Publishers have been in the direct-to-consumer sales business for some time now, offering titles online, through direct mail, and at book fairs. HarperCollins, however, upped the ante this fall by giving authors a strong incentive to link directly to the publisher’s consumer website from their own sites and blogs. Under the new program, authors earn higher royalties when their titles are purchased directly on harpercollins.com (which went live this summer) by consumers that they refer. The move has caused concern among some booksellers, who are worried about added competition.
“It didn’t send a good message to us,” said Becky Anderson, co-owner of Anderson’s Bookshops, in Naperville, Ill. Anderson previously looked at HC as a good partner. “We [as indie booksellers] are building a community for authors—especially debut authors. [This program is] telling those authors, ‘We’re going to let you bypass those booksellers.’ ”
Through the new HC program, when a consumer purchases a book on harpercollins.com after being directed there by a link on the author’s website, the author’s royalty rate on that book is increased by 10 percentage points. Although visitors to the HC site are given the option of buying books from other retailers—the product page for each title has a “View More Retailers” button—including Indiebound (the online retailing arm of the ABA) and several independent bookstores, Anderson feels this does little to promote sales at local shops. Most consumers don’t recognize the Indiebound brand, she said.
Gayle Shanks, co-owner of Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe, Ariz., agreed with Anderson’s assessment: “Any program that takes sales away from us will bring about our demise eventually,” she said. “It’s a win-win if we all understand our roles and stick with them.” To Shanks, this means having authors support bookstores by linking to them on their websites and social media pages.
Agent Kristin Nelson, of Nelson Literary Agency, wrote a blog post in October questioning whether the HC program is indeed bad for booksellers. “Publishers are between a rock and a hard place,” she explained. “This is a step they have to take in the current retail environment.” Nelson views harpercollins.com as one more sales outlet—in addition to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Indiebound—that authors can send readers to from their websites.
“I do think it’s a curious move, especially after they introduced the new incentive program for booksellers,” said Kate Schlademan, owner of the Learned Owl Book Shop in Hudson, Ohio, referring to the HarperCollins Promotional Fund that is designed to simplify co-op and provide additional funds to independent retailers for marketing books. HC also introduced expedited shipping for indies this holiday season and is testing bundling. “So far I’ve always felt like [HC] gives us a lot of support.”
Chuck Robinson, president and CEO of Village Books and Paper Dreams in Bellingham, Wash., has mixed feelings about HarperCollins’s program. “Though it’s a bit troubling for indies, my empathetic side certainly understands [HC’s] dilemma. With Borders gone and B&N regularly announcing store closings, I’m guessing publishers are in a bit of a panic mode about where their books will be sold. Engaging authors to link to them may be more aimed at capturing sales away from other online sellers, especially Amazon,” he said.
As for HC, chief digital officer Chantal Restivo-Alessi said the program is simply about making sure “our books are available in as many channels as possible.” She added, “In order to make our direct channel work, we need a partnership with our authors. That’s what made us think of compensating them for connecting with our site. We continue to encourage them to link to other retailers’ sites.”
The HC consumer site is still new, Restivo-Alessi said, and the publisher is creating promotional strategies for it. She sees this is a plus for other retailers. For her, it’s not an either-or situation: when HC offers discounted pricing for particular titles on its site, the added visibility helps to promote the books across all outlets. “Indies are an essential part of our ecosystem,” she said.
Josh Marwell, president of sales at HC, said the direct-sales option in no way diminishes the company’s support for indie stores, noting that in addition to the initiatives cited by Schlademan, HC sent 50 authors to the regionals this fall. Furthermore, the publisher has been very supportive of Daniel Handler’s Upstream program, which makes signed books available through indies. He also pointed to HC’s support of Neil Gaiman’s program that encourages authors to work with their local bookstores to promote Indies First/Small Business Saturday (November 29).