Type 'no-returns' and 'Harpercollins' into Google search and you get over 1600 results. Replace Harpercollins with 'no advance' and Google returns 500+ results. All of this since last Thursday when it was announced that Harpercollins would establish a new imprint managed by ex-Hyperion President Bob Miller. Such is the dearth of new thinking in publishing that this constitutes real excitement.
Bookstores will always return unsold books if they don't sell and they won't sell if no one wants them. Authors will never earn out their advances if their books are uninteresting. The potential of the new imprint at Harpercollins under Bob Miller is interesting but the focus on returns and advances is misguided. Both these aspects of our industry are easy targets for people who either don't understand the business or who are looking for easy solutions. And spare a thought for Bob who will have gotten off to just the start he wanted with all those authors! Aggressively managing returns and advances is nothing new even at the larger publishers and there have been many smaller & medium sized publishers that have established themselves while minimizing (and eliminating) advances paid to authors. The much harder discussion is the one about publishing books readers care about and are willing to buy.
The whole focus on 'no returns' and 'no advances' was probably started by the WSJ which chose to focus on this aspect of the announcement. Publishers as diverse as Public Affairs and Sourcebooks have built strong businesses and publishing programs by focusing on fairly narrow segments and limiting advances (Public Affairs) or treating books like consumer goods which has been the case at Sourcebooks. Disallowing returns and not paying advances is not going to produce a successful publishing program but producing content readers will buy will eliminate a need for returns and advances. So the solution is simple: Publish what buyers will pay for and read, and this is where Bob Miller (and all others) have their challenge. Bob's job at Harpercollins is really not that much different that the one he left at Hyperion and the focus on returns and advances continues to miss the point.
An interesting analysis (where I saw it I don't recall) was thrown up to me recently related to library book purchasing. An analysis of books owned by readers on librarything.com (I think) matched against titles held in library collections seemed to show that readers are buying (and presumably reading) more obscure titles than are being purchased by libraries. Libraries tend to buy what they are told either by B&T or by the larger publishers. The context of this analysis was to show that libraries are in danger of building generic collections while also reducing their appeal to their patrons. If there is a lesson here for Bob Miller and all the other publishers it is that they like libraries need to work harder to fill the consumers needs. The need (in marketing terms) is real but increasingly it remains unfilled by the larger publishers. Fill the need and eliminate returns: Simple really.