I don't usually get obsessed with stories from other publications, but one particular piece in last week's New York Times (Nov. 14) was irresistible. Written by Lorne Manly (full disclosure: he and I once worked together) and published on the front page of the business section, the piece revealed and then discussed the fact that HarperCollins has published a children's book, Cashmere if You Can, in collaboration with Saks Fifth Avenue. Described as a kind of co-venture, the book—which tells the story of a family of Mongolian goats living on the roof of the famed department store—aims to do for Saks what Eloise did for the Plaza.
Usually, when I'm reading a piece like this, I check myself for signs of outrage and indignation. It's product placement, pure and simple! I'd likely scoff. It's outrageous. But a funny thing happened on my way to the jump in this piece: nothing. I felt no outrage, no disgust. It didn't seem to be a sign that publishing, and all of Western culture, was on the road to ruin. And I couldn't even muster a scintilla of the indignation shown by Politics & Prose's Carla Cohen. She seemed to be shocked—shocked!—that there could be marketing inside of kids' books.
What I thought was... isn't that interesting!
Of course, the part of it I found the most interesting was a passage my former colleague deemed parenthetical: "HarperCollins receives a publishing fee from Saks and an undisclosed share of revenue." The whole transaction does indeed "flip the model," as a HarperCollins executive explained. Most authors, of course, get paid advances; they don't pay their publishers.
And that did start me thinking—about a whole new publishing paradigm. Why can't, say, Jack Welch or Warren Buffett or some other brand-name "author" with at least as much name recognition—not to mention cash flow—as an entity like Saks start co-creating books with their publishers—and paying for it? Oh, I know: the guy who writes the check by definition has power over the people he writes it to, and that would therefore invert and pervert the publishing process. But come on, aren't those guys holding the reins anyway? After all, they're the ones putting publishers through extensive "beauty contests" whose "prize" is the privilege of paying them millions for their thoughts. I mean, everybody says these books aren't heavily edited anyway, so why don't the houses just own up to it and take their something for nothing up front?
I can see it now. Everybody would be happy. Both parties would split the royalties and, if need be, the "authors" could list their initial payouts as business expenses, or maybe corporate gifts. Publishers wouldn't even have to spend a huge amount on promotion, publicity and distribution, because most of these guys already have people in place to do that—and besides, they get tons of coverage anyway, just by breathing. Talk about your win-win situation.
And maybe, just maybe, there'd even be a trickle-down effect. Suddenly, HarperCollins, or Warner, or Random House or whoever would be sitting on piles of cash they could dole out to underpaid staffers or even—imagine!—put toward paying and publishing and promoting the poor, neglected midlist authors. You know, the ones who actually need the help.
In the Times piece, Harper CEO Jane Friedman winningly confesses that she's "a dreamer" when it comes to publishing.
I guess I am, too.