Publishing Isn’t for Sissies: Me and Dorchester, the CliffsNotes Version

You have to be willing to take risks in this business of ours. Calculated risks that are nonetheless precarious for the careful thought you put into jumping off whatever cliff of opportunity looms before you. Sometimes a marvelous parachute glide awaits you, easing you into your next step forward. Sometimes there turn out to be holes in your plan and you land in the trees–if you’re lucky. Sometimes you crash and burn completely. My experience with Dorchester Publishing these last few years, like many authors, has been more the latter.  But as of last week I can officially say it hasn’t been a crash and burn fiasco, and the trees that were grabbing at my chute are receding farther and farther away each time I look back. Perspective?One might call it that, this ah-ha sensation filling me. Hind sight gives us the illusion of finally seeing things as they were always meant to be. Maybe it’s just dumb luck… You be the judge.

perspective

Too often it feels as if I have absolutely NO idea how I got to this moment of deep sighing and appreciation for a journey well traveled and a fight bravely faced and won (Amazon, the publisher who also recently signed a three book deal with me to publish a women’s fiction/contemporary romance series has bought out Dorchester’s list at auction and will not only pay me royalties due from the last three years, but will re-list and potentially buy new titles into my sci-fi/fantasy series).

To be honest, I have some idea. But my mind’s still spinning as I process the twists and turns and decisions and retreats–stopping myself, ultimately, from making several end-game decisions that would have ended this wild ride before I achieved what I’d set out to. What follows is the CliffsNotes version of that adventure, because publishing can be a sucky journey for all of us and I’m happy to share my personal suckage if it might possibly help others finding themselves in their own potentially no-win situations, trying to choose the least objectionable of the unsatisfying options before them.

no win decision

But first, let’s identify what exactly I wanted to achieve from the start. Because the best business decisions are potentially bad business decisions, regardless of the odds in your favor, if you don’t understand your goal. My best advice to anyone when they ask me my opinion of what they should do about a book, agent, publisher or contract is to figure out what you want and determine the best way to achieve that. Beyond that, I got nothing. Because as you’ll see below, the rules are always changing and what works for me or someone else now may be a no-win choice for you tomorrow. You have to be flexible in this business. You have to dodge and duck and know when to jump or stand still.  None of which you can do effectively if you aren’t sure where you’re headed.

My goal with my sci-fi/fantasy series: To establish my mainstream fiction work and to build a series for a broader audience than my contemporary romance roots, into which I could continue to sell future novels. Simple right?

success failure

Let’s take a closer look, shall we?

  • Round about the fall of 2008: Dorchester offers a 2-book deal for my Legacy Series. Dark Legacy to release nationwide in mass market paperback in the fall of 2009.
  • I deliver the book on time, but the advance money isn’t coming from the publisher as quickly as it should. Agent pushes hard behind the scenes, but we don’t pull the book from the schedule. It’s more important to my goal to be established as a mainstream author with bigger stories to sell than my category romance roots, than it is to join in the shrieks of dissatisfaction with the publisher beginning to rumble all over the Internet.
  • Fall, 2009: Dark Legacy in stores, positioned well, I’m signing in the B&N flagship store in New York’s Lincoln Center, and we’re off. Sales are good but nothing fabulous. We can do better, publisher says. My series is repositioned away from traditional romance and closer to the sci-fi/thriller market it’s better suited for.
  • Secret Legacy due to editor in early 2010 for a rushed summer 2010 release because they want to break it out. They’re behind this very different, edgy thing I’m doing with my mainstream work 110%. They’ve also by now paid me the advance I’m owed to date. Agent and I see this as a good chance to shine within a smaller traditional press, so I keep working.
  • Health issues and surgery prevent me from turning the second book in on time. Editor and publisher couldn’t have been more understanding. Deadline for delivering Secret Legacy is pushed to the spring of 2010, with a fall release. It’s the hardest writing period I’ve ever had, and I called my agent to quit more than once, but the book was finished and revised in a gruelingly short amount of time. If nothing else, this experience proved to me that I had to keep writing–if for no other reason than I couldn’t seem to make myself stop.
  • Fall 2010: Serious money spent on my part and committed by publisher to promote the book that should break out, even though remaining advance for the second book on the contract hasn’t yet been paid. However, lots of publisher plans–print and digital promotion. Extensive online blog tour being set up. Again, agent and I are staying focused on the publishing possibilities and my investing in my mainstream future, which means I continue to do my job and play nice while she rattles their cages fighting to get me the money owed.
  • Two weeks before Secret Legacy’s launch: it’s announced on the Internet (not to individual authors) that overnight Dorchester’s pulling their print publishing arm (meaning all my mass market print books are being yanked, never to be distributed retail) and beginning immediately  to shift to a digital first/print on demand business. My break out release: not going to happen. My sizable investment in promoting to mass market retailers and readers: wasted. My remaining faith in publisher: destroyed.
  • After a brief and frustrating talk with my editor who’s quoting the same “company” speak as the press release and not answering any of my questions about my book’s potential in this new business model, meanwhile she’s saying I have no choice contractually but to allow them to do whatever they want to with the release even though I haven’t been paid for delivering the manuscript months before…
  • My agent and I decide to ask for all rights under the contract to be reverted. Believe it or not, I’m sad to see this happen because Dorchester is looking to me as if, despite their financial troubles, they’re on the cutting edge of what our industry is becoming and making a hard choice other traditional publishers should be exploring just as aggressively.
  • Novenber 2010: Dorchester VP contacts me and my agent, expression his disappointment at our decision: they had such BIG plans for me and my work. I make it clear that I was given no other choice: no one was telling me what was going on, no one was assuring me in any way that my series and specifically the money I’d spent and lost preparing to promote Secret Legacy would be handled with the care and focus I’d been promised, and I still hadn’t been paid the last of advance money I was owed.
  • After much negotiation–remember, my over all goal is to establish myself as a mainstream fiction writer outside my series work, and to build an ongoing series for a broader audience–I’m paid, significant plans are made to promote Secret Legacy’s digital release, the release date is put off until spring 2011 so Dorchester can figure out its new business model and be better prepared to do right by the book, and my rights for the entire series stay with the publisher. Risky? Yep. In line still with my over all goal. Yep.
  • Spring/Summer 2011: Secret Legacy releases with a impressive online promotional plan. It and Dark Legacy do well. Much to my and my agent’s surprise, I end up tripling my advance for the contract in royalties owed, from mostly digital sales alone. I’m spotlighted at BEA and feeling like making the choice to partner with Dorchester instead of jumping ship was the right decision after all. Of course, we all know what happens next…
  • Fall 2011: Yep, Dorchester’s making money off authors but not paying out. To anyone. They’re increasingly non-responsive, even to the agents. They’re reverting rights left and right, but the books aren’t coming down off the digital retail sights. Law suits are threatened. Lots of negative press. They begin firing the rest of their staff and selling off parts of their business. Their NY office closes. Clearly they’re not going to make it. I should demand my rights back, right??? Well, even now it gets tricky.
  • Yes, I want my books back like everyone else (I’m working on a three-book continuation of the series I’d like to sell elsewhere if anyone else would consider publishing into an already published series, or maybe I could indie publish…) But I want my income from 2011, too. If I revert my rights, it becomes old debt and when Dorchester does sell or file formal bankruptcy that money won’t be paid–not like existing/active authors would. If anyone sues (in my case, it would involve something like a class action filing against the owner), bankruptcy is filed and everyone gets pennies on the dollar. And there are rumblings that Dorchester’s owner is looking for a buyer for the list–my books included–which would mean a home for my series and those future books I’d like to write.
  • My agent and I speak frequently, going over the options. Reverting my writes doesn’t get me paid my 2011 income. I have other books to write for other publishers and only a half-finished proposal to continue the Legacy series, so it’s not like she could shop the series yet anyway. And the idea of the series finding a good home through a buy out is appealing–my over all goal shifting to staying established as a mainstream author and to keep a home for my series that surprisingly did so well, but not well enough to have folks banging down the door demanding that I come write more for them. We decide to wait it out and see what happens next, because the benefits from flipping off Dorchester and pulling out don’t stack up against the potential gain from being patient.
  • January – May, 2012: From here out it’s a monthly battle to stick to that decision. Frustrating. Infuriating. My agent and I second guess ourselves every time we talk. But the reality doesn’t change. There’s not enough to gain from demanding the rights back for my books/series to warrant not seeing this through. We set an end of May deadline for Dorchester to come through on their “It’s a big online publisher and we’re close to a deal, hang in there with us” mantra, then we’re done.
  • Well it takes until July, 2012. But, as we expected, the buyer is Amazon (a publisher I’m already contracted with by this time). Actually, it takes from fall 2008 to late summer 2012, but I’m established writing mainstream fiction with a stable publisher, all the money owed me is coming my way (because I’m already in business with this publisher, and believe my they pay on time ;o), and the Legacy series has new life that I hope to exploit as soon as we see which imprint will list the books and how the rest of the process will work… None of which would have happened if at any point I’d made the logical, understandable decision to yank my books, throw my hands in the air and say I’ve had enough.

are you kidding me face

Why didn’t I pull out every step of the way, when I had a lot of logical reasons to? I couldn’t tell you, except that I had an over all business plan that didn’t allow me to make emotional decisions that would result in little or no practical improvement in my publisher situation.

Why did I take so many risks and continue to work with a publisher I couldn’t completely trust? I don’t have easy answers for that, either, except that at every step I was able to find Dorchester staffers I COULD continue to work with and ways of doing business with them that took me a step closer to my career goals–none of which included the immediate payment of the monies owed me (even though that would have been nice, and damn it I’ve been owed most of this money for way too long to have put up with the questionable business practices of the publisher’s owner):

  • I needed my books to be out there selling and to stay out there selling, building numbers that would look appealing to another publisher.
  • I needed Dorchester to promote the digital release of the second book on the contract in a way that proved I was appealing as an author in the new digital side of the publishing industry.
  • I needed to see my series placed with a financially sound publisher interested in listing my books and reaching a larger market with the series and looking at new ideas for future books.
  • In short, I needed to be able to continue selling and promoting my mainstream writing career on as large a publishing stage as possible. Other than indie publishing (which fails for far more mid-list authors than it’s a successful alternative for), that wasn’t going to happen no matter when I pulled my rights from Dorchester and gave up the income they owed me.

So there you have it, the honest, ugly, risky and maybe reckless truth of it.

I’ve been asked more times than I can count to tell this story in its entirety. It wasn’t until I signed the amended contract with Amazon that I felt I was close enough to a resolution to share intelligently where my personal Dorchester experience was going.

Maybe I got lucky. Maybe I was business savvy. Maybe I took good advice when it was given and pushed for better alternatives in return–I can’t say it enough that I have THE BEST agent in the business. Maybe it was all of the above.

All I know for certain is that I’ve somehow achieved my goals with this journey that’s finally ending, and I’m excited about the prospects of the new adventure I’m embarking on in mainstream fiction. I have no doubt that more bumps await me and every other author who stays in the publishing game. But I have to say that after all of this, I no longer doubt my ability to weather whatever storm hits next.

My advice when the storm comes for you? 

  • Already have a business plan before the water begins to rise.
  • Already have surrounded yourself with the best business partner(s) you can find.
  • Take calculated risks when you wish decisions could be more black and white.
  • Keep your head about you when you want to scream and take you toys and sulk on your way home.
  • Stay the course, even as others pull out and make choices that aren’t the best alternatives for you, even though you wish things could be that simple.
  • Keep writing.
  • Keep doing business.
  • Keep the lines of communication open for as long as possible.
  • Keep making future opportunities for yourself, in case your current situation doesn’t work out.

No publisher, no book, no business relationship is your only option, my friends. No failure or bad result is your end game, unless you decide you’re out of viable options. No disappointment is too great to fight your way back from, even if it takes a total of four years to get you to the finish line you thought it would be so simple to reach ;o)

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9 Responses to “Publishing Isn’t for Sissies: Me and Dorchester, the CliffsNotes Version”

  1. Michelle says:

    Love this recap! What a journey we had, Anna. What a journey! :)

  2. Excellent recap! And very informative. Thank you!

  3. Jami Gold says:

    Great message here, Anna! Sometimes there’s a difference between logic and business decisions, and knowing our goal gives us direction in making the best choice *for us*.

    • We have to understand and fight for our personal goals. We have to know them well enough to make those hard decisions that are best for us, when it would be easier to shut down and react emotionally and simply do what’s easiest. Often the right choice is the most difficult to make.

  4. Cora Z says:

    Wow. Thank you for sharing, Anna!

  5. CLM says:

    I used to work for Tim. Not a bad guy; doubtless people were lying to him too. However, I sympathize with your experiences.

    • To this day, I consider Tim a friend, as well as both the editors I worked with there and the support staff who kept fighting to keep the business afloat.

      I think a lot of good people were in a bad situation throughout this process. If you read back through my PIFS posts about Dorchester, you’ll note that I never once point a finger at any one person and more often than not stick up for the Dorchester staff caught in the middle.

      However, my and other authors experiences are that we haven’t been paid for years while the staff and the owner at this publisher were paid with money they earned selling books they weren’t ever (or at least the owner wasn’t ever) planning to compensate the authors for retailing.

      Not cool. No matter how you look at it or how much you consider the others involved your friends or how professionally you navigate the carnage until you’ve reached the best possible solution for your individual career goals.

  6. Jason Myers says:

    This is an awesome tail! Thanks, Anna for sharing it. Man, you learned so much and the fact that you’re sharing it with all of us is so super sweet. Thank you. I am in awe of what you’ve been through with Dorchester and how you’ve seemed to overcome…with (this is going to sound stupid) ease!!! :-P

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