By HILLEL ITALIE, AP National Writer
NEW YORK - In an ever-uncertain market for publishers, HarperCollins is looking to resolve two of the industry's major concerns: High author advances and the high rate of returned books.
The longtime and energetic founder-president of Hyperion, Robert S. Miller, has left to join HarperCollins, where he will head a new imprint specializing in short, "popular-priced" books, nonreturnable shipments to stores and lowered money to authors up front in exchange for increased profit sharing.
"Our goal will be to effectively publish books that might not otherwise emerge in an increasingly 'big book' environment, an environment in which established authors are under enormous pressure to top their previous successes, while new authors are finding it harder and harder to be published at all," Miller said in a statement issued Thursday by HarperCollins, part of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. and already the distributor of Hyperion.
Hyperion, owned by the Walt Disney Company, announced Thursday that, effective immediately, Miller would be replaced by Ellen Archer, currently Hyperion's senior vice president and publisher.
"Bob and I worked beautifully together," Archer told The Associated Press, "and we had practically a decade (nine years) of this wonderful working relationship. I think it's an exciting time in publishing and I believe that he and I, because we're very similar, see a world of great opportunity."
"I'm very, very happy that Ellen is taking over," Miller told the AP, adding that even he is surprised to be switching jobs. "She is already so immersed in the company and has so many ideas of her own."
During Miller's 17 years at Hyperion, he published a wide range of best sellers, from Mitch Albom's "For One More Day" to David Halberstam's "The Coldest Winter." A passionate advocate for both Hyperion and the industry overall, he currently chairs the trade publishers executive committee of the Association of American Publishers.
"Bob is an idea-a-minute man," Jane Friedman, president and CEO of HarperCollins Publishers Worldwide, told the AP. Miller and Friedman are old friends and both say that the idea for Miller's move came after the two met for a drink, on Feb. 29, and discussed as publishers often do what's wrong with the business.
"I was talking about all these ideas and how it would be great to try and do some things differently and she said, `Why don't we?'" Miller recalls. "She wasn't just going to sit around and talk."
Miller's imprint, currently unnamed, will release about 25 books a year "in multiple physical and digital formats ... with the aim to combine the best practices of trade publishing while taking full advantage of the internet for sales, marketing and distribution," according to HarperCollins.
Miller, who will begin at HarperCollins on April 14, says the books will be short, citing such compact Hyperion releases as Steve Martin's "Shopgirl," and that they will cost around $20. He hopes to attract both new authors and established authors looking to write something less commercial.
At least two planned features break from traditional practices, aggravated the increasing reliance on blockbuster hits for profits: The imprint will pay lower advances, or none at all, but divide profits equally (instead of 15 percent of the retail price or lower for the author); releases will be sent to stores on a nonreturnable basis.
"I;m going to talk to booksellers and try to find a way to break out of this bind booksellers and publishers are in, with this incredibly high return rate (around 40 percent)," Miller says, who acknowledged that he had not figured out he would convince booksellers to shift the risk of unsold books from the publishers to themselves.
"We'll let you know when we know. The point is to announce it and talk to people. It's an experiment."
Paul Aiken, executive director of the Authors Guild, which represents more than 8,000 published authors, said "the devil was in the details" about Miller's proposed changes. He wonders how HarperCollins will calculate costs in deciding how much profit there it to share. And he worries that nonreturnable books will make stores less likely to take a chance on new or obscure writers.
"It puts greater pressure on the stores simply to look at the sales record," he says.
Oren Teicher, chief operating officer of the American Booksellers Association, which represents the country's independent stores, said owners would likely want bigger discounts in exchange for books not being returned. But Teicher said he would be willing to hear any ideas that might spare "the colossal waste of books being shipped back and forth."At Hyperion, Archer says she is also looking to make major changes, including a digital deal that would be a "a paradigm shift for how a book is published."
"It's definitely going to be a very interesting experiment," she said, declining to give details. "Anyone who isn't thinking like this, trying to change the way we published, is going to be out of business."