Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The words were said but no one heard them

As this whole thing with Dorchester continues to unfold/unravel, the issue with what RWA could or couldn't have done to better protect the writers has come up.  DISCLAIMER:  I'm no longer a member of RWA and was never on the board of RWA so I can't speak for RWA on this or any other issue.

What I can do, however, is document what I personally did when confronted with some of what I call shenanigans by publishers.

I'm not sure exactly when I discovered the reissued copies of the Leisure imprints.  My records of my RWA correspondence are filed away and not as easily accessible as the books themselves and it's going to take me a few days to locate everything and sift through it.  I thought I may have see the first BMI books as early as 1991 but in fact it may have been as much as a couple years later than that.

To give some background:  There had been a lot of grumbling in RWA for a number of years about the low royalties paid on subscription or "book club" sales, particularly with Harlequin/Silhouette but also with Dorchester/Leisure and Kensington/Zebra.  Readers signed up for these subscriptions usually through cards bound into the books; after receiving a bundle of "free" books, the reader then received a set number of releases each month at a discount.  For Harlequin/Silhouette, the reader subscribed by line (Silhouette Desire, Harlequin Intrigue, etc.).  I'm not sure how the Zebra and Leisure subscriptions worked, but the premise was basically the same. 

While the basic royalty rate on the author's contract might be 8% or 6% or 4% of the retail cover price, the royalty rate on book club sales could drop significantly.  In some cases, the rate dropped to 1% or less, and of course this was all in the contract language for anyone who really cared to find it and wasn't blinded by the glamour of Being Published. 

Even though the subscription sales were recognized as a "cash cow" in the publishing industry, representatives from the publishers routinely showed up at RWA events to "explain" why they couldn't pay higher royalties on subscription sales.  Usually the explanation included something about the high cost of advertising for the clubs which included the initial free books and the high rate of non-payment on the part of the subscribers.  No matter how often RWA members asked, "Then if you're losing so much money on the subscription deals, why do you keep doing it?" there was never an answer that made any sense.  They wouldn't come right and tell us "We're making money hand over fist on these things but we don't want to give any of it to you," even though many of us suspected that was the case.

When I first noticed the repackaged Leisure titles, I wasn't sure what to make of them.

On the left is the original Dorchester/Leisure edition with the title embossed and foiled, the old cursive L logo.  On the right is the BMI edition, with no embossing, no foil.

On the left is the Leisure back cover, with the complete ISBN bar code and a retail price of $3.95; on the right is the BMI edition, with no ISBN and just a UPC bar code with a $4.99 retail price.

The Leisure edition shows a copyright date of 1981 but lists Dorchester Publishing as the copyright holder, not Harriette de Jarnette.

The BMI edition is clearly identified as such, with the same 1981 copyright date and no indication when it was actually printed.  I can only determine by comparing cover prices that this BMI edition is from the early 1990s.

These are the front and back of another example from my personal collection which appears to be some kind of reprint, at least to judge by the UPC bar code without ISBN.  The copyright page shows a date of 1987 and Gloria Pedersen is listed as holding the copyright.

I was able to find this image on the web of what appears to be an embossed, foiled cover with the Leisure cursive L logo.

And this one from Paperback Swap is clearly a BMI reprint.

I took the information I had -- which was the two editions of Golden Threshold and the Pedersen reprint -- and gave it to RWA, probably via Margaret Brownley who was the PAN Liaison in the early 1990s.  I'm not sure of the exact date on these reprints, but the copyrights are not indicative.  What Margaret and various minions at RWA were able to determine was that BMI most likely contracted with Leisure for a special sale at a deep discount, then offloaded the copies to discount retailers like today's dollar stores.  Somewhere in my files I have a copy of a note from Margaret to that effect, but I haven't been able to find it yet, and there remains a possibility that I may not find it.  Remember, I gave up writing in the late 90s and I may actually have discarded something!  (I know, it's hard to believe, but I do occasionally throw things out.)

What Margaret's research also revealed, however, was that Leisure/Dorchester was probably operating well within the terms of their contract with the authors.  Golden Threshold may have been purchased outright; Dorchester was going through severe financial difficulties in the early 1980s, which is when that book was published, so it may have been a work for hire or they may have just bought it outright.  The important point was, however, that Dorchester/Leisure had done nothing obviously wrong, absent contract terms to the contrary.   As with other standard contracts with the same terms, the publisher did not have to notify the author of the deal, certainly did not have to get their permission, and the royalty rates were set by the contract.

Like the book club sales that Harlequin was paying obscenely low royalty rates on, these "special sales" transacted by Leisure generated very very low returns for the authors.  Depending on the contract terms, it was possible that the author earned nothing at all; the royalty might be based on the publisher's net of cost, and if all they got back was the cost of printing, there was no net profit and therefore no royalty.

About this same time -- early to mid 1990s -- Kensington/Zebra was packaging books for Sam's Club or whatever the big box discount stores were called then.  A cello-wrapped collection of four Zebra Heartfires was available at a huge discount, maybe 50% off the cover price.  Again, I had notes on this, because at least one of the titles I saw was by Janis Reams Hudson, who was either VP or President of RWA and I contacted her directly.  As far as I could tell at the time, these copies were not reprints but carried all the pertinent Zebra logos.  Also as far as I can tell, I don't have any copies in my personal collection that indicate anything different, such as a non-ISBN bar code.

And again, it all came down to contract terms -- these deep discount sales were quite legal and carried very low royalty rates.

All of this was openly discussed in RWA, through email and other online discussions, and at conferences.  As soon as I have time, I will go back through all my old PANdora's Box issues and see if there was something in those.  The point is, however, RWA knew all along this was going on and they said virtually nothing.

As I wrote in an earlier blog post the contract I signed with Pocket Books in 1994 contained the same kind of language, which is what enabled Pocket to reissue 27,780 copies of Touchstone  in 2004 with a cover price of $1.00, sell them for 50 cents each, and pay me a royalty of 2 1/4 cents per copy.  Never mind that my stated royalty rate was 8% of cover -- on a deep discount special sale, the rate was based on what the publisher got.  Understand, then, that in 2004, Pocket/Simon & Schuster was able to make a profit selling the books at 50 cents each.  Their cost was less than 50 cents a copy. 

And I don't think Simon & Schuster is in anything close to Dorchester's current financial straits.  Do I have any idea who bought those 27, 780 copies of Touchstone?  No, I don't,  I do know that I have one copy, which like the BMI editions of the Leisure titles has no ISBN and the UPC barcode shows a retail price of $1.00.

My day job is demanding my attention, but I will put up scans of the two different editions of Touchstone tomorrow.


  1. I suspect that BMI (still in business from what I can tell) is an offshoot of Dorchester. No proof--but BMI is incorporated in Pennsylvania--where some of the John Backe corporations are. As we know--John Backe is the owner of Dorchester Publishing.

    We also know it would take the Justice Department, etc. to track down all the corporations. NY, PA and FL. And possibly CA.

    The Backe Group recently forclosed on itself in essence when it sold Dorchester Media--sister company of Dorchester Publishing. It sold to FAA Investors--which according to Publisher's Weekly wished to have NO info. divulged. Well--FAA is located in Florida, one of Backe's residences--along with PA. Backe used to be a pilot. No proof--but...

    Then Dorchester Media sold to True Renditions LLC--which was incorporated a few days before the "sale." No announcement of the elusive FAA selling to True Renditions! Everyone who works at True Renditions either worked for Dorchester Publishing or Dorchester Media at one time.

    So--it would take a detective to hunt all these people down--and unravel what BMI did. BUT all road lead back to Backe--John Backe that is! And for some "odd" reason--no one has been able to attract major media attention on all this fraud. We have countless thousands of magazine subscribers complaining of fraud. AND countless magazine and book writers also with proof of fraud. Well--Backe is a former president of CBS. And wait--someone connected to True Renditions is a graduate of a college where she is on the board along with a former CBS 60 Minutes Producer. And wait--someone else on the "new" corp. staff graduated from the same college--where Backe apparently recruits. WAIT! Did I lose anyone? So many details! So many connections! And it goes on and on! Basically BEWARE of any new publishing companies that have any former Dorchester staff connected.

    Thanks Linda for being your own "detective!"

    From one "detective" to another--kudos!

    1. BMI may very well be connected to Dorchester, but those books from the early 1990s pre-date Backe's involvement with Dorchester by a good number of years. And there are always connections between groups in any industry. The six degrees of separation thing and all that.

      I have to say, however, that my comments above regarding low royalty rates are borne out by a recent post by Courtney Milan on her blog at and a comment posted in reply by Brenda Hiatt. I'll probably have a blog post of my own on that subject in the next few days.

      But it's not a matter of tracking down the connections between Dorchester and Backe and whatever nefarious outfits are sucking the lifeblood of the writers. What's needed is a group of writers who are owed significant sums by Dorchester to get a lawyer and force Dorch into official bankruptcy. It's now been two months and there's been nothing forthcoming regarding a sale of the book divisions assets, which really is only the existing contract rights. Unless/until Dorch is pushed to liquidate and revert the rights, nothing happens.