Scott Pack, head of HarperCollins’ imprint The Friday Project, discusses his innovative – and eyebrow-raising – no-advance, profit-sharing model.
I’m delighted to announce that my upcoming book, Humans 3.0: The Upgrading of a Species, has landed an international publisher. The ebook will be released in the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand along with the North American launch in January-February, with the print version following in July.
Beyond that, I’m equally excited to announce that my deal isn’t with an ordinary publisher. I’ve signed on with The Friday Project, an imprint of HarperCollins that does things in a very different way. Rather than offering the traditional up-front advance that must then be paid off with royalties off the sale of every copy, The Friday Project actually offers zero money before the book is published.
Instead, authors get to partake in a 50-50 profit-sharing scheme that kicks in from the time the first copy is sold. Once the publisher deducts its expenses, all profits are split down the middle, which is a potentially far superior payout to the standard 12-to-15-per-cent royalty rate.
Under the standard system, it’s no surprise that most books don’t earn back their advances. Publishers may very well make money on a book, but authors rarely see any additional money over their initial advance.
The Friday Project’s profit split is thus an intriguing experiment – and one that’s potentially very lucrative in the case of ebooks, which don’t carry much of an expense. I’m excited to try it and very much looking forward to the experience. And even though my book is ultimately with a bigger publisher, it still feels very punk/indie to me.
I chatted with The Friday Project’s head Scott Pack about the unique model, the company’s history and what kind of books he looks for – as well as why he chose mine. Here’s a condensed version of that conversation:
What was the original intent behind The Friday Project when it was first founded?
It existed before my time. It was founded by Clare Christian, who was a publisher mainly working in academic publishing, and Paul Carr, who was an internet journalist. He had worked on a book for her at one of her academic imprints and they got together and did a few interesting online projects. One of them was an internet newsletter called “London by London.”
Basically, every week Londoners would post questions for other Londoners to answer, so it might be “Are there any cinemas where I can still smoke?” Or, “There’s a fantastic mosaic on the back of a building in this part of London – does anyone know the history to it?” The following week, the newsletter would go out with all the answers. This was about 11 or 12 years ago.
What they did on the back of that was publish a travel guide to London, written by Londoners – they did a London by London book. They funded it effectively by pre-selling it to members of the community and they raised enough money to print it and then literally went door to door around London bookshops to see if anyone would stock it.
They ended up doing thousands of the thing, so they felt there was an interesting model there, which was: Could you find an online community or website and could you get a sufficient number of the users, members and subscribers to buy into a print book, so that it would make the book work?
It had with London by London, so they set up their own publishing company. It effectively subverted what everyone was trying to do 10 years ago, where print publishers were desperately trying to get things online and make use of digital. They said, “That’s great, but let’s find stuff that’s already online and publish it in print.”
At the time I was working for Waterstones, which is the big book retailer here, and I loved what they were doing. So when I left, they asked me to join and I thought it was a great idea so I jumped on.
What happened once you came on board?
It was great, but very early on I discovered they were rapidly running out of cash and it was going to be difficult to maintain what they were doing. So we did a round of funding and got a backer on board but as it happens, they decided at the last moment to only put half the money in, with a plan to give us the rest in a year’s time if we made certain targets.
When it became apparent we weren’t going to hit those targets, then there was no way we were going to carry on and it was going to go bust, which was a shame because there were a lot of really interesting projects coming up. But then HarperCollins stepped in, bought the business and within a few months put me in charge of it. They said, “We like what you guys have been doing, let’s now find a way of doing it in a slightly different way within a corporate entity.”
It was an ambitious startup that didn’t work but had some great ideas, and then a big corporate entity bought it and said, “Go ahead and do those ideas, with the security of our backing.” It’s an interesting failure and success story and it’s fascinating that we’re still around and experimenting 10 years on.
What went wrong with the original plan?
It was partly that entrepreneurs aren’t always the best business managers and I don’t think they had the best advice. There were some business management issues. In fact, Paul Carr wrote a book about the experience and he was quite honest in it, saying he was spending too much company money entertaining people to really be a sound businessman.
There was also the timing of funding. It was too late then to back out [of the VC funding] and we needed to pay the creditors so we went for it.
The business wasn’t being run as effectively as it could have been and it also didn’t have the economies of scale. It costs far, far less for me at HarperCollins to produce a book than it did for The Friday Project when they were a small indie. Print costs, freelance costs were just too high.
It was a great idea that needed about double the amount of money and another two or three years. If we’d been able to streamline it and make it more efficient, it would have been fine, but it just didn’t have the time and that was a shame.
Looking back there’s a lot to regret about that liquidation period but at the same time, you learn a hell of a lot out of that. Now, it’s looking great and there are some remarkable successes behind it.
We did enjoy some really big successes with some of the early titles we took on. We were one of the first publishers that signed up bloggers as authors. But of course, once there were a few successes, all the other publishers jumped on board and what publishing tends to do is throw loads of money at the next big thing until it breaks.
So bloggers were getting half-a-million-pound advances and not selling to the extent they needed to to make that work. As a result, blog-to-book [quickly went to] “It’s dead.” Well, it’s not dead but publishers paid stupid amounts of money for something they probably shouldn’t have. That side of it certainly killed a part of it and made it unattractive to many.
When Dan Brown has a big success, everyone tries to find the new Dan Brown. 50 Shades of Grey? Right, then for the next year everyone is publishing erotica. It’s stupid, but it works for a short while. That’s also slightly what happened.
I’d spent 10 years in book retail so when I was put in charge of it, I felt like we needed to make certain changes to make sure it existed in five years time. Fingers crossed, it does.
How did you come to your no-advance, profit-sharing model?
We always knew when we came to HarperCollins that we were going to be a small niche imprint and that we wouldn’t have a huge budget, and that’s fair enough. Of course, the traditional publishing world is based on the advance model and we just weren’t a player. We wouldn’t be able to offer more than a few thousand pounds, so as soon as someone offered 5,000, 10,000, 20,000, we were out of the competition.
We quickly realized we’re going to have to be clever about how we do this so we approached things in a different way. I like subverting models so I said let’s just not offer anyone any money, ever. But if we offer something completely different, at least it will make authors and agents sit up and go, “Hang on. You’re doing what?” We’ll either get ignored immediately or people will actually say, “Tell me more, how is this going to work?”
Some books don’t make a lot of money because they don’t sell well, but some go on to sell a hell of a lot and the profit share suddenly seems like the most genius idea.
I’ve often said that some of the big superstar authors or celebrities are mad not to go with a profit share. If you know you’re going to sell a million copies of your book, go for profit share because the economies of scale could make that more profitable than any sort of advance.
It’s not risk free but everyone goes in with their eyes wide open. Our authors know what the risk is, but they have the confidence in their book and in us to make it work.
You almost seem to be like a halfway point between traditional and self-publishing. Do you find that authors who are talking to you are already thinking about going in that direction?
We have a number of authors who have come to us that have been traditionally published in the past and perhaps, for want of a better phrase, they’d be described as mid-list authors. They weren’t getting the big six-figure advances, but they weren’t back-list authors either. They were getting a reasonable advance and their books were selling quite well, but perhaps not well enough for their major publisher to say here’s another 25 grand or 50 grand, let’s do another two books.
They were looking elsewhere and thinking, “Where can I go that’s still interesting?” We’re getting a few authors like that.
In terms of self-publishing, I sort of disagree with you. I know where you’re coming from and there is an element of that, I guess, but what we’re offering is a model for authors who are either a bit sick of the traditional model or who come from outside publishing and writing traditionally. They go, “No no, that makes sense to me because I’ve worked in this industry or that industry and that’s the way it works.”
When it comes to self-publishing, it’s really fascinating what’s happened in the last few years. So many authors have the option to just get the book out themselves and there are so many advantages to that. Not only speed – traditional publishers are still tied into bricks-and-mortar retailers, who need six to nine months notice before you can bring a book out – so it’s great that authors can turn things around quite quickly.
The problem is now there is a mass of this stuff and it’s very hard to discover it and a lot of it is not very good. A lot of it is, and a lot of it is doing very well. Friends of mine and authors I know who have self-published have by and large really enjoyed the experience and found it quite profitable, however they’re no longer writers. They’re writer-publishers.
If you want time to write, you need a publisher. If you’re a great marketeer or great at project management, a good eye for design, and you like combining all that stuff, self-publishing is brilliant and definitely a thing to go for. But when are you going to write your next book? You’re constantly working on the book you’re currently selling.
There’s an interesting balance and it’ll be fascinating to see how it pans out over the next five years or so. Personally I think there’s a nice balance between the two and a lot of authors will both self-publish and traditionally publish.
How do you view Amazon? Friend, enemy or both?
As a businessman and a publisher, you’ll always be wary of any retailer who has a considerable amount of power because when they start wielding that power, it’s tricky. At the same time, Amazon are a retailer that has, in theory, constant availability. Not every book I publish is stocked by Waterstones or WH Smith, but they are all stocked by Amazon and most people we know have Amazon accounts. They offer great customer service, they’re a great retailer. I’ve discovered a whole lot of books through Amazon that I wouldn’t have found any other way.
As an ex-retailer, we had terms negotiations every year with different publishers and sometimes they turned nasty. Before Waterstones I worked at HMV and I remember HMV removing all Warner Bros. product from shelves until the terms negotiations were done. Same with Disney at one point, they just weren’t buying videos from Disney.
This isn’t a new thing. Retailers have been doing this with suppliers for years. It shows how reliant we are on Amazon that when Amazon does it, authors are up in arms, media are up in arms and everyone is shouting.
So what sorts of books do you look for?
I’m very lucky because I run a small imprint, so I look for books I like. The caveat to that is they have to be books that I think will find an interesting audience – not necessarily a huge audience. We can make a book profitable if we find the 750 people in the world who want to read it, as long as we publish it sensibly.
When it comes to fiction, that’s quite a personal taste. I tend to like weird, slightly off-putting fiction. With non-fiction, I like stuff that excites me, that makes me want to tell someone about this book. That’s often the frustrating thing about being a publisher – I read a manuscript and I want to tell all my friends about this book but I can’t because I haven’t acquired it yet. I can’t tell Twitter about it because half the people who follow me are publishers.
I’ve been looking for a while for some really interesting thought-provoking popular science stuff, which someone who’s not technologically minded could read and say, “I get that, I understand it.” That’s what I enjoyed so much about Humans 3.0. If you’re a techie and you’re interested in this stuff, it’s absolutely fascinating. And even if you’re not, it tells such a wonderful story that you want to find out more. Telling potentially complicated stories in an inclusive way is what really excites me.
When you finish the book, you should feel inspired and want to tell other people about it. That’s what I’m looking at.