About Me

A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Leisurely into the Future

On or about the 17th, I will be doing a guest post for the Clarion Blog where I talk some about various e-book issues, so keep an eye out for that.

In that post, I briefly mention but don't really discuss some of the big news from last week, which was the decision by Dorchester Publishing to do away with their mass market publishing and focus entirely on e-books, with a limited trade paperback POD component either for their book clubs or selected titles for retail. You can read the Publishers Weekly article here.

I guess the big question is whether this is the harbinger of a trend that will play out across the business in the very near future, if it's a one-time act of desperation that nobody else will follow, or a bold stride into a new era that will force the issue even where it's not heretofore been considered.

Dorchester is an independent mass market house. They were founded in 1971. Their best-known imprints are their Leisure Books imprint for horror and thrillers and their Love Spell imprint for romance. In more recent years, they've been the distributor for the Hard Case Crime mystery imprint. And in sf/fantasy, they've briefly had the Cosmos imprint reprinting selected titles in mass market from POD publisher Wildside Press.

They've had money issues. Fifteen or twenty years ago there was a lawsuit over their royalty accounting, which when settled required them to have this end of their operation closely supervised. They sold off the entire backlist by a prominent Love Spell author to Harper within the past two or three years. Their sales had been dropping.

All that aside, they've been the smallest major publisher of mass market books. If publishers will sometimes play bookkeeping games with authors, distributors and major accounts can play similar games with publishers. And the smaller you are, the more likely you'll find yourself gamed and the harder a time you have smoothing over the rough times while those games play out.

So in a way, the circumstances at Leisure are unique. The closest company to Leisure is Kensington Publishing, which was founded in 1974 and which publishes a similar but also bigger and broader line of books. The extensive romance and Zebra horror and western lists and the same aversion to sf/fantasy are matched at Kensington with the non-fiction Citadel line or the Dafina line focusing on African-American literature. I don't know the actual differences in billing, but certainly it's a step from Dorchester to Kensington, and steps from Kensington to get to the major publishing conglomerates like Penguin, S&S, Harper.

Clearly, Leisure is taking a big risk. They're trading away the lion's share of their sales dollars as they trade mass market for e-book. The fact they think they've any chance of getting away with it suggests there is more truth than the big publishers want to admit to the idea that e-books can/should be cheaper because they do away with so many of the costs in publishing. That being said, Leisure is still going to have a lot of costs. Editors, offices, all of the people that put a book through production and publicize it and market it. They'll need fewer sales staff and have layoffs there, but they still need some people to keep an eye on the relationship with their etail partners.

If this risk if worth if for them, I still don't foresee major publishers going this same route in the next three to five years, perhaps well longer than that. There's still too much money to be made selling books at Wal-mart and Target and Costco and even actual bookstores, all of which give actual physical books an ubiquity that we're not approaching next month for ereaders and ebooks.

Furthermore, because the "books want to be free" people are entirely wrong that there are no costs at all in publishing e-books, the move only works if they can keep some semblance of their sales when they no longer have their mass market arm. This, to me, is the big if, the big risk question in what they're trying to do. Barry Malzberg was telling me how his friend Mike Resnick, whose web site I won't link to because it's an ad-cluttered godforsaken mess but that's neither here nor there, has digitized his reverted backlist and feels he can make a tidy amount selling even if only modestly direct to consumers, but... for those books the sunk costs of editing and initially producing are already sunk, and Mike still has new books out on a regular basis to remind people he's there. Elizabeth Moon's wonderful Hugo nominee Remnant Population now sells more e-copies than print copies, but again Elizabeth is out there with new books and wonderful blogs and all sorts of things to help drive people to seek out this book.

When Dorchester no longer has an active print component to drive people toward their e-book program, I'm not sure they're going to be able to maintain their e-book sales. The hope is that they can pioneer the move into electronic publishing only (well, pioneer insofar as the mass market publishers are concerned, for there've been other people doing what Dorchester wants to do, lots and lots of other people) and then kind of ride the upward rocket trajectory for this business. I worry they'll find they really miss the synergy between the print and the e sides of publishing.

Which, along with piracy issues, is always my concern. It's much harder to browse your way to things, much harder to break through the clutter, when things start moving en masse to the internet, and when mass circulation ways of finding a book, like all of the Sunday book sections we don't have in newspapers any more, give way to 1,000 variations on Pat's Fantasy Hotlist.

There's a lot more that could be said about the topic, but it'll be so much funner to sit back and see if Dorchester is a canary in the coal mine showing what we'll all be seeing very, very soon, or if they're enough the outlier in the mass market business because of their size that as Dorchester goes, so goes nobody.

One last thing, though. It's old-fashioned of me to think about the impact this has on the dying technology of printed books, but... How many racks and slots does Dorchester control in supermarkets and drugstores across the country? What happens to those rack spaces? Nobody's successfully established themselves in mass market in the 35-40 years since Kensington and Dorchester launched, in part because of the barrier to entry in getting rack space. And now there might be all of those racks... Do the racks go away? Do the other publishers divvy them up? Does somebody try and buy them en masse? E is the wave of the future for publishing to be sure, but for the near future the real money in the Dorchester news isn't where all the buzz is. It's in the old-fashioned spinner slots that nobody at all is talking about.

Update: A few hours later PW reports on the editorial director of Leisure saying we're all misunderstanding everything and that they're not going away from mass market entirely but only for six months, and that the POD will be done mostly to provide reorders while still doing regular printing for regular mass markets. Make of all this what you will...

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