Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Dorchester debacle: A happy ending?, in its quest to cement its position as a major publisher, has started buying the backlists of troubled companies. It recently acquired Avalon Books, and next in line is Dorchester Publishing whose author list includes Louis L’Amour, Zane Grey, Connie Mason, Nalini Singh—and several Novel Spaces members and former members including Jewel Amethyst, Farrah Rochon, Phyllis Bourne and yours truly, Liane Spicer. 

There’s an old Chinese curse that goes ‘May you live in interesting times’. I’m not sure whether I’ve been blessed or cursed to have entered the mainstream publishing arena at a time when things got ‘interesting’. The influence of the Internet and social media, the advent of e-books and digital readers, free reading apps for devices, independent publishing opportunities with Amazon and Barnes and Noble—all of these began to snowball around the time my agent sold my first novel. The industry has been in turmoil since, with Dorchester becoming one of the early casualties.

Dorch has been embattled for years, selling the backlist of its historically top-selling authors to Avon Publications (now an imprint of Harper Collins) about two years ago in an attempt to become financially viable. It also discontinued production of mass market paperbacks and moved to digital and trade size, then to digital only. None of these manoeuvres saved the company, however. Debts to warehouses, distributors and authors went unpaid: it is estimated that the company owes several million dollars in back royalties alone.

The authors gritted their teeth and prepared for drawn-out bankruptcy proceedings that would tie up their rights for years and pay them pennies on the dollar, or nothing at all.

In a move that left the industry slack-jawed, Dorchester’s owner foreclosed on the company earlier this year to recover a 3.4 million dollar loan. In March, the Dorchester Media magazine division was sold, with the expectation that the book publishing division would be next. The publisher’s representatives began dropping hints that a deal with a ‘major publisher’ was in the works. Three weeks ago the speculation ended. The ‘major publisher’ was Amazon Publishing—just as industry insiders had suspected.

What does this mean for the Dorchester authors who will have the option to sign on with Amazon if all goes as planned?

My take is that it means different things for authors at different stages of their careers. One author who has been a bestseller for many years now publishes her backlist herself and makes royalties of 65 to 80 percent on those indie titles. She plans to turn down Amazon’s offer. Others with sizeable backlists whose rights were reverted before the meltdown have done likewise and are making more money now than they ever did with Dorchester. The rest of us are neither in the position of the NYT bestsellers nor the ones with a pile of reverted titles: we don’t have sizeable backlists; we have not been in the business for decades; we do not have a readership built up over many years. Amazon is offering us a viable option to build our audience with the backing of a major publisher. Many of us did not get that chance because Dorchester sank before our careers got going.

My first novel, Café au Lait, garnered stellar reviews. The second, Give Me the Night, was optioned to Dorchester but they never even got a chance to look at it before they tanked. Phyllis's Operation Prince Charming was released the same month the publisher virtually went out of business, and even the great reviews could not save it. A number of authors waited in vain for their debut titles to hit the shelves. The last couple of years have been disastrous for all of us with titles tied to Dorchester; many authors have been battling the company to recover royalties and to have the rights to titles reverted, and the Amazon buyout could mark the end of a gruelling road. According to Publisher’s Weekly:

Moving forward, Dorchester authors will, Amazon said, be offered the choice about how they want their titles published. An Amazon spokesperson explained: “We want all authors to be happy being a part of the Amazon Publishing family going forward and we have structured our bid so that we will only take on authors who want to join us. As part of this philosophy, if we win the bid, Dorchester has committed to revert all titles that are not assigned to us.

So, would I take up the option to become a part of the Amazon Publishing family? Very likely. Amazon Publishing is in a growth phase, unlike the decline being experienced by the other players in the industry. It has the immense clout of Amazon’s marketing machinery behind it. It appears to be the future of publishing (at least in the short term) with its emphasis on innovation, and on giving customers what they want in terms of both product and service. It offers competitive royalty rates and does not try to hold on to authors’ rights for five to ten years as was the norm.

None of the authors I know who have already signed on with Amazon are complaining. I don't expect to either.

Liane Spicer


KeVin K. said...

I think that as the industry transmogrifies, models very like the Amazon hybrid will become the norm. The only cautionary note is under current laws as long as a publisher has an electronic format of any sort available the work is considered 'in print.' This means the rights never revert to the author, since reversion is triggered by the work going out of print. Savvy IP attorneys can negotiate a more author-centric clause, and ferret out any other hidden dangers. Be sure to have one go over any contracts you plan on signing before you do. (And go study Kris Rusch's site.)
That having been said:
Congratulations, Liane. Your work deserves publication. And you deserve remuneration.

Jewel Amethyst said...

Liane, I'm going to take the wait and see approach. With all that was happening at Dorchester, unless the authors pushed relentlessly, they were kept in the dark with little or no official communication. Not even when they re-released my book in 2011 as trade paperback, did I get any information. The only author on that title who got information was the one currently in litigation with them.

Though I've heard of the Amazon/Dorchester deal, I as a Dorchester author,hasn't been contacted in any form or manner. I hope it's for the better, and that communications would be more forthcoming, but thus far, I have very little faith.

Charles Gramlich said...

I hope it works out well. It's certainly more promising than what things looked like before. Good luck and let us know how it goes.

William Doonan said...

This is fascinating, and probably a great opportunity. But reading KeVin's comment, it seems likely that rights will never revert to the author, as Amazon is unlikely to go out of business any time soon.

Liane Spicer said...

Kevin, I don't know what the norm is for other publishers, but according to my contract with Dorchester the electronic format goes out of print if sales fall below a minimum (in my case, $200) in any accounting period.

(The funny thing is that three consecutive royalty statements showed minuscule sales although Amazon Central told a different story. When I cited the clause in my reversion request in February, I immediately got a statement that showed sales way in excess of the $200 minimum. The problem of under-reporting of digital sales and manipulating of sales figures appears to be massive and multi-tentacled.)

The idea that the works could remain in print as long as the publisher has an electronic format available (i.e., forever) is nothing short of lunacy and I hope authors refuse to sign contracts that don't contain a time- or sales-based reversion clause.

I will indeed heed your advice when/if the time comes to take precautionary steps before signing anything. I do read Rusch's site (her husband's, too).

Thank you for the good wishes. Fingers crossed that it all works out. As Jewel indicates below, we have good reason to treat anything emanating from Dorch with immense suspicion.

Liane Spicer said...

Jewel, your approach is the safest and least stressful, given all the history. Any information I've garnered from the beginning has been through Google Alerts, following blogs and Yahoo groups, talking to other authors, etc. I've thus been able to keep track of Dorch's changing personnel and contact information and bug them about my reversion.

Most recently, I've spoken at length on the phone with the man who's handling the Dorchester sale. (This was because Dorch's last-employee-standing told me to contact him, the e-mail bounced, I got mad, Googled his phone number and called.)

I've been assured that ALL the authors will be contacted. The bid is supposed to go through on August 15 and the sale will become final August 28 if no one outbids Amazon. The concensus is that no one can.

Liane Spicer said...

Thank you, Charles. For the first time in years Dorchester authors are feeling a glimmer of hope. Will update as the story unfolds.

Liane Spicer said...

William, from what I've heard from one author who has seen the proposed contract and spoken with Amazon's personnel who are handling this, there will be a very reasonable time-based reversion clause. Right now it's mostly hearsay, though. We'll see how it goes.

Jewel Amethyst said...

Liane I got burnt out just hounding Dorchester for basic information. By the time I got an established contact, that person had left Dorchester.

Like you, I'll definitely read whatever contract with a fine tooth comb, armed with KeVin's insight.

This whole fight, the ins and outs of the market, the fact that authors aren't just creative artists but business tycoons in the making, takes the joy out of being a writer.

So much for my dream of writing as a lucrative, hassle-free hobby....

Lynn Emery said...

I think this can be a very good thing for Dorch authors. As with any contract, you have to watch the clauses and make the choice that's right for you. A favorite writing quote, you don't get what you deserve; you get what you negotiate.

Liane Spicer said...

Jewel, you hit it right on the head there. It's nothing like the dream in our heads when we were writing that first novel in isolation and innocence, is it?

Having to transform myself from a dreamer/writer into a hard-eyed businesswoman/writer has been, to use one of those Americanisms I love, hella tough. The two have been mutually exclusive for me. My writing output has suffered. My process has been disrupted. I lost the joy.

I hope it'll be better going forward. If there's one thing I hate more than having fond dreams smashed, it's the idea of being taken advantage of, lied to, robbed blind, treated like dirt and basically taken for a fool - which just about describes my initial publishing experience. And experience is the best teacher of all.

Liane Spicer said...

Lynn, love that quote! I'll try to keep it in mind.

According to Rusch, two parties must share the blame for a bad contract: the publisher who wrote it, and the author who signed it.

Deborah Macgillivray said...

Kevin, the contract that I have seen from Amazon/Montlake says authors coming to them from Dorchester can ask for rights back after two years. So the "in print" really isn't a factor. The contract is a good one, way more than Dorchester ever paid authors.

I have been contacted, and given the offer - unofficially. Until August 15th, when the door is closed on any other bids coming in, Amazon cannot really do much. The court will rubber stamp Amazon's bid on August 31st. After that they are wanting to move fast to get the books into e-book and earning, with tradesize, hardback and some audio happening along the road.

A note, those taking rights back, well, it sounds like Amazon will not cover what Dorchester owes you. You can have rights back but you forgo any money owed you. You get turned back to Dorchester, if you refuse Amazon and Dorchester "has promised" to return the rights.

If I can be a bit of "chicken little" there...Dorchester has promised a lot of things over that last few years. Who is going to return the rights? Backe has taken his 3.4 Mill and walked. There is no Dorchester left to return rights? One person is answering emails and she expects to be shut down soon. Who will return rights? It's a question you need to find out before you give Amazon a cold shoulder, eh?

Liane Spicer said...

Thank you for dropping by and sharing your insights, Deborah. I hadn't mentioned the part about Amazon making good on back royalties for authors who sign with them. For those who are owed significant amounts by Dorch, this might be a big incentive to sign on.

I hear you re being turned back to Dorchester. I doubt anyone wants to be a part of that scenario. There are several grey areas to be cleared up. As we know, promises mean nothing if they're not also written in a contract in black and white.

Phyllis Bourne said...

Like most Dorchester authors, I won't believe anything until I see it in black and white - hopefully, followed by some green!

But I am hopeful.

Thanks for the write-up, Liane. This has been such a confusing journey, it's nice to read the facts all lined up.

Mia Marlowe said...

I feel very conflicted about Dorchester. I love the people I worked with there--my editor Leah (whom I'm thrilled to write for at Sourcebooks now), Diane in the warehouse (what a total doll!)--but the attachment I felt to the people enabled the company to take advantage of me.

I just want to write. I want stories to spool off my fingertips and into readers' hearts. The business side of publishing is an emotional and creative drain. I try not to focus on it. Thank God for my agent.

I've been putting out my Dorchester backlist (which was written as Emily Bryan and Diana Groe) as self-pubbed ebooks for about 9 months. Doing this dovetails nicely with my Sourcebooks and Kensington traditional published novels. I'm considering the offer from Amazon, but not sure yet whether it's worthwhile to write off B&N and all the other electronic outlets.

Back to the WIP where I can control everything...

Liane Spicer said...

Hi Phyllis! You're welcome!

It has indeed been dreadfully confusing. Our experience has been such that believing stuff when you see it is the only sane stance to take. I'm keeping the fingers crossed that the situation is about to turn around.

Liane Spicer said...

Mia, thank you for dropping by and sharing your take on the Dorch situation.

I understand your ambivalence: I wrote in an earlier post that Dorchester authors who were being screwed every which way were selfless enough to worry about the staff that were being laid off - which speaks volumes for the quality of those relationships. Without those strong ties authors might have been a lot less trusting of the company.

It's great that you've been able to continue those relationships in other settings. I wasn't there long enough to get to know the people well, plus my editor was not in-house but someone contracted to handle a sub-sub genre.

I've always admired your ability to focus on the writing and get on with things rather than let the circus distract and drag you down. I'm trying to emulate that. Best of luck with the backlist, and thanks for the reminder that the Amazon offer means exclusion of all the other outlets for the books.