A Closer Look at 360

Yesterday, HarperCollins Publishers announced a new “global publishing program”, called HarperCollins 360. In their press release, HarperCollins said: “The goal of the initiative is to ensure that all books published by any division of HarperCollins around the world are available in print or digital format in all English-language markets.”

Smart PR

First of all, this is a very good piece of PR for authors and agents. International publishing isn’t new, but the announcement is important. Publishers have had some image problems lately as many authors debate whether they could do just as well publishing without them. Assumptions were made, as were some naïve calculations, and a lot of misinformation was spread, making it hard for publishers to prove their worth in the midst of it all. So instead of reacting to accusations, HarperCollins is one publisher who is getting ahead of it all and showing writers that it is a powerful force that can make an impact on a global scale by utilizing its international operations. This is smart messaging that will impress authors and agents. It’s also a sly acquisition strategy because 360 positions itself as a house that should be given world English rights.

How global is it?

The press release was a little vague and more details will eventually surface but for now just how global 360 will be isn’t clear. According to the press release, it seems the priority is US sales: “Authors published in the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, India, and Canada will be listed, published, and available to booksellers and consumers in the U.S.” Unfortunately, what’s implicit here is that currently books at one branch of HarperCollins may not be published well (or at all) in other territories in which the company already has rights. But there is no reason to think HarperCollins has been the only one and at least they are making a public commitment to rectify the situation.

As the program matures, it will surely make all its books available to all major English-language markets—but what about the minor markets or the foreign-language markets with English-language readers (which is just about every market now days)? Owning world English rights means they could sell English-language editions in China, Germany, South America, etc. Those may not be the biggest markets in terms of (English-language) sales today, but, with online retailers and ebooks having overcome geographic obstacles, these markets do have enormous potential. Right now, the program certainly sounds international, but it remains to be seen if “global” is an accurate qualifier.

But either way, authors who have sold world English rights (or some combination of English rights) to HarperCollins are about to benefit from motivated print and electronic distribution in territories where they may previously have felt neglected.

Upside and downside

Another positive implication is that HarperCollins cannot (or at least really should not) do this without an aggressive commitment to complete, accurate and regularly updated ONIX files. (Yippee! More metadata!) This is all-around good news because robust ONIX files sell more books [PDF]—in any territory.

But one complication in all this is that “regional warehousing with on-site printing machines” HarperCollins will be using raise a concern for many authors and agents: POD makes rights reversions nearly impossible because the book is never technically out of print. It’s already an industry concern, and ebooks obviously also raise that issue (an ebook is never out of e-print). But it makes solving this contractual dispute more pressing.

What to watch for

I’m most interested in watching two things:

  1. How international publishing will be handled and how international distribution will be supported by marketing. Will a title be published differently in different markets, with local approaches, or will there be a uniform approach to all markets? I hope for the former, but it would be more expensive and perhaps prohibitively so. With so much emphasis on local and hyperlocal these days, demographic and cultural differences are gaining further acknowledgement from marketers. Will the European cover and copy be the same as the Canadian and Chinese ones?
  2. How much marketing and merchandising support is realistic. I don’t think we should be hasty in raising expectations because the resources required to market books locally in different markets are sizeable and just having a book discoverable and available to the world is a great achievement. But we can learn a lot by watching 360 and tracking what level of support is feasible and sustainable and what it can accomplish.

No matter what happens, though, more books will be available to more readers and that’s a good thing.