On books, e-books and Dorchester Publishing

I want the real thing.

By this time I assume most of those who visit this blog know about the announcement from Dorchester Books to halt publication of mass market paperbacks and move exclusively to publishing POD trade paper or electronic books. It was explained, near as I can see, as a matter of fiscal necessity, but to me it smacks of a lack of understanding and respect for books and the publication thereof. It’s a cheap-and-easy cop out.

Company President John Prebich:

“Dorchester’s e-book business has had “remarkable growth” which he expects to double again in the next year. Still, digital sales accounted for only 12% of total revenue prior to the company making the transition to the e-book/pod model. Prebich conceded that Dorchester will have lower revenues, but he expects margins to improve.”
[note: emphasis mine]

Dorchester publishes many romance titles and I don’t care about those, but other people will. I care about the westerns and mysteries and some other titles. There are some good books and it seems they will become part of the new format scheme or be discarded. I wonder: what if those expected profit margins don’t make the bean counters happy? Will the company fold? Certainly any title not performing will be dropped.

The entire electronic bookreader and e-publishing trend is starting to scare the heck out of me. I’m a dyed in the wool book guy. I have thousands of the things in my possession, and I’m happy about that. Would I trade that for a thin metal box that has the printed text of all those books? Not on your life.

On August 10, respected writer and blogger Bill Crider posted this on his blog:

“I’ve been thinking about Dorchester’s switch from paperback to e-book format for the last couple of days, and one thing it’s brought home to me is how much I enjoy the tactile experience of buying books. I like taking them off the rack and reading the blurbs on the back. I like opening them and reading the blurbs and editorial material on the first few pages. I like looking at the print to see how big or small it is. I like looking at the covers. I guess I like the whole browsing experience, which more often than not leads me to buy more books than I intended to. All of that is lost when it comes to e-books, and it’s a heck of a loss in my case.

The reason I’m thinking about this is probably Dorchester’s western line, which was always well-represented in the only place to buy new books in Alvin, Texas: Wal-Mart. I like spending time in front of the rack, looking over the new titles, looking for books, by people I know. Browsing e-books just isn’t the same.

I know that real books will be around for many more years, but not Dorchester. I’m gonna miss ’em.”

I couldn’t agree more, Bill. For me, it’s everything you said, and that tactile experience continues with the reading of the book, opening and closing it, inserting a bookmark when I stop reading, glancing at the amount of pages left to the end of the chapter or the book, turning the paper page and running my finger lightly down the center of it, referring to the cover or front matter (When was this first published again? What does the map show? Who is the illustrator? Where in the series does this fall?). The weight of the book in my hands, being able to hold a paperback in one hand while taking a sip of my drink, or a bite of a cookie or whatever, looking at the spines of the books as they rest on the shelf. All these things are important to me. No, not as important as what’s on the page, but important enough to keep me from wanting e-books and an e-reader.

Faugh! Let the tween-to-thirty generation (TTT-Gen) have their electric-battery-powered-miniaturized-app-mad world, but leave we grown-ups our ink-and-paper books! Sometimes I think the accountants who seem to rule the world will drive us all to the brink of despair.

Will this change my personal book-buying habits? Perhaps. The shift from mass-market paperbacks to trade paperbacks has been going on for some time. At least half, maybe two-thirds, of the softcover books I buy now are trade paperbacks. Not by choice, but because that’s the only format available. I understand that for some publishers it’s a matter of necessity, and I’m sure that’s what Dorchester would tell me if I asked them. But for an existing publisher with a wide line mass market paperbacks in print to just stop is something else again.

The deeper question, I believe, is why are books falling so out of favor, and the answer has to do with more things than I can go into or even understand, I’m sure.  I blame the lack of emphasis in education on books and reading, I blame the mad affair the TTT-Gen has with all things electronic, viewing them as “hot” and “sexy” as well as necessary to fit in with peers and have a minimum acceptable quality of life. The most important thing to them seems to be the answer to the question “Isn’t there an app for that?” Yep, there is, and a piece of hardware for it too, so what could be better? The Real Thing, that’s what. But it might take a teeny bit of effort, and that would be a terrible imposition, wouldn’t it?

Libraries, book stores, paper-and-ink books, who cares? I do, dammit. I’m pretty worried. What would I do if I woke up tomorrow and found only ebooks available anymore? First, I’d curse. Then when I felt better, I’d plan on using the library as long as it had any print books I wanted to read. I’d also rely on used book stores, as Bill Crider reminded me in the first comment to this post, as long as I was happy with a used copy. Right now I’m not always okay with used. I could use book swapping sites for books I wanted, and of course I’d do the most obvious thing of all, I’d read the books I have but haven’t gotten to yet, and reread the ones I have read and liked. With any luck that would get me through, but it would still be a nightmare I’m not ready to live.

About Rick Robinson

Enjoying life in Portland, OR
This entry was posted in Personal Opinion, reading and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to On books, e-books and Dorchester Publishing

  1. Bill Crider says:

    Used books, Rick. Stores full of them. They’re going to be around for a long time, I hope.

  2. Richard says:

    Bill – Yes, of course! I’m going to update the post to include that in the list. Thanks, Bill.

  3. Jeff Meyerson says:

    Let the tween-to-thirty generation (TTT-Gen) have their electric-battery-powered-miniaturized-app-mad world, but leave we grown-ups our ink-and-paper books!

    Amen to that and every other point you made, Rick.

    One thing rang a bell – without ANY warning, in June of 2005, the ‘oldies’ station I listen to, WCBS-FM, went off the air overnight, to be replaced by the generic (but presumably cheaper) “JACK-FM.” Instead of dj’s playing music they liked and understood and talked about there was soulless, empty non-human crap (no other word fits). Yes, they did play some oldies – in fact they touted this by bragging about their huge playlist from the 60’s to today – but it was basically a total zero.

    Now, I can understand if it’s a matter of money. WCBS-FM had been #1 in New York for years but no longer was. But it was still in the top 5 or so and still billed a lot of ads and had a very loyal following, even though some of us aging boomers weren’t happy when the 50s were dropped and later the 80s took their place. But it’s just like Hollywood movies and television – they don’t CARE that baby boomers have the money and are ready to spend it, they want the younger “demographic” – a word I’ve come to hate.

    So what happened you ask? A disaster, for them. NOBODY listened. Ratings and ad revenues dropped like a stone as listeners went elsewhere. Finally after two years (and, one hopes, millions in losses) they threw in the towel and in July 2007 brought back WCBS-FM.

    How has that worked out? Well, in the last Arbitron rating period they were #1 in New York.

    I think there’s a lesson to be learned here but I don’t think the John Prebich’s of this world are paying attention.

    Sorry for going on at length.

  4. Richard says:

    Always glad to have you comment, and going on at length is a treat. The radio market seems a crap shoot anymore. I like the story a lot, JACK-FM is here, but I couldn’t tell you what slot it took or how it does, my listening is news, jazz or classical.

    As for the baby boomers having the money, yes, but studies have shown it’s the TTTs who have the influence of what gets bought. Thus they are the target. Question: how many kids would have cell phones if they had to buy them up front and pay the bill in full each month?

  5. Sadly, the Market will sort out these changes. Radio seems to be dying (except for NPR and sports-talk programs). Those canned radio formats like JACK-FM suck. The new Kindle, priced at $139, will sell well. The sweet spot is probably $99 which will bring in even casual readers.

  6. Richard says:

    Around the clock news-weather-sports-money stations seem to be doing okay too. As for the printed book vs. e-book thing, I’ve been thinking to this point that it might be a fad, and that people would grow tired of lugging the reader around, using it less and less, buying less e-publications over time until the model became an exception that only a small share of the market embraced. Publishers, however, in search of profit over substance are embracing it not because it’s an improvement in any way so much as that it’s cheaper for them to produce and allows better margins. You’re right George, the market will sort it out, but the market isn’t as consumer-driven as it once was, more and more people seem to be willing to accept whatever pabulum or gruel is presented to them. No one, or very few people are willing to follow Oliver Twist’s lead and ask for more.

  7. Network television is slowly dying, too. Who watches those reality shows? The Fall TV season looks dreadful based on the promos I’ve seen. I’m down to GLEE, THE CLOSER, and MAD MEN. On the plus side, I now have more time to read real books and watch all those Blu-ray movies that seem to find their way into my house. I predict that within two years most of us will have some kind of ebook reading device: Kindle, Nook, iPad, etc.

  8. Richard says:

    Maybe, George. I’m not sure at this time if I’ll be one of those people. Right now this feels a lot like it might if all manufacturers of stoves, ranges and ovens decided to stop making them because, heck, all you need is a microwave, right?

    As for the reality TV shows, most of it, including the newscasts. We enjoy a few of them on HGTV and Food channel, Selling New York, Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, Food Network Star, Holmes on Homes and others. We watch none of the ones on the major networks. I do watch sports, though.

  9. qugrainne says:

    What concerns me, is I work with kids and I haven’t seen a single electronic book reader amongst them! I recently had an offer of publication – but the kicker was it would come out in e-book format. I said no thanks. Kids don’t own them, especially urban kids. So we take away books in paper format, and those kids will have NOTHING to read.

    I can’t even contemplate a world without my shelf of friends!

  10. I agree with qugrainne –but I don’t see young people carry books or magazines either. But they sure do carry around those hand-held video games. True story –visited Hannibal, Missouri earlier this year and saw a nice, tourist family walking down the sidewalk. The youngest was trailing behind, bumping into people as he played his video game. The juxtaposition of living history meets bumble-head technology left me sorta glum

  11. Richard says:

    qugrainne – now that’s an angle I hadn’t thought of, and should have. The expense of the readers puts them out of reach in many cases, and as George pointed out, the price hasn’t hit a “sweet spot” of mass affordibility. My viewpoint is probably skewed, as I live in a fairly affluent part of the state and country (Orange County, California) and see most kids with a phone if not a smart phone, and so leaped to imagining these same kids with e-book readers. But you are right, I haven’t seen it so far. I do see many kids with backpacks, and taking paperback books from them while waiting somewhere. Of course as soon as their friends show up, the book goes away and the phone comes out. Also, I don’t see many kids at the library when I go, and the ones I do see are in the computer area.

    Richard – that is glum-making, indeed. It’s partly the parents fault, they could limit use of such devices, but I suppose in other times it could just as well been a comic book the kid was reading instead of looking at his surroundings.

    I’m just worried that this is another blow to reading and to relatively affordable mass market paperbacks.

  12. Jeff Meyerson says:

    I tried to post earlier but it ate it or something.

    I was jsut commenting on how pathetic it is that we watch more new shows on television in the summer than we do during the ‘regular’ season, and with the demise of several we watched, plus the attempt to market to the young and/or stupid, this season looks worse. Most of what we watch these days seems to be on basic cable – TNT, SyFy, USA, FX. Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives is a favorite of mine too.

  13. Jeff Meyerson says:

    Oh, I finally remembered to order HALF SHARE by Nathan Lowell. Thanks again for reviewing it.

  14. Jeff Meyerson says:

    I mean QUARTER SHARE of course.

  15. Richard says:

    Of course. Half Share will be out in October, if the schedule holds.

  16. Richard says:

    I recently discovered that many of the episodes, or the portions about specific restaurants, are on YouTube. We’re heading up to Portland in a week or so, and I was able to find the places Fieri went there, then watch the segments in those restaurants and we decided which we wanted to visit. Cool.

  17. Carl V. says:

    I’m with you all the way. I have no intention to enter into the whole e-book thing. I think it is a terrible idea that has about as much chance of killing reading as a hobby as it does succeeding. Very few people are currently invested in reading that way now, and it does not stand to reason that people will flock to the technology if ‘old fashioned’ books begin to dwindle. Something worse may happen, people may decide that reading novels is not what they want to do with their electronic gadget when those same gadgets can, and will, do so much more to distract, entertain, etc. I worry about the effect this is all having and going to have. I was listening to Gaiman’s speech when he accepted the Carnegie medal here recently and in the end he champions libraries and very eloquently speaks about their importance. I felt like giving a standing ovation in my office as I listened to it because I couldn’t agree more. I see more and more people actually using the library but it seems to me, as he mentions, that governments see libraries as an easy thing to close and save money and business people looking at e-books as a way to cut costs. That doesn’t bode well for anyone who cherishes reading the way that we do. I personally don’t think it is old fashioned thinking. I think that advances, particularly technological ones, are not always a good thing. It stands to reason that at some point “improvement” actually will start being detrimental, and I see the effect of future tech on books being one of those things that is actually destructive. I’m probably just being alarmist, but that is the way I feel.

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