Amazon.com, 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.