Las Friday, Dorchester Publishing announced it is ceasing publication of paper books and going to e-publishing only. This means that as of Monday morning, their authors will be out of print—but still under contract. Their work will be primarily sold as e-books, but they’ll only get the tiny royalty rate contracted for paperbacks.
In other words, these writers will be paid an 8%-10% royalty on books they could have put on Amazon themselves for a 70% royalty.
Perhaps a moment of silence is in order for our colleagues at
Dorchester, which has been publishing mass market paperbacks for nearly forty years. Much of their sales staff have been let go, too.
This is yet another in a series of aftershocks from the Kindle/e-reader quake that’s been rocking the publishing business for the last year.
Dorchester has made this move is simple: e-books are selling and paperbacks aren’t. Publisher’s Weekly says shelf space for mass market paperbacks in supermarkets and other non-bookstore outlets is constantly shrinking, and J.A. Konrath reports only about 20% of the paperbacks printed are actually selling.
The Recession had already put
Dorchester on shaky ground, according to agent Kristin Nelson, who says she’s been moving her Dorchester authors to more stable companies over the past few months. But the boom in e-book sales seems to have made their decision for them. Dorchester will still produce some paper books for their own book club and plans to offer print copies of a few of their highest selling titles, but that won’t help most of their writers.
So what does this mean to the aspiring author—other than you should be really happy you’re unpublished and don’t have a contract with
Dorchester? Should you give up your quest for the agent/traditional publishing contract and self-publish electronically to avoid all this heartbreak?
My gut feeling is—no. It seems to me this is a time when you need an agent more than ever. The more upheaval there is in the business, the more you’ll want the help of somebody who knows the ropes. The anybody-can-do-it e-book world will be even more competitive than the paper book world and—at least for now—traditional publishers still provide the best promotion and distribution.
Plus, I think once the novelty of the Kindle/iPad revolution wears off, paper books will still represent a big part of the market. Not everybody is jumping into Kindle-land.
And hey--we’ll all need something to read when the e-reader is on the fritz. A whole lot of things can go wrong with gadgets. This week’s New Yorker shows a sunbathing woman who has just dropped her Kindle in the swimming pool. Ouch. Plus there will be glitches and viruses and those long hours on hold when you’re trying to get through to the incomprehensible tech guy in India. Also, recessions don’t last forever. The market for books should pick up again like everything else.
But there’s no getting around the fact the publishing world is in crisis and fewer writers are making a living at it.
That doesn’t mean you have to give up the dream. But we’ll all have to work harder to make our work stand out—and present ourselves in the most professional way possible.
It helps to remember two things:
- Publishing is a business. Editors aren’t high school English teachers judging manuscripts on literary merit. They’re looking for business investments. All publishers care about is acquiring books that will sell as many copies as possible. According to how-to-get-published guru Nicola Martin, they call selling books “shifting units” (how’s that for a buzz-kill term?) They won’t invest in your “unit” if you don’t come across as a skilled, reliable source of many units to come.
- Amateurs need not apply. There might have been a time when you could dash off a manuscript as a lark and sell it, even though you didn’t intend to write as a career. But these days, publishers don’t want to pay for the work of an amateur writer any more than you want to pay for the work of an amateur mechanic, plumber or hairdresser.
That means it’s now equally as important to learn the rules of the publishing business as it is to learn to write a great sentence. An aspiring author needs to come across as a savvy professional—even though the bulk of your pay may come from just the one sentence: “You want fries with that?”
Dorchester authors don’t deserve what’s happening to them, and we can only hope they’ll be able to negotiate better royalty rates or be allowed out of their contracts. And in that, the ones with agents will be way better off. So I’d say don’t self-Kindle your unrepresented work yet.
But talk to me after a few more bombshells and aftershocks, and I may have a different opinion.