Going Digital: Smart Move by Romance Publisher?

by Dax-Devlon Ross

I.

This past Friday the Wall Street Journal and others reported that Dorchester Publishing is giving up its trade paperback business in favor of e-books and POD (print on demand books). According the company’s Chief Executive, Dorchester, a largely romance oriented house, has been “putting in the effort, but not getting the results.” Meanwhile, the  house’s e-book sales this year have been “remarkable”. They’ve doubled in the last year alone.

But even as the market for e-books is growing, digital sales only account for 12-15% of Dorchester’s sales. I’m guessing this is an anticipatory move that will hurt more now than it would if they waited any longer, but I  still have to wonder: if the company gets rid of paperback books, how is it going to guarantee it makes up the difference? Fortunately, Dorchester is a privately held company, which means it doesn’t have stockholders to answer to. Which means it could get very tricky for the bigger publishers if there comes a time when they want to eliminate the bound book (and, by the way, I don’t see this  happening any time soon),

It goes without saying that the move will significantly reduce overhead costs which will help smooth the transition and allow the company to better target its core audiences while figuring out creative ways to market books without the books themselves. Nevertheless, I still had two related thoughts:

1. Dorchester is already a sort of bargain basement publisher. Their books go for an average of $6.99 rather than the standard $12-15. What this suggests is that they are targeting a particular kind of buyer already–one with lesser means who’s looking for a quick, cheap read, perhaps. Is this buyer going to spend the money to buy an e-reader? Can they afford it?

2. A related thought (or question) is this: If Dorchester is having a hard time selling books at half the price of regular trade paperbacks, is switching to digital/POD really going to save the company or is there something else going wrong? I checked the company’s web site and I have to say: it’s busy and not very appealing to the eye. To be perfectly honest, it already looks like a POD company. But I also think that’s very intentional: romance publishers go for a certain look. Dorchester nails it all the way

II.

My favorite quote of the WSJ article: “Romance fans in particular have already embraced e-books, in part because customers can read them in public without having to display the covers.”

That’s the saddest, funniest and yet subtly poignant quote I’ve come across in a long time. After I finished laughing, I got to thinking. In a place like in New  York in particular, we know what’s being read based on what we see. We know what’s popular because it’s in everyone’s hands. But what happens when we no longer can see what people are reading? A few years back everyone was reading Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Everyone. It was kind of like an unspoken shared experience that you could either choose to participate in or choose to hate on. (On principle I always choose the latter). And I think that’s part of what blockbuster books are all about. They’re not the best books out there; they’re the books everyone is talking about. People feel like to feel they’re part of a conversation. They can have an impassioned opinion about a book that millions of other people are reading and that makes them feel included in a larger discussion. Of course that can still happen, but something is definitely lost when everyone is walking around with their own private leather-bound e-reader. All of a sudden, we lose that idiosyncratic self that a book and only a book can exude to the world.  A folded book, a hardbound book, an underlined book–these things all say something about who we are. The book you’re holding can be a conversation starter, a way to meet people. An e-reader just says is that we’ve elected to join the  cool group because we can afford to. Boring.

On a lighter note, I won’t be able to judge people for reading books like The Da Vincy Code anymore. That sucks.

Two  last thoughts about Dorchester’s move to an exclusive digital format and then I’ll leave you alone:

1. Romance books typically end up in thrift shops and stoop sales. Authors create new readers when their books are given away, found in bins, etc. Quiet as kept, e-readers eliminate the possibility of second-hand readers finding a book and, later, an author. The e-reader requires everyone to go out and by their own copy, which may be good for blockbuster books but not so good for romance titles.

1. This isn’t as big a deal as it appears. POD is an amazingly efficient tool. We’ve been using it at OTB for five years now. Books arrive a couple of days after they’re ordered. Not only that, book sellers can choose to buy as many copies of a book as they like. POD takes the onus off of the publisher to ship the books and, later, pay to recover the books that don’t sell.

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