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KAI RYSSDAL: There's a reason that authors get some of their money from book contracts up front, and why publishers let retailers return copies that have gotten stuck on bookstore shelves. Truth is, most books don't really sell very well. But a new division of HarperCollins is trying to turn the old model inside out. Jeremy Hobson reports on a new chapter in a struggling industry.

JEREMY HOBSON: Harper Collins CEO Jane Friedman says old traditions are tying down the industry while the marketplace moves forward. Traditions like allowing booksellers to return unsold books.

JANE FRIEDMAN: It started during the Depression when publishers wanted to get their books into stores and retailers wouldn't take them unless they knew that they had no risk. And somehow, it has never evolved into something else. It is un-understandable.

Equally frustrating, Friedman says, is paying big cash advances to authors whose books end up losing money. The new model would scrap the advance and give the author a bigger share of the profits.

FRIEDMAN: The truth is that in this model, an author can make more money if the book works.

LAURIE LISS: I think it's got a lot of upside for the publisher and a lot of downside for the author.

Laurie Liss is a partner with the literary agency Sterling Lord.

LISS: You know, what's the difference between that and self-publishing?

Robert Miller, who started Disney's adult publishing division, will oversee HarperCollins' new unit. He plans to produce audio and e-book versions of every title. Liss says if anyone can start a revolution, it's him.

LISS: That would be nice. We could use a revolution in publishing right about now.

I'm Jeremy Hobson for Marketplace.

Follow Jeremy Hobson at @jeremyhobson