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The Problem with Del Rey Publishing

Originally published in 1996 or thereabouts.

I'll admit up front that this title isn't exactly accurate, as I don't know what the problem with Del Rey is -- I can only describe some of the symptoms, and the fact that I have noticed that I don't buy very many books from Del Rey anymore.

Del Rey is an "imprint" of Ballantine books, which in turn is a division of Random House. As I understand it, an imprint is like a brandname; generally, different publishers will have different imprints for different genres. Del Rey is named after SF great Lester Del Rey, and whose late wife Judy Lynn was senior editor back in the days when it was good.

Not to long ago I was thinking of some of the authors to whom Del Rey has given their walking papers, and I tried to think of the last time I bought a Del Rey book. I couldn't think of it. I then started looking through through my 1500-volume mass-market paperback fiction book collection (at least 95% of which is science fiction) for the last purchase. While I was there, I did some quick counting of what time periods my Del Rey purchases come from. I discovered the following:
  • From 1990 to the present (almost eight years), I own a total of 21 Del Rey books, of which 18 were new printings and 3 were re-releases of previously published works.

  • From 1982 to 1989 (eight years), I own a total of 88 Del Rey books, of which 73 were new printings and 15 were re-releases of previously published works. Some of these books were purchased used in the 1990s.

  • My last new Del Rey purchase was Scott Geier's Genellan: In the Shadow of the Moon, which came out in 1996. (There may be a later book in this series which I have yet to purchase.) My previous three new Del Rey purchases before that were Genellan: Planetfall by Geier, Cain's Land by Robert Frezza, and The Immortality Option by James P. Hogan, all published in 1995. I think Frezza's Fire in a Faraway Place may have been my only new Del Rey purchase in 1994. The last year that I bought any significant quantity of Del Rey books was 1993, when I bought several.
Why the big discrepancy? I sat down and pondered just that question, and three possibilities came to mind:
  1. I'm buying fewer books: If this is the sole explanation, then the number of Del Rey purchases may have dropped, but Del Rey's percentage of my book purchases would be approximately the same.

  2. I've changed: While Del Rey is publishing the same type of book as it did before, my tastes have changed over the years, and I am no longer interested in the type of book that Del Rey publishes.

  3. Del Rey has changed: Del Rey is no longer publishing the type of book that it used to publish.
So, which is it? Well, about two minutes looking through my collection confirmed what I suspected: I did not buy fewer books in the 1990s. If anything, my post-undergrad, post-grad-school, real-job status allowed me to buy far more SF paperbacks (and hardbacks, and nonfiction books, and...) in the latter time period than the former. So, a smaller percentage of my purchases are Del Rey, in addition to fewer purchases in absolute numbers.

Perhaps the explanation is that my tastes have changed. Well, I know that my tastes have changed over time, generally becoming more sophisticated. Funny thing is, though, that (1) I still like and reread my old Del Rey books, and (2) some of the Del Rey book purchases I have made in the 1990s have been used books Del Rey published in the 1980s, such as the majority of Larry Niven's works.

In addition, if this was simply a matter of changing preferences on my part, I should have few Del Rey books from any time period, as they would have departed in the three or four boxes of books I sold before moving into my new townhouse.

No, the problem is clearly that Del Rey has changed, but changed how? Well, I don't have a good answer for that. Part of it may simply be that there is more competition out there, from imprints such as Roc, Tor and Baen Books. Indeed, these three feature prominently on my bookshelves, with Tor recently publishing one of my all-time favorites, the five-part Exordium series.

I am fairly confident, though, that this is not a case of simply being outbid by other publishers. I have heard from a number of sources that Del Rey apparently "no longer requires the services" of some of those whom I considered to be their A-list authors, including the following:
  • Robert Frezza, whose series about Anton Vereshchagin and the 35th Infantry (Rifle) (A Small Colonial War, Fire in a Faraway Place, and Cain's Land), is one of the best military science fiction series I have read, and not surprisingly contains two of the last five Del Rey books I purchased;

  • Michael McCollum, who wrote eight of the Del Rey books on my bookshelf, and who is now self-publishing his work electronically through his online bookstore, Sci-Fi Arizona;

  • Steve Miller and Sharon Lee, whose Liaden books have such a loyal following that the authors were practically threatened by a mob with torches into self-publishing more stories set in the universe.
I'm sure there are many others that I don't know about.

Now, maybe Del Rey has given up the niche of the market where I shop, and maybe it is making money hand-over-fist with its current stable of authors. I can't say, as I don't know what Del Rey's sales figures look like.

I do know, however, that I purchase about one science fiction paperback a week, or about $320 worth a year. I know that I have spent about one-tenth that amount on Del Rey books over the past three years combined. I know that each month I read the Del Rey Internet Newsletter, and only rarely do I find news of any books that trigger even remote interest.

So, if Del Rey would rather I give my money to Roc or Tor or Baen, I'm sure that Opus, Tom Dougherty, and Jim Baen won't try to persuade me otherwise.

10/27/97 Update: The decline of the publishing industry has been a general topic of discussion on the Net lately. The case of Del Rey is not unique, it seems -- the combination of IRS rules which treat inventory as income and rising paper costs coupled with the ability of computers to provide real-time sale figures have led several (if not all) of the major publishing houses to drop all their "midlist" writers in favor of either the brand-new (and hence cheap) or the big-name bestseller writers, or those willing to put out Yet Another Star Wars or Star Trek novel. [I recently counted, at a local bookstore, 40 separate mass market Star Wars titles and 75 separate Star Trek titles, covering 20 linear feet of shelfspace. Does anyone really think that more than 20 percent of these titles are worth the paper they are printed on?]

The truly irritating thing is that those midlist writers dropped aren't necessarily (or even primarily) writers who don't sell -- they simply have committed the crime of having small rabid followings rather than large loyal followings. Now, it may be that these houses are acting out of sheer economic necessity -- although another school of thought blames the greed of the large, profit-hungry firms which have invaded the book industry as of late, in the form of mega-conglomerate publishers and bookstore uberchains -- and if so, that's a shame. I have recently concluded, though, that I don't really care why my needs aren't being served, only that they aren't.

Luckily, the computers and networks that have aided in the stupidification of publishing have also created a possible antidote -- electronic publishing and distribution. I don't think there is a reader out there that doesn't prefer to have the option of walking into a bookstore and browsing through the section of our choice. Given that more and more bookstores should simply rename the "science fiction" section the "Star Wars and Star Trek" section, though, I'd settle for the ability to order books online. This would solve some of the overhead problems (by decreasing needed inventory, and passing the postage costs on to the consumer), and hopefully this can be made economically viable in the near future. Failing that, though, I would be willing to pay for electronic copies of books, like Michael McCollum is doing; I would prefer to hold Miller and Lee's Plan B in my hands as a professionally published volume, but if I had to buy it in PDF format and print it out myself, well, it's better than not getting it all.

3/23/98 Update: Two things:

First, on a couple of occasions I have received feedback from authors who have had direct experience with Del Rey. In general they have agree with my assessment of the situation. Recently, though, such an author shared with me some evidence indicating that the problems with Del Rey are "the result of what was going on 15 years ago," and have as much to do with some of the personalities at the very top of the publishing house as they do with the accountants bottom line. This is a very interesting revelation, and one I intend to explore as my time allows.

Second, Steve Miller and Sharon Lee are back in business! Plan B is now in effect!

1/1/08 Update: Scott Gier is back in print, through Michael McCollum's