Thursday, August 12, 2010

Revisiting Dorchester

An article in yesterday's Publishers Weekly (PW) gave a moment's peek into things over at Dorchester.

PW quoted Leah Hultenschmidt, Dorchester's editorial director, indicating that the headlines last week "overplayed the digital aspect." Leah said, "It's true Dorchester is going digital, but only for the next six months."

My first thought on reading the article was that Dorchester--fearful of losing both their staff and their authors--might be downplaying the seriousness of their situation.

If that's the case, it would be a MAJOR mistake.

Right now, one of the publisher's main assets--along with quality staff and authors--is its reputation. The fact that the company has been unable to pay advances or royalties in a timely manner has already put that reputation on the line. On a go-forward basis, Dorchester executives need to be as above-board as possible in their interactions.

Sure, if they put their situation out on the table, they run the risk that their authors or staff will choose to leave. That's the price they may have to pay for the mistakes they've made. However, talking out of both sides of their faces will result in the very consequence they're trying to avoid.

Although she's too polite to say so, my good friend Kaz Augustin obviously thought I was being a Pollyanna in my previous post on Dorchester. See her post on Dorchester here.

Maybe she was right.

However, during the nine years I worked for the brokerage house Smith, Barney, I saw many companies caught flatfooted during sea changes in their industries. In almost every case, failure to accept the morphing landscape slowed the companies' ability to respond. Call it what you will: denial or corporate immobility. Failing to act has consequences.

But Dorchester isn't alone. We've been watching the Big Six playing out their own version of that same dynamic except that the larger publishers have been actively trying to control an industry they no longer own.

And you don't have to be a stockbroker to recognize the pattern. By now, everyone knows someone whose job was sliding into jeopardy--maybe in the dot com industry, in the automotive industry or in the financial industry. These employees worked hard to get to where they were and simply couldn't imagine a world in which they would have to start over. So, instead of thinking ahead, some of them continued living as they always had ... only to discover they were one crisis short of a disaster.

Money shortages invariably lead to a narrowed world view for both corporations and individuals. We become so focussed on dealing with today's disaster (car repairs, a sick kid, Wal-Mart cutting our shelf space) that we don't have time to think ahead ... much less think more broadly. At the very moment when we need to be pro-active, we slip into a reactive mode: "Let me just get through today. I'll worry about that other problem tomorrow."

I have no doubt that the selling of the frontlist/backlist of their top authors was Dorchester's attempt to be responsible and to make good on the payments they owed. But, no matter how embarrassing that process was, they should have told the authors involved ahead of time. By not doing so, they just scared people more.

I'm going to play both financial advisor and social worker for the rest of this post. Here's my advice to Dorchester:

  1. Starting immediately, no matter how hard or embarrassing it is, you MUST respond to your authors and staff with transparency. Don't sugarcoat the situation. That doesn't mean you become purveyors of doom and gloom. Everyone knows the publishing industry is in flux. On the bright side, as a small independent you can turn direction much faster than the large Titanic vessels of the Big Six. Enlist your staff and authors as partners in the changes you have to make. Don't let them learn what you're doing through press releases along with everyone else.

  2. Kaz was absolutely right in saying that your website is outdated. You need to find the best director of digital operations you can afford. Going digital isn't like bringing your lunch to work for six months in order to save money to go on vacation. It's more like changing both your diet and the way you approach food permanently.

  3. The good news is that both romance and sci-fi readers made the shift to e-books with relatively little fuss. I think this is because both groups are such prolific readers. You'll need to find ways to attract them to your website (and your books). I remember back in the spring of 2006, you had some fun initiatives here. And you've run other contests for writers, too.

  4. Are you working with the companies producing the top-selling e-readers? You should be.

  5. Look to your strengths. What do you do that no one else is doing? What do you know about your readers that can help you chart a new course? Although I read the entire Zane Grey collection as a teenager, I know nothing about the Western market today. What are your reader demographics? Are they older readers who are unlikely to buy e-books? Are they part of a foreign market that prefers a monthly book club? Each part of your business may require a separate solution unique to its readership and content.

Hindsight is 20/20. It's always easy to see where you went wrong afterward. But I continue to have a special affection for independents like Dorchester (and Kensington). I'll continue to send good thoughts to Dorchester and to pray that they can pull out of the current tailspin.

Again, best wishes.

2 comments:

Lynne Connolly said...

Great post, Maya, thorough and accurate, IMO.
I'd add only one thing. Be consistent. Readers and authors like stable situations, so pick a course and stick to it.

Maya Reynolds said...

Lynne: Thanks! I agree wholeheartedly with your addition. Thx.