Thursday, May 13th, 2010
47

Bob Miller: HarperStudio Was a Failure


Thanks to Joe Clark, here is a recent secret speech by Bob Miller (secret = it took place in Canada), who jumped ship on the innovative, profit-sharing imprint HarperStudio just as it was beginning and surprised everyone by going off to head Workman Publishing, fine publishers of Brain Quest Write & Erase Set: Alphabet and The Big Breakfast Diet. This resulted in HarperCollins shuttering the imprint.

You can look at the short existence of HarperStudio as a success or a failure; Bob regards it as a failure, clearly, despite three Times bestsellers out of 16 books published, and a low cost spent on all of these books (and also no money wasted on advertising because advertising doesn't sell books, which, obviously). So one would imagine they spent outright between $3 and $5 million on books.

[Disclosure: I don't know him but I am not a fan of Bob Miller these days in light of his sudden departure; HarperStudio bought books from friends of mine and from me as well (all books that will still be published, as of now).]

Miller also claims that "small advances" (that's $100K and lower, and if you're a fiction writer, you're currently thinking "I'd kill someone for a $40K advance!) made the house unattractive to "track record" authors.

This misses the point; a house like that is supposed to make writers, and can afford to gamble on books, not just buy the cache of authors outright as is done in the wrecked publishing star system. Bob totally misunderstands what he was doing, and how and why he was doing it, it sounds like? "It was hard to convince authors," he says in this speech, about the advance limit. "The authors we were able to get were authors who did not need the money to write the book over time and were doing something over time that did not require as big an investment." (He points to their MARK TWAIN BOOK as an example. Mark Twain didn't need the advance because HE IS STILL DEAD.)

But for the living ones? "The level of author that might have been interested" in profit-sharing was already making too much money elsewhere, is what Bob weirdly concludes from the experience. Then maybe you shouldn't have spent all your time sniffing around after "the sure thing" rockstar author? It sure is a weird view of running an imprint when everyone you want to publish is already too rich and well-known to work with you.

47 Comments / Post A Comment

Coates Bateman (#3,324)

I wonder where the agent fit in on this type of deal. What kind of cut was negotiated for them? Do you know?

joeclark (#651)

I always love to get linked by the Awl, but? to use your punctuation? two things?

I feel the colon in the hed makes it sound like Miller actually stated or admitted failure. He did no such thing. This is further evidence of failure to competent external observers, but such statement did not come from him.

I expect you meant cachet, not cache.

Another things: HarperStudio was such a solid idea that it got killed when its founder left. Whereas Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia has years and years of photos and other material saved up for when its founder departs. A publisher is supposed to outlive its publisher.

wb (#2,214)

What HaperStudio did wasn't "experimental" or "revolutionary." It was borrowing heavily from independent publishing, claiming it as their own, and having a major conglomerate–and history–to back you in more ballsy moves likes refusing returns, which didn't work in the end.

That being said, it sucks they folded and that, even thought they're still publishing titles by Awl Pals and others they were contracted to, there won't be a functioning press to back those releases. That's a bummer. But I'm with Choire: not a fan of Bob Miller.

And this is all being written as a somewhat disgruntled former indie publisher, who was fucked because of returns and wasn't able to publish books slated for release when we folded. But, yeah, bottom-line publishing execs make me angry. Look at places like Melville House, $2 Radio and the new publishing/think tank venture by Richard Nash–formerly of Soft Skull–for real innovation in publishing.

Rant over.

wb (#2,214)

Whoops. That wasn't supposed to be a response, but a stand-alone comment. My bad.

Miles Klee (#3,657)

my novel is still up for grabs

(this has nothing to do with the post, i'm just writing it in every comment thread from now on)

Multiphasic (#411)

Wait, wasn't there this whole hullabaloo over McSweeney's adopting exactly this model? Which was basically part and parcel the independent record label model? And maybe David Eggers didn't yet take off for a better job, and we should be interviewing him instead of Miller? Only we shouldn't, because Eggers seems to regard "accounting" and "suppurating" as more more or less synonymous?

Multiphasic (#411)

As opposed to less more or less synonymous? Who the fuck stutters in a blog comment?

NinetyNine (#98)

This misses the point; a house like that is supposed to make writers

Do you think that is a fair summation of what they were doing? We've tussled over if they were a 'blog imprint' but more to the point it seemed like they were interested primarily in authors who had some built in audience (Twain, that Wine Dude, various properties that sprung from online endeavors – NOT BLOGS, DO NOT EMAIL ME I WILL DELETE IT). They might have thought (hoped?) that advances could be minimized because these extant media properties were generating revenue (hahahaha) cover time/cost or writing, and provide advertising. That's radically different than 'making an author.' It's more like 'taking an entertainment property that is undercapitalized and providing a new revenue stream' (sorry for the business speak, but once you go down the road of 'profit-sharing' it's in the interest of the sharee to roll up their sleeves as far as possible, otherwise they end up with contracts that look like participation agreements in the film industry).

jimhanas (#4,919)

I'm with you. "Bob totally misunderstands what he was doing?" I don't think so. Bob understood what he was doing, but the word "experimental" made a lot of other people misunderstand. HarperStudio was an experimental business model, not a champion of experimental content. Emeril was on their list, ferchrissakes.

fek (#93)

The Submissions Grinch strikes again!

joeclark (#651)

You and your equally ass-backwards friends, like Ms Spiers, seem to have a hangup about "submissions." To this day you fail to understand how book publishing actually works. Your submissions jokes work about as well as your dick jokes.

the Nash talk at the same Canada thang is pretty much the antidote: http://rnash.com/article/the-speech-chris-anderson-of-iwired-i-says-is-the-best-hes-ever-seen-on-boo/

wb (#2,214)

Richard Nash is my hero.

meaghano (#3,200)

ME TOO.

The idea should be to give people who understand the shitty grave the publishing world has dug for itself and who want to take the risk anyway– who are willing to basically take that financial risk along with the publisher because they believe in their work and in books, not so that they can quit their day jobs.

bob miller basically took an opportunity and went at it the worst way possible. doesn't mean it's a bad model. i mean, it's probably still bad but it is marginally better. Heh.

But Nash is the best.

meaghano (#3,200)

and in this situation taking that financial risk means taking a smaller advance and a bigger chunk of royalties. that doesn't mean "meh, i have a shit ton of $$, I don't care." It means, "I believe in my work. It is good. I want it in the world."

wb (#2,214)

Richard cares about books, he cares about literature, he cares about stories. I don't get that from Miller, having listened to all of this talk, except for the Q&A at the end. Most publishing people I've come in contact with from majors/conglomerates are interested in "saving" the business for business sakes, whereas indie publishers are working to figure out new models and new solutions so they can profitably put books–printed, digital or otherwise–out into the world.

meaghano (#3,200)

"we just can't go on if we remember the past and look at the odds"

LOL OMG RED FLAG!

meaghano (#3,200)

Exactly. That richard nash talk was the first sensical, exciting, manic episode-inducing thing i had seen/read about publishing in a long time.

Multiphasic (#411)

This was totally fascinating, but to be the reprehensible cornflake-pisser: was it just me, or did Nash engage in a little bit of shooting-over-the-bow in terms of, "Hey authors, know the random crap you used to do to make ends meet? Yeah, we'll take care of that now."

joeclark (#651)

I of course also watched that video (I downloaded like eight of them for comfortable viewing) and wasn't in even the tiniest bit impressed.

wb (#2,214)

@joeclark so if you deem HarperStudio a failure and aren't impressed at all by Nash's direction, where do you think its all going? Or better yet, where do we look for new solutions?

joeclark (#651)

I do not have an answer to that question. I feel I must be honest about my reactions. I watched the Miller video and, the next day, went "Waaait a miiinute!" just like in Looney Tunes. I watched Nash and did not hear anything I hadn't read on the various online Internet Web sites. (That could be his niche: Telling publishers who cannot wrangle their horrific Windows NT boxen what they otherwise could have used those boxen to read.)

One issue that continually goes unaddressed is basic technical competence. Hiring computerphobic wall-to-wall English majors has repercussions when, over the span of a year, everyone expects you to get with the digital program. The only people I know who are doing interesting things in "the future of the book," as it is insistently called, are lapsed engineers and computer programmers. Actually, that would be a blog post right there.

Richard Nash (#4,929)

I'll confess I don't quite know what "shooting-over-the-bow" is, sorry! But my belief is that we need to better integrate the "random crap" into a comprehensive plan. When you're in the writer-reader connection biz, you have to look *all* the connections.

"The only people I know who are doing interesting things in "the future of the book," as it is insistently called, are lapsed engineers and computer programmers. Actually, that would be a blog post right there."

God, that's fucking depressing. (Depressing?) Bring me the freaks in the back of the copyshop that Nash was lauding in his talk, the late night workers at Kinkos who realized that if they had control of the works they could put out stuff whenever — that the supply problem was no longer a supply — that the problem is demand/community/audience. You're offering that the most exciting people are the equivalent of the dudes (and ladies) who invented the Xerox machine? That's why I left San Francisco. It used to make sense, as an internet writer, to hang out with the people who made the internet. But why bother now? I hope you know?

joeclark (#651)

Writers and designers are not, as they say, "computer people." Publishers are managers who are afraid of their computers. As most such computers are Windows boxen, they have cause to be afraid.

Hence if the foundational premise is that the future of the book is digital, noncomputer people can be depended on not to do very much work to make the future happen. This is an argument for training authors, publishers, and designers; it is not an argument that people with computer skills can stand in for any of those.

wb (#2,214)

"Publishers are managers who are afraid of their computers."

This is about as antiquated of an idea as book returns.

joeclark (#651)

I wasn't idly musing. I was speaking from experience.

Who are these computer-fearless managers of whom you speak, WB?

wb (#2,214)

Just about every indie press out there has a publisher who is, at the very least, blogging about the books they put out, if not doing more with computers and the internet. Shit, even John Sargent has a blog now, and he's at the top of one of the biggest conglomerates out there, MacMillan.

joeclark (#651)

I accept your example. But let's look under the hood at the code of their blog and their Web site in general. I know already what the result is going to be. With that kind of experience, nobody at those presses is going to be able to produce an actual ePub file, let alone hack together an API or even offer a combined RSS feed.

Then we look at their mail and see if they're top-posting assholes, and they will be, so that will seal the deal right there.

wb (#2,214)

I think that saying people are afraid of their computers because they can't write a API is a bit of stretch.

(Some of my best friends make internet, true, and are not Bad To Hang Out With. But in things concerning the future of the book — really? Engineers & programmers have a proposal? That's where I was doubting w/ you, joe.)

Richard Nash (#4,929)

I'll confess I don't quite know what "shooting-over-the-bow" is, sorry! But my belief is that we need to better integrate the "random crap" into a comprehensive plan. When you're in the writer-reader connection biz, you have to look *all* the connections.

Multiphasic (#411)

Well, I meant a warning shot, but the metaphor, in retrospect, implies something a little more punitive than what'll actually happen.

But as much as like the idea of consolidating the myriad presences of a given author into something scalable-salable, I worry that this might a) limit an authors options (e.g., how much money does the publisher stand to lose if an author takes an academic post?), b) divert revenue an author may have once been able to enjoy completely on her/his own, and c) potentially torpedo contracts to people who are fundamentally acharismatic (i.e., there are certain authors–and you may or may not have mentioned one–whom I would pay good money not to have to have dinner with).

But I'm really grabbing for the worst case scenarios here. In a best-case scenario, this unlocks revenue streams the writers wouldn't be able to access on their own.

Richard Nash (#4,929)

Sorry, y'all, I'm having a hard time getting my comments to line up appropriately, hope you're able to sort them out! As regards Joe's comment (and thanks, everyone else, who got something out of my talk!), it seems like you'd two problems with it, Joe. The first was lack of originality and I don't at all dispute it. You'll find 500 people of there to whom I've said there's not one original idea in anything I say. The innovation is in the mix of ingredients and in its application to the publishing business, I think-not at all the originality of any of the ingredients themselves. (Though, in my defense, Chris Anderson has heard a lot of this stuff before too, and he thought it pretty original in context…) The second problem you had was that I'm, basically, an English major. (Actually, I'm a lapsed student of game theory and economic policy.) But the team I'm putting together consists of me, the soon-to-be-former Technical Manager of Search for a news website that gets 14 million unique visitors a day, and the soon-to-be-former Lead Web Developer of an Alexa Top 20 website. And a biz dev guy with seven years experience in Chinese start-ups. And if you asked those guys who is doing the interesting work on books, they wouldn't say it was their peers, but rather businesses that combines tech and culture savvy. Look what happened with Google Buzz or what's happening with Facebook, when engineers forget culture. Conversely, your fellow Canadian Hugh McGuire has done some excellent stuff with engineers on Bookoven and Librivox, but he ain't one himself. Tech and culture need one another-I'd avoid setting them at odds…

joeclark (#651)

I have no problem with the fact you're an English major. I don't have any issues, as they say, with you at all. But I believe I have pegged your market niche: Articulating in voice what people who don't understand computers could have read using them.

There is nothing disreputable or remiss about pursuing such a niche.

ljnd (#86)

Computers are just what we read research on. Since when have mainstream book publishers done research beyond the last tip sheet? I don't think the problem is computers. I think it's a lack of knowledge, imagination, and an inability to envision a book beyond its covers. (Even if those "covers" are an ePub file.)

What I like about what Richard's doing is that it's where CP Snow's "two cultures" are finally getting a chance to intermingle. Hugh McGuire – same thing. O'Reilly – same thing. Kotobarabia – same thing. Electric Book Works – same thing. There's LOTS of exciting stuff going on (see http://xpectro.free.fr/) but if you think for a moment that real progress is going to come out of The Big Six…well, I wanna smoke what you're smoking.

joeclark (#651)

Additionally, I am using the term "engineer" in its strict sense (as in the engineering discipline; I have a Dipl.Eng. from Dalhousie University, and Hugh McGuire has some kind of engineering degree). r_nash is using the term in the sense employed by English majors, i.e. "anyone who can program a computer and spends a lot of time doing that."

Richard Nash (#4,929)

Well Joe, I'm not an English major, I believe I already explained that. But my colleagues have, respectively: coursework in engineering from the University of Pittsburgh; a PhD in physics and fellowship work at CERN; and a CompSci BA. Two folks, including me, have nada. The skills you describe, Joe, are a key part of the piece of being an effective media intermediary in the days to come, but watching what just happened at Facebook, it's pretty clear that the engineers need the anthropologists and humanists just as much as the English majors (which again I am not) need the engineers.

My niche is a matter of interpretation, so I leave that to you and others to decide, but the credentials of my colleagues do deserve to be specified given that there's more to them than "people who can program a computer."

Emily W. (#4,931)

No need to knock Workman just because you're mad at Bob Miller. They've been doing great innovative publishing – independently – for years. If you value a publisher that 'makes' and supports its authors, they're the last house you should snark on.

ljnd (#86)

Yes, and also? You do not f*** with the What To Expect people. You just don't.

bobmiller (#4,935)

I'm sorry to see here that my speech at BookNet Canada (not so secret!) was somehow misinterpreted as saying that HarperStudio failed in any way. That certainly isn't the way I feel: I think that the seventy authors we signed up on a profit share basis represent a significant accomplishment, and the success of the books we published is also a source of great pride. I never expected brand name authors to sign on a profit-share basis, since they already tend to get more than 50% in their advances (that said, we did sign up such recognizable names as Brad Meltzer, Erica Jong, Stanley Fish and Harold Bloom). I was pointing out that the HarperStudio model wasn't designed for brand names; and in fact, most of the books we signed up were by talented, aspiring writers, which is as it should have been.

joeclark (#651)

Well, Bob, you did a piss-poor job of articulating how much of a success HarperStudio was when all you did was offer 20 minutes of evidence of its failure. Your claims here are disingenuous at best.

And if it was such a success, why did it collapse once you left?

Schmengy (#4,941)

What does this or what is it supposed to mean?

(and also no money wasted on advertising because advertising doesn't sell books, which, obviously)

joeclark (#651)

Mr. SICHA is using his signature prose style to agree with the premise that advertising doesn't sell books.

wb (#2,214)

On a positive note, I think its pretty great that both Bob Miller and Richard Nash are engaging in the conversation here. Good on to both of you for that.

bobmiller (#4,935)

Sorry, Joe, but I wasn't offering "20 minutes of its failure." I was giving the pros and cons of the model (pros: we signed up 70 mostly unknown authors on a basis that would give them equal share in their income, had four NY Times bestsellers in the first year, and even attracted a few better-known authors to our list; cons: it isn't a model that works for authors who are already getting advances that represent more than 50% of their income, or who are being paid a lot more up front by another publisher). If you or anyone else here wants to have a serious conversation about the endlessly challenging publishing business over a cup of coffee sometime, I'm up for it. But taking shots at someone on a message board doesn't feel productive to me, and doesn't do justice to the grey areas that speeches/panels/blogs seem to ignore.

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