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A Design for the Future at HarperCollins

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A very encouraging attitude is emerging at HarperCollins UK, where the c.e.o. Charlie Redmayne (yes, yes, he’s related to that Redmayne) is looking at and talking about the future seriously.  In recent years too many people in the high command  (as opposed to the editorial non-commissioned officers) have chosen to ignore both the predators gathering in the woods around them and the deep, self-inflicted wounds that had begun to bleed them to death.

No longer is the Celebrity Memoir to be pursued as the easy cash cow of established delusion.  As Redmayne says (at the Scottish Book Trade conference), publishers were routinely paying over a million pounds in exchange for the reveries of the walking famous, and yet on average only three of these autobiographies each year were selling over 200,000 copies.  While generously feeding celebrities’ bank accounts and ISA schemes on steroids, that is no way for publishers to make money, and a sure way to lose it. It’s no longer a case of ‘you’re on the telly/in the movies/all over the glossy mags – you’ll do’. Instead, the wise captain of HC urges a much more cautious, precise approach to the acquisition process.  It’s about time.

But that’s not all.  Redmayne also understands the huge potential and ongoing importance of the back list, or the long tail, or whatever term you favour to describe the wealth of riches for which HC holds contractual rights, accrued over decades.  For years, during one of its many periods of crisis, publishers lurched from hit to hit, largely disregarding any of its output that failed to trouble the bestseller list.  The real challenge in this industry where art and commerce have always existed in tectonic collision, is to make those inter-hit patches economically rewarding rather than abandon them to the column headed ‘loss’. Here again Redmayne imports enormous good sense, suggesting that the disproportionate hits should be recharacterised as the icing on the cake rather than the fiscal gold dust that funds the failures.  That is a philosophical shift to be welcomed very warmly.

Then there is the intriguing success of HC’s subscription service.  This model may be more familiar to readers from the Kindle Select programme, which operates as a kind of Netflix or Spotify for books.  As with the eruption of digital publishing, too many major conventional publishers are resisting this development on what often turn out to be spurious economic grounds.  For readers, and writers, and agents, however, it makes perfect sense to test and – all being well – adopt any and all methods of supplying authors’ work to a receptive readership.  Publishers now seem to have come to terms with the shock of realising that people will buy and read books even if they are not on paper (parallels with the Jurassic music industry abound), but still seem unable to free themselves from the imperative of ownership.  Once, you bought a book made of paper and bound with cloth or glue.  Then digital advances meant you could buy the content of a book.  In both models the key is ownership of the object or file.  Subscription provides what appears to be a radical alternative, but is in fact only a small advance – especially given the success of the same model for films, TV and music.

What do authors and agents want?  The widest possible dissemination of the authors’ work while still earning money.  What do readers want? The easiest and widest choice of access to authors’ work while still acknowledging that work has to be paid for.  What do publishers want?  Surely they ought to want the same, because the genie won’t go back in the bottle.

I applaud Redmayne for seeing and saying this so clearly.

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