.

And now another company is being formed, this time as a division of HarperCollins. Bob Miller has left Hyperion, after almost twenty years as founder and President, to start up an as yet unnamed “publishing studio” at HarperCollins. He will begin this new gig with a very exciting business model. It is a bit different from the Vanguard model, but it is still distinctive and shares an “out of the box” philosophy.

In this case the author will receive an advance of no more than $100,000.00 for book rights which will almost always include the author selling many of the traditional rights – book, serialization, book club, audio, foreign and translation rights. The royalty on book sales however will be 50% of the profits. This will enable the author to ultimately earn far more money than he or she might have with even a significantly higher advance and a standard 10%, 12.5% and 15% royalty rate.

Admittedly, neither of these formulas will work for every author; many require money up front in order to finish their books; others believe that the success of their books is tied to the size of the advance they receive (I am not a believer in this theory having seen it disproved too many times).

I urge all authors, however, to consider these new “out of the box” publishing formulas for their books; I, for one, hope that more of my colleagues on the publishing side will strike out with adaptations of these new and creative business models.


  1. Thanks for this post. I particularly like the part about Harpercollins' new imprint (read about this part on PM) where they are not going to print the traditional 30% extra in hopes of making an impact in stores by sheer numbers. That amount of waste is just unconscionable with fuel, paper, and printing resources taking the toll on the environment. While it doesn't seem that this imprint would work for me (YA - new author), I am excited by it and if I were in a position to take advantage (or even a risk) of it, and my agent thought it was smart, I would definitely consider something like this.

  2. Great info. I had heard of the new imprint but this is the first I've heard any details.

  3. Thank you, Jane! You summarized this so well. I've been trying to blog about the new trends in publishing but it's not my area of expertise... so I linked this post! It's exciting stuff.

  4. Thanks for the informative post! Anytime an established industry spreads its wings and tries new things, it's a good thing. Can't wait to see how it evolves!

  5. It's exciting to hear there's some experimentation with avenues of publishing. I suppose it's another great reason to have strong representation as the non-traditional path prob. has some potholes an eager author might overlook.

  6. Jane,
    Thanks for this post. The information is helpful. It's exciting to read about new ventures like these.

    Rita Gerlach

  7. Very helpful to know and thank you. Coming your way with a book franchise proposal. So far I like the way you all think. I am with Major League Baseball and do not have time to approach publishers myself. This post is further evidence of how immersed you are in those relationships.

    Best wishes and hope you will see me soon!

  8. Loved this post. Thanks so much.

    Also outside the box is Komenar Publishing in the Bay Area. It publishes fiction by previously unpublished novelists. In addition, it doesn't halt its promotional efforts after the first three months.

  9. Clarification: Komenar Publishing ONLY publishes fiction by previously unpublished novelists.

  10. I think the industry must start thinking outside the box or they will eventually find they have no box to think outside of.

    There are too many options coming open to the product producers (writers). I have heard all the arguments and am firmly committed to the traditional publishing business model, but as a guy that grew up in business and mergers and industry collapses I fear the publishing industry is facing some real competition in the next generation of writers, once they realize that they control the product, not the book manufacturers. Of course distribution will be the key, not the printing presses. POD Publishing is rapidly reaching the the same quality of product (the actual book) that traditional publishers producers release. And they can do it quicker and can offer standard returns to the trade. Their higher commissions and ablilty to keep books in print for eternity is another advantage. No ware house expense. If barnes and nobles needs 50 copies, just plop in a disk an run 50 copies . Put them on the truck and send them. No need to go to the inventory and drag out fifty books sitting in a warehouse somewhere.Just pop in a a disk and let the computer do the rest. One the distribution gets worked out I think this will fly. We will start seeing thousands of book racks in unconventional locations, such as convenience stores and truck stops.
    I think it will be a revolution that goes back to the age of the early days of the paperback generation.Small Pods will slowly develop distribution on regional basses and eventually gain larger and larger market share.This end of the industry is just in its infancy and the writers are all sitting back to see where it goes.
    As agents perhaps you need to start developing plan B.

  11. This sounds very similar to the deal that Stephen King hashed out between himself and Simon and Schuster in the 90's when he'd left his last publisher.

    Except, in King's case, the split was more like 50/50. Talk about giving your publisher an incentive to make the book a success.


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