Home » Big Publishing, Contracts » Random House Responds to SFWA Slamming Its Hydra Imprint

Random House Responds to SFWA Slamming Its Hydra Imprint

7 March 2013

From Publishers Weekly:

After the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) came out swinging on Wednesday, with its president saying that it would not allow authors publishing with Random House’s e-only science fiction imprint Hydra to use that achievement as a credential for membership, the publisher has responded.

. . . .

Random House’s full letter is posted below:

Dear John, Victoria, Jaym and SFWA Members,

We read with interest your posts today about the new Random House digital imprints and our business model. While we respect your position, you’ll not be surprised to learn that we strongly disagree with it, and wish you had contacted us before you published your posts. We would appreciate you giving us an opportunity to share why we believe Hydra is an excellent publishing opportunity for the science fiction community by posting ours below to them.

Hydra offers a different– but potentially lucrative–publishing model for authors: a profit share. In the more traditional advance- plus-royalty model, the publisher takes all the financial risk up front, and recoups the advance before the author earns any cash royalties. With a profit-share model, there is no advance. Instead, the author and publisher share equally in the profits from each and every sale. In effect, we partner with the author for each book.

As with every business partnership, there are specific costs associated with bringing a book successfully to market, and we state them very straightforwardly and transparently in our author agreements. These costs could be much higher–and certainly be more stressful and labor-intensive to undertake–for an author with a self-publishing model. Profits are generated once those costs are subtracted from the sales revenue. Hydra and the author split those profits equally from the very first sale.

When we acquire a title in the Hydra program, it is an all-encompassing collaboration. Our authors provide the storytelling, and we at Hydra support their creativity with best-in-class services throughout the publishing process: from dedicated editorial, cover design, copy editing and production, to publicity, digital marketing and social media tools, trade sales, academic and library sales, piracy protection, negotiating and selling of subsidiary rights, as well as access to Random House coop and merchandising programs. Together, we deliver the best science fiction, fantasy and horror books to the widest possible readership, thus giving authors maximum earning potential.

As a last point to the SFWA leadership, my colleagues and I would welcome the opportunity to meet with you at your earliest convenience to discuss the advantages of the Hydra business model, describe the program overall, and respond to any of your expressed concerns. Please let me know a good time for us to set up this meeting.

Many thanks and all the best,
Allison Dobson

Allison R. Dobson
V.P., Digital Publishing Director
Random House Publishing Group
212-782-1073 (office)

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly and thanks to Jaye for the tip.

PG was going to fisk the letter but decided a simple translation into plain English would suffice: We’re shameless about screwing authors, so trying to shame us is a waste of time.

 

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Big Publishing, Contracts

92 Comments to “Random House Responds to SFWA Slamming Its Hydra Imprint”

  1. All I can say is, do you have any idea how bad a trad publisher has to be to p*** off SFWA president John Scalzi? Yeah, Hydra, et al, IS that bad.

  2. I’ve run out of unbelievables. But I’ve thought that before…

  3. Would give them a wider birth than a leper with a cold.

  4. At the risk of temerity, added to your Plain English translation: “we’re so desperate for revenue that we’re no longer concerned with hiding our gouging of content creators.”

  5. How are her pants not on fire right now?

    I want to call Ms. Dobson at her office number to tell her that she is a certifiable douchebag.

    Unfortunately though, she and her evil overlords will continue to spin and entice and thousands of authors will get caught up in their web just for the chance to say they were PUBLISHED and will get completely screwed in the process.

  6. Well, I just responded to their response on Twitter.

    I swore.

    And I am not ashamed.

    • That made me follow you on Twitter. In case you speak your mind again.

      They really don’t care. PG is correct in his summation that no amount of moral objection will make them see the error of their ways. They love looking at themselves in the mirror. Probably blow kisses too. As long as money is to be made and there are an endless stream of desperate and uninformed writers out there, it will be business as usual. The best we can do, is to talk about it, to shout it out loud enough, and hope enough people hear it. Or something like that.

      • I don’t normally speak my mind, but when I do, it’s with anger. 🙂

        It’s ridiculous what these publishers think they can get away with. But more ridiculous than that is the fact that they know they can get away with it, because there will always be gullible, desperate authors.

  7. Regardless of the rest…last I checked, in order to be a SFWA-approved market the publisher has to pay advances for novels. Period.

  8. Of course, I feel compelled to point out the obvious–

    Hydra: a mythical serpent with many monstrous heads

    HYDRA: a fictional terrorist organization in Marvel Comics

    Hydra: imprint of Random House Publishers that is staffed by minions of the underworld.

  9. Two Legacy organizations fighting each other? Where’s my popcorn?

  10. P.S. The only people “profit sharing” in this scenario: Random House. I guarantee there will never be any profits for the author, given publishers’ well-documented history toward creative accounting.

  11. In the spirit of Science Fiction: “The Leadership here at Hydra would like to meet with the leadership of SFWA as soon as possible. We have some pods which will go by you are night when you go to sleep, and when you wake up, you will have a new body and mind, so that you may be one with us here at Hydra. When can we schedule and appointment?”

  12. @ PG – you’re awesome. 🙂

    On the other hand, I was stymied by this. I was in danger of thinking I was wrong, and Hydra was wonderful. I’m going to chop up the paragraph just so give it the full impact:

    Our authors provide:

    1. The storytelling,

    and we at Hydra support their creativity with (the) best-in-class services throughout the publishing process:

    1. dedicated editorial,
    2. cover design,
    3. copy editing
    4. production
    5. publicity digital marketing
    6. social media tools,
    7. trade sales,
    8. academic and library sales
    9. piracy protection,
    10. negotiating and selling of subsidiary rights,
    11. access to Random House coop
    12. (access to) merchandising programs.
    13. We deliver the best science fiction, fantasy and horror books to the widest possible readership
    14. Giving authors maximum earning potential.

    They really got me about the “piracy protection”. I need protection from pirates. I’m too young to walk the plank.

    I looked over this list and thought: wow. All the author does is ONE thing, and they do FOURTEEN things. Clearly the author should be paying THEM.

    But then, I also remembered that Hydra plans to charge the author for doing alot of this, so I felt alittle better.

    Until, I looked more closely at #14 – giving authors maximun earning potential – and suddenly I could see the light again! I realized, that, unlike the ONE thing the author does, all FOURTEEN things Hydra “does” are as fictional as the name Hydra.

    I wonder who came up with that name? I wonder who thought it would be a good idea to name their business after a man-eating monster that won’t die no matter how many times you chop off its head?

  13. Boy, I must be missing something here! Okay, here’s how I understand it– it’s a 50-50 no-advance deal once RH has recouped their expenses, right? They still put out the money to produce the book, you don’t. Once that comes back in, author and publisher are square. Then they split. Am I right? Or not? If so, as long as they’re honest about their expenses, it’s actually a very GOOD deal. I had a deal exactly like that on an anthology with an excellent small publisher and made a great deal more money than you’d normally make on an anthology. Six years later I’m still getting great royalties from it as a matter of fact. At the time, I thought this business model could be the wave of the future if Big Six publishers would just loosen up, and look! RH is doing it. Unless I’m missing something.
    I did see the post in which John Scalzi says the author is charged for these costs on the back end, but honestly, I think he’s mistaken in the way he looks at it–I see nothing wrong with it. He says the publisher is “expected” to bear these expenses–yes, and under the old biz model, also expected to take 85-90 percent of the profits! But if it fronts the expenses instead and only takes 50 per cent? To me, that’s a much better bargain. I’ve been published by nearly every publisher in NY–I was at RH for years–and my profit-sharing experience with someone else is actually one of the best publishing experiences I’ve had. I also note John’s point that RH wants rights for the length of copyright and suggest that that’s probably boiler-plate that can be negotiated. If not, then, yes, I’d think twice about it, but for heaven’s sake, publishers always try for everything they can get. Standard contracts ask for dramatic rights too–that doesn’t mean you have to cede them.

    • Julie, the most heinous part of the contract isn’t the so-called “profit sharing,” but the wholesale accession of your copyright. It is no longer yours: Hydra (or Alibi, or Flirt) owns all the rights, in all languages, over the entire globe – and possibly beyond Earth’s orbits – for the life of the copyright. So, from the moment you sign their contract – and that’s boilerplate, so more non-negotiable than less – they tell you what to do with your content. They have authority to sign film or television options, and decide what to do with the funds acquired from such. They have authority to license the foreign language rights, and decide what to do with the funds acquired from such. They get to decide if – not even when – a print version will be published. This leaves the content creator with no power over their content, for creator’s lifetime and 75 years after said creator’s death. Personally, I’d cut off a limb before signing such a contract.

      • Well, I had a feeling there was more to the story. But profit-sharing is a good idea!

        • Profit keeping is an even better idea, and so is paying someone for work for hire.
          Life plus 70 years? What else in life lasts that long?

          • Mr. Wells, I believe you have won the all-time prize for Most Rhetorical Question. Nothing lasts 70 years longer than it lasts, by definition.

            • Please, call me Donald, and apparently, the rights grabbing of Traditional Publishers does last that long, Mr. Simon.

              • It isn’t ‘rights-grabbing’ if they license particular rights, as any decent contract does. It’s rights-grabbing if they claim all rights, as this contract does.

        • Just remember this kind of “profit sharing” has been a sucker clause for many many years in entertainment contracts.

          It sounds good, but it’s like a percentage of net: the numbers are always very much against the author. Furthermore, pretty standard accounting practices make it easy to prevent any funds from quite reaching the payout stage — or keep the payout as a tiny fraction of the income.

          This is a complete sucker deal. They don’t HAVE to cheat. That’s what’s golden about it… for them.

      • They can even set the terms and prices for the print, audio, and foreign editions. And license them to themselves for minimal prices, ala Harlequin.
        Anybody signing that contract needs to trust them blindly.
        Or want validation via contract very badly.

      • “…but the wholesale accession of your copyright.”

        David when I read that I realized that trads are dying in some way. They know the End is Nigh for them and if they can grab for life copyrights they will have a ‘nest egg’ to ride out the next several turbulent (for the trad pubs) years. Am I correct in this? Do they smell their own demise somehow?

        And if you do sign a contract like this how is this not like slave labor. I close myself in a small room and write and edit till my fingers hurt –and then they get all the cash from my labors even after death?

        if it was making shoes and cheap plastic trinkets instead of writing books and a factory instead of a writing desk how is this different then a type of sweat shop arrangement? You work for pennies, they live off your labor, and after you die your children have nothing from your years of work.

        The world is rightly outraged at the sweat shops in various countries but this is okay? PG isn’t there a law of some kind against this? A contract has to benefit both parties in a balanced way in the US (and the West) otherwise it won’t stand in court?

    • They get to recoup all their costs (editing, cover, etc.) out of the author’s royalties. But nowhere in the contract does it say how much that stuff costs. They can massively overcharge, and the writer has no choice but to accept it. The author doesn’t pay anything out of pocket, but the publisher could easily eat up all the author’s royalties–every cent!–by charging the author whatever they want to (maybe EXACTLY WHAT THE AUTHOR EARNED?).

      • The only way this kind of deal can work is with transparency–or at the very least honesty! I wonder if they’d give a writer they wanted to sign a ball-park figure? Akashic did–they had it figured out about to the nickel too, and they were accurate. So you can bet Random House does. If they’re intending good faith, there’s no reason they shouldn’t do that.

    • Do we know if the contract is fifty/fifty on profits, or fifty/fifty on profits after expenses?

      Because if the latter, which is the impression I am getting, this is not an equitable profit-sharing arrangement. This is a slightly rearranged royalty agreement, with the royalty subject to nearly infinite manipulation.

      To illustrate the difference, suppose that we have a ten-dollar wholesale priced book which costs, inclusive of CoG, marketing, shipping, packing tape, whatever, three dollars to get on the shelf at the bookstore.

      Does the author get (10-3)/2 = $3.50?

      Or does the author get (10/2)-3 =$2.00?

      The first is profit-sharing, with each party paying half the expenses and getting half the remaining profit.

      The second… isn’t. The second is also what you’d get if you started out with 7/2 but then offset lump sums for cover art, advertising, etc. after you did the revenue split, and didn’t also divide them in half. This last is what it sounds like they are actually doing.

      Although ironically either of them might STILL be better than what the author got under some tradpub agreements. Not that the eternal copyright loss, etc, doesn’t more than make up for any slight advantage they might get. Or that anybody willing to do this to an author should be expected to keep realistic accounts.

      • Sharecropping.

        I work your land. I get a portion of the money from the sold crop MINUS the cost of seed, land rental, equipment use, interest on money spent to acquire seed and equipment. And once all that is calculated…oh, my! My money is all gone! But, you? You still have your “share” of the profit! HA!

        My writing is the crop.

      • Just think, Hollywood accounting plus a reserve on returns.

        Seriously, just think about that for a sec.

        • Pretty much assures there won’t be anything for the author on the back end. I’m sad for the uninformed authors who’ll be queueing up to sign these agreements. And that said, as ignorant as I was when I produced book-widgets for the girls n boys in New York, I would have laughed the Hydra / Alibi / etc. contract out of the room.

    • Julie, this is very much like bonded or debt labor, where the author will see no money until his debt is paid off. But the publisher is the one who determines what that debt is and how it’s paid off. So the likelihood of the author ever seeing a dime from this deal are pretty slim—unless he or she has a breakout hit. Ask any mid-level rock band how that works out.

      What the author also relinquishes is control. I seriously doubt he has any control over cover design. I seriously doubt he has much control over any changes made to the text. The publisher will undoubtedly find a new title for the work, as they usually do. And if you feel the ebook is priced too high to compete in the market, your protests will probably be ignored.

      Random House puts up the money for editing, cover costs, etc., but when I was with Penguin and St. Martin’s, they did that as well—plus gave me a nice advance against royalties. Granted, it wasn’t a 50/50 deal, but they also didn’t keep the rights to the work for the length of copyright. I was able to get my books back after a certain period of time and put them up on Amazon myself.

      I can also hire my own cover artist, editor and copy editor, for a reasonable amount of money—far less than what RH would be charging and certainly just as competent—and enjoy a 70/30 deal with Amazon, etc.

      The only thing I wouldn’t have is the Random House name. Publishers seem to think that’s important. I don’t. In fact, I’d wager it’s only important to aspiring writers—which is what they’re banking on.

      Readers, on the other hand, couldn’t care less who publishes a book. With few exceptions (Harlequin, Hard Case), they only care who wrote it.

  14. Dear PG,

    I love your commentary at the end of these posts. Your snarky comment made me burst out laughing which startled all of my co-workers. After asking what was so funny, I got a chance to explain to them how some publishers try and screw authors. They all come from marketing/business backgrounds and agree that your comment was spot on.

    Abel

  15. Interesting that the letter doesn’t mention the total rights grab or duration.

  16. I really have more important things I should be doing, but I can’t help myself.

    As with every business partnership, there are specific costs associated with bringing a book successfully to market, and we state them very straightforwardly and transparently in our author agreements. These costs could be much higher–and certainly be more stressful and labor-intensive to undertake–for an author with a self-publishing model.

    First, Hydra? Really… Branding Genius! Not just the monstrosity from Greek mythology, but also, comic book villains:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydra_(comics)

    And don’t think SF/F writers and fans won’t think of that…

    “As with every business partnership”

    No, the contractual arrangement between RH and writers who sign up for the Hydra (or should I say HYDRA?), is not a partnership in any sense of the word.

    “…specific costs associated with bringing a book successfully to market…”

    No, there are a wide range of potential costs and no amount of spending guarantees success.

    “…we state them very straightforwardly and transparently in our author agreements…”

    Not so much. Pegging “sales, marketing and publicity” costs to a percentage of billings is neither straightforward or transparent. Nothing in the contract compels RH to actually spend that much money on sales, marketing, and publicity. There is zero transparency regarding what RH will actually spend. And by that I mean that the expectation we have is that you will transparently spend zero dollars on sales, marketing, and publicity.

    “These costs could be much higher–and certainly be more stressful and labor-intensive to undertake–for an author with a self-publishing model.”

    And I could be the leader of the Skrull invasion, but I’m not. RH is the most cost inefficient provider of publishing services in the known universe.

    Sheesh, forget Hydra, you should’ve gone with Virtucon.

  17. “…meet with you at your earliest convenience to discuss the advantages of the Hydra business model, describe the program overall, and respond to any of your expressed concerns. Please let me know a good time for us to set up this meeting.”

    All I could think of was a dozen action movies where the hero has to turnover the “goods” to the bad guys who’re holding his wife hostage.

    And his sidekick says, “You know they’re gonna kill you.”

    Don’t go to the meet Scalzi! Don’t do it!

    Unlike the scumbag prez of that “other” writers org, and shameless shill for BPH’s, you’re actually on the side of writers.

  18. Frances, in response to your comment–if there is a rights grab, that’s pretty standard boiler-plate. In my experience, they always do that, unfortunately. Bad practice, but no different from their other contracts, I’d wager.(Though I must mention that the small publisher I worked with–Akashic books, why not mention them? They’re stellar!–didn’t try that.) Presumably one’s agent deletes all but the relevant rights. If RH stands firm on the rights grab, I’d have to agree that this is egregious, and the profit-sharing part of the contract is reduced to smoke-and-mirrors.

    • if there is a rights grab, that’s pretty standard boiler-plate.

      It isn’t. I haven’t heard of any other case where a publisher offers a royalty contract and claims ownership of the copyright in its standard terms.

      Presumably one’s agent deletes all but the relevant rights.

      Presumably one’s agent has a professional acquaintance with intellectual property law — but almost none of them do. Presumably one’s agent truly represents one, and won’t sell one out in order to keep a good working relationship with the publisher — but almost all of them will.

      An agent, Ms. Smith, is a frail, frail reed to lean upon. If that’s the best defence you have of these terms, it is no defence at all.

      And it doesn’t take a rights grab for a profit-sharing deal to be smoke and mirrors. Ask anyone who has ever signed a Hollywood deal that paid them a percentage of net.

      • Great minds, Tom. Also yours and mine. 🙂

      • It isn’t a defense of these terms–I haven’t seen the contract and don’t even know what they are–I’m only responding to these posts, not the contract itself. The first ones were concerned with profit-sharing and didn’t even mention a rights grab. I’d never have commented on that. No author supports such a thing. I am saying, though, that it’s pretty standard (though usually negotiable) and that what I thought SFWA objected to was the profit-sharing element, which is what’s really the news here, as I understand it (through hearsay).
        And that I do think profit-sharing is an innovative idea for a Big Six publisher–if it’s the real thing. Obviously those net movie deals aren’t.

        • If you haven’t read Scalzi’s rants yet… Do. They’re kind of awesome, and make it clear that he is unimpressed (…that’s an understatement*…) by the contracts for many reasons.

          * THIS IS A HORRIBLE AWFUL TERRIBLE APPALLING DISGUSTING CONTRACT WHICH IS BAD AND NO WRITER SHOULD SIGN IT EVER.
          –http://whatever.scalzi.com/2013/03/06/a-contract-from-alibi/

          (That bears so much repeating!)

        • Julie, you are not making an informed argument by only responding to these posts. Scalzi posted an entire contract and the egregious terms it wants authors to accede to. Writer Beware posted more information.

          It is NOT standard for a publisher to ask for all rights, present and future media, for the entire life of the copyright without a reversion clause. And yet, the Alibi contract states exactly that.

          This isn’t profit-sharing. It is profit-stealing.

          • Well, no doubt you’re right. Your last paragraph certainly is.
            I did say in my original post I must be missing something–the rights grab really wasn’t mentioned.

    • Julie, many of PG’s minions, hangers-on, commentors, whingers, and lurkers are quite familiar with publishing contracts and their pitfalls, including the fact that in many or most cases your agent will not delete or even address clauses that would be considered insupportable in any other kind of business agreement. Agents get paid by the publisher, and depend upon the publisher’s goodwill for their continued livelihood. Authors are expendable in the agent’s world–publishers are not.

      If you got good terms and no unpleasant surprises from your publisher, consider yourself one of the lucky few. Publisher contracts get worse by the year, and agents less inclined to rock the boat.

      • I didn’t mean to sound like I had some secret knowledge–only to separate out what seems to be new from what we’re all only too used to.

        • Yep, bad contract terms have come to be the expected thing, sadly. It’s just that these are so much worse. When a publisher’s contracts are so bad that writers’ organizations that don’t normally blink at some of the worst clauses they’ve offered before rise up against them, we’d better believe this is something new and particularly nasty.

  19. Bottom line, if a publisher wants every possible rights to your work under the sun for the life of the copyright, they had better pay the author really well for those rights and take *all* of the business risks. Any contract that gives the author part of the risk in the business side shouldn’t have such a rights grab.

    In essence, they want all your rights without risking anything for them.

    • In another life, I was a photographer.

      I once had a fellow who was a band promoter ask me to shoot one of his bands. I asked him, “Happy to. What rights do you want?”

      He said, “I was thinking I’d give you a hundred bucks for your time and you’d give me the film.”

      Well, never mind that I don’t shoot film, I said, “I was thinking I’d charge you a session fee and give you the rights to use the pics on posters and whatnot for a year, maybe an album cover. But it sounds like you want the copyrights?”

      “Yeah, I guess so.”

      “Copyrights start at $250 per frame and go up from there.”

      “What? That’s a lot of money! If the band hits, you could sell the pictures and make money like those rock and roll photographer guys! You know, books and stuff!”

      “How am I going to make any money if you have the copyrights?”

      “I’ll call you back.”

      Never heard from him again.

    • That’s it, R.L, in the proverbial nutshell

  20. Can you say vanity press?
    Although I’m not sure that vanity presses claimed ownership of the copyright. Certainly not world wide.

    • As much as they get maligned, and not without reason, I can say that I know someone who published a book with PublishAmerica, and who actually got royalty checks timely along with statements, and when they decided to pull the book they got a form letter (but a polite one) acknowledging that the book had been reverted and PA had no further rights in the work.

      I think I’d work with PA any day of the week over some of these sharks.

    • A true vanity press does *license* your rights as a copyright holder for a determined period of time. That’s what makes them a vanity press as opposed to a self-publishing option because the author pays all the cost but gives up some of his rights for a period of time per contract. Thus taking the financial risk without retaining rights. Essentially gives the vanity publisher rights for zero cost and risk to them, providing them an income stream.

      The main difference between them and Hydra is Hydra allows the author to pay for the services on the back end via royalties deductions. What isn’t clear to me yet is whether their contract has the author owing and paying up for any unpaid costs at some defined point, or if Hydra risks that loss if the title doesn’t sell enough to cost out. If the later, then at least they are taking some of the risk, but still not worth all possible rights for the life of the copyright by any stretch of the imagination. If the former, they are no different from a vanity publisher…just one willing to take payments.

      Easy rule: You give up rights, you should get paid for those rights. If you’re coughing up money, that is a red flag unless you retain all rights. That’s why authors don’t pay back unearned advances in general, because it is in part payment for the rights given to the publisher by the author, who then has opportunity to make money off those rights. If they don’t, it is their loss. Not the author’s.

  21. It seems that the Random House version of Hydra is showing even LESS tact than the Marvel Comics version–and the Marvel version thought it perfectly well and good to CLONE HITLER.

    I’m really hoping one of the other big publishers opens a skeezy publishing arm called COBRA, headed up by a guy dressed in a snake outfit and another guy named Dr. Mindbender who isn’t really a doctor of anything and, for some reason, never wears a shirt.

  22. Well now I feel weird, I just signed a two book contract, with a decent advance against royalties of 20-30% depending on medium and market. Not with Random House of course – but there are some publishers out there who aren’t attempting to sodomise authors.

  23. OK, the deal sucks. But I think we are doing a poor job of evaluating it. Authors sign these things. There must be a non-financial benefit they value.

    We might not value it, but they don’t care. They do value it, and then they sign the contract. Bragging rights? Feeling of being a real author? Vindication for years of writing? Being part of an elite group? Self-image? I don’t know. Since I don’t value it, it’s hard to find the value. But It must be there.

    Attributing it all to ignorance or inexperience isn’t good enough. I suspect the publishers know a subset of authors perceive real value, and they are ready to cater to them.

    • I think validation is a big part of why some writers will sign this contract, no questions asked. And the fact people rarely deal with anyone as rapacious as loan sharks or hoods running a protection scam; one assumes a certain degree of good faith with people one does business with — even in the case of used car salesmen & payday loan outfits.

      Thinking back on my own experience, I’ve agreed to some bad choices simply because I wanted to make the deal & the other party managed to dismiss my objections with hand-waving (e.g. “this is a boiler-plate clause”, “we never act on this cause”, etc.). Fortunately, none of those choices had the unpleasant consequences that signing this contract, without major modifications, would have.

    • Terrence, the contract has been evaluated by experts, and it’s far, far worse than even the worst big publishing contract being offered in a time of increasingly author-unfriendly contracts. Authors sign these things because they believe they will receive value, but what the contract offers them is:

      No advance against royalties. This advance is typically (and certainly in my own experience) the only money most authors ever see from their publishers–even publishers who bear the up-front costs of production, as this imprint clearly does not. No up-front expense for the publisher means the publisher’s incentive to recoup their investment by pushing the book is nil. The author is paying them to publish the book. This is just about anyone’s definition of vanity publishing, which I think anyone here would agree is an out-and-out scam.

      Their rights signed away for their lifetime plus 70 years in exchange for e-books, print, audio, foreign, and any and ever other right everywhere in the world.

      50% of net MINUS something called “net billings,” which you’ve probably never seen in a publisher’s contract, because it’s never been there before. It means they bill the author for the expense of producing the book. This means the author begins the publishing life of the book (which will exceed his own by 70 years) in debt to the publisher. By how much? The contract is exceedingly vague about this, and anyone who knows anything about contracts knows the words “vague” and “contract” do not go well together.

      John Scalzi, President of the Science Fiction Writers of America says: “THIS IS A HORRIBLE AWFUL TERRIBLE APPALLING DISGUSTING CONTRACT WHICH IS BAD AND NO WRITER SHOULD SIGN IT EVER.” (caps his)

      I have to say it–this is my favorite part of your post: “I suspect the publishers know a subset of authors perceive real value, and they are ready to cater to them.”

      Do the publishers know authors perceive “real value” in this appalling excuse for a book agreement? What they know is that some people are so desperate for the perceived validation of a traditional publisher deal that they will sign anything a publisher puts before them even if nothing in it could possibly work to their advantage or the advantage of their career. This contract illustrates that belief pretty clearly.

      Yes, desperate authors will take this deal despite anything John Scalzi or anyone else can do to dissuade them, but trust me, Terrence, the “real value” you speak of doesn’t exist in a contract that takes all rights and all control and offers smoke and mirrors in return. The authors who think it does will not be particularly smart or savvy authors, and if they take the deal they’ll have the rest of their lives (plus 70 years) to regret it.

      • I completely agree with the experts who evaluate the contract. From the enumerated items that are public, I evaluate it the same way. An economic evaluation from the perspective of financial return shows it sucks.

        But economics also accepts there are perceived benefits that don’t fit into the standard model. These will vary from one person to another. I don’t think we have standing to tell any author they do not value something. They sign these things, so they do value them. It becomes a case of believing theory or our own lying eyes.

        The evaluations that say these contracts suck are limited to consideration of a limited set of variables. Authors who sign are dealing with a different set, an expended set, or a setwithdifferent relative values.

        I evaluate in terms of money. Others use another standard. Ignoring it is a mistake.

    • Authors value the brand name. Unsuspecting writers who have never been published see that a Random House imprint wants their book and they go apeshit, ready to sign pretty much anything.

      When I was new to this game, I didn’t even READ my first contract. I just assumed that my agent had my back, and I was publishing a book with one of the Big Six!!! Fortunately, I had a good agent and any egregious terms in the contract were excised. And I will say that my time with the Big Six (several years) was largely pleasant and productive.

      But if this contract is any indication of where things are headed, I can feel nothing but sadness.

      And ask any reader how valuable that publisher’s brand name is to them. I think you’ll discover that most of them don’t know who the publisher of a book IS and couldn’t care less. I’m an avid reader, always have been, and even I didn’t know until one of them wanted to sign me.

  24. “We’re shameless about screwing authors, so trying to shame us is a waste of time.”

    Perfect translation. And so true.

  25. You can’t stop people from being desperate or making bad decisions because of their emotional state.

    • No, but you can stop people from making a particular bad decision because they think they will gain status by it. Just ridicule a thing thoroughly enough, and publicly enough, and most people will stop thinking of it as a status symbol.

      In a case like this, it shouldn’t be hard. The Hydra name means nothing. If the first thing it becomes known for is ripping off writers, and the second thing is putting out shoddy ebook releases of titles the parent company couldn’t be arsed to release in print, it’s very unlikely that it will ever gain any kind of snob appeal.

      Of course some people will be taken in, because the Random House name still does have snob appeal. But then they’ll find out that their books, when published, don’t have the words ‘Random House’ anywhere in them. Remember the Geo Metro? It was sold by the same company that owned Cadillac — but nobody ever mistook a Geo for a Caddy. And nobody will ever mistake a Hydra ebook for a Random House or Knopf hardcover. The first round of suckers will learn this the hard way — and the second round will laugh at them and steer clear.

      • Having a hardcover these days—Random House, Knopf or otherwise—is the kiss of death for all but a handful of authors.

        And I have to say that my friend’s Geo Metro got him from point A to point B, and that’s often all that matters. He still got to work on time and didn’t have have to shell out a bundle to do it.

        • Having a hardcover these days—Random House, Knopf or otherwise—is the kiss of death for all but a handful of authors.

          Signing that Hydra contract will be the kiss of death for every author that does it. At least the hardcover genuinely does have the snob appeal that the Hydra ebook so distinctly lacks.

          And I have to say that my friend’s Geo Metro got him from point A to point B, and that’s often all that matters.

          Of course it did. (So did my Saturn.) But I bet your friend wasn’t dumb enough to think he was buying a luxury car that would impress all the neighbours. (Neither was I.)

          • LOL. I don’t disagree.

            But then I’m not sure how much a contract with Knopf or Random House would impress the neighbors. Maybe the co-workers, but not the neighbors.

            • The contract doesn’t impress anybody (much to the chagrin of the chump who signed it). The actual book, however, when strategically left out on the coffee table, may indeed impress a certain class of neighbour. That’s what RH and Knopf hardcovers are intended to do, anyway.

              Alas, you can’t leave an ebook on your table, and if you could, it wouldn’t impress anyone.

              • I’ve had those hardcovers on coffee tables. The only people who were truly impressed were family members.

                Most readers aren’t snobs. They read the books they love, without apology, no matter what others might think of those books. It has always been that way. And these days that includes a LOT of ebooks, written by folks who don’t have deals—good or bad—with imprints like Hydra.

                I’m not in this business to impress the neighbors. I’m in it to sell books and make readers happy.

                • I’ve had those hardcovers on coffee tables. The only people who were truly impressed were family members.

                  I’m not sure we’re talking about the same books here. I don’t mean having one’s own work on the coffee table; that’s just simple vanity. I mean having the Right Book on the coffee table — the one that got the glowing review in the Times, and that all the fashionable people at the Manhattan cocktail parties are supposed to be mad about — the book that someone bought in a vain attempt to prove to the Clever People that he was not a philistine.

                  Most readers aren’t snobs. They read the books they love, without apology, no matter what others might think of those books.

                  This is true. Unfortunately, it’s also true that a certain number of non-readers can be bamboozled into buying books that nobody loves, because they are Important and Fashionable and a Sign That One Is Cultured. I daresay that a good many thousand Franzens and DeLillos have been bought simply as décor.

                  I don’t mean to single out those two worthy gentlemen. Many names have come and gone as the semi-official darlings of the reviews, and many books by those names have been bought for show by people who cared nothing about reading them.

                  With ebooks, that whole jig is up. One ebook looks exactly like another, to everyone but the person reading it. In effect, the books are invisible; only the device is seen. That invisibility made it ‘safe’ to read Fifty Shades on the bus, because nobody could tell that you were reading smut. The same factor makes it pointless to buy the Times’ current favourite as an ebook — because nobody can tell that you’re reading Important Contemporary Literature.

      • Ridicule is a wonderful tactic. People who ignore the financial evaluations in favor of an intangible might be interested in the idea that the intangible they perceive doesn’t exist.

  26. Lots has been said, my feeling is only this: They thought that was an improvement? Like… they thought they could get away with that and everything’s better? That says nothing!

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