HarperStudio Publisher Quits, Leaving Its Future Uncertain


Publishing's revolving door is usually an industry-only affair, with reactions no more extreme than a raised eyebrow. But Wednesday's news that Bob Miller (pictured), publisher and founder of HarperCollins's (NWS) boutique imprint HarperStudio, had quit to become group publisher at Workman Publishing -- a large, established independent publisher -- was met with astonishment.

"I am very proud of what we have accomplished at HarperStudio, and I am sorry to leave this exciting venture behind, but the opportunity to play such a significant role at Workman Publishing is impossible to resist," Miller said in a statement. "I have admired Peter Workman and his company from afar throughout my career; now I look forward to working closely with him as Workman Publishing enters its fifth decade as one of our country's most innovative and successful independent publishers."

Workman will stay on as Workman Publishing's president and CEO but said, "I've reached a time in my life when I need to look to the future of the company and to make changes. As part of our leadership team, Bob will be a vital part of that transition, and all that lies ahead. He shares our entrepreneurial spirit and our enthusiasm for excellence. He knows what it means to create a company and his marvelous publishing instincts will help us take the necessary steps to position the company for continued success."

A Maverick in Murdoch's House

HarperStudio was the brainchild of Miller and Jane Friedman, the CEO, who enticed him from his position as founding president of Hyperion two years ago. The idea was to start an imprint within HarperCollins that would operate differently from the norms of a Big Six Publisher, with a small staff, lower-price hardcover titles, profit-sharing with authors instead of gargantuan advances -- and, as The New York Observer noted in April 2008, distribution eschewing the inefficient tradition of returns, by which booksellers returned all unsold copies at no cost to them. (Return rates, exacerbated by the recession, are creeping past the 40% mark causing much teeth-gnashing among publishers.)

But HarperStudio's utopian visions didn't pan out. The imprint has had bestselling authors, like wine connossieur and social-media titan Gary Vaynerchuk, who thrive on the profit-sharing model. But booksellers rejected the non-returnable model and forced HarperStudio to back off.

Friedman was gone from the company mere months after the big announcement and is now deep into her own e-book startup, Open Road Integrated Media. And Miller clearly got an offer he couldn't refuse from a smaller, nimbler company that might be better equipped to implement the grand plans that News Corp. and its shareholders couldn't accomplish.

An Uncertain Future

What, then, for HarperStudio? A memo released by HarperCollins CEO Brian Murray says the imprint will continue under the auspices of general books president and publisher Michael Morrison. On her personal site, HarperStudio SVP and associate publisher Debbie Stier said she's "one of those insane people who thrives on change...so for me, life is one big opportunity. I've decided that peace and [quiet] is just a mirage. I wish Bob the best. It was a great ride."

But based on precedent, it's hard to imagine HarperStudio can survive as a separate entity. Judith Regan's notorious eponymous imprint was dissolved in 2007, its personnel folded into HarperCollins, and the economy shuttered Collins in February 2009, mere months after its splashy revamp (and a significant hiring and acquiring spree) oriented around narrative nonfiction.

So HarperStudio's small employee roster can easily be asborbed into other branches of HarperCollins, perhaps even with a mandate to acquire more widely -- and for terms that potentially keep more of the company's money in its own pockets, and not in the hands of authors.