Sure It Sounds Good At First

Allow me to apologize in advance for what will probably be a more link and quotation intensive post than we have seen in while. I plan on quoting a couple of big name authors for a number of reasons:

  • I want to show that what I am saying is not just my opinion alone
  • Some of these individuals have valid points and it makes more sense to quote their exact words than to paraphrase and perhaps lose some of the original emphasis.
  • John Scalzi is one hysterical mother trucker.

Another caveat before we begin: This is neither an anti-self-publishing rant
1 nor is it an anti-digital publishing rant.2 What this post will be is an anti-Hydra/Alibi/Flirt rant.

For those not familiar with the names mentioned, they, along with Loveswept, are part of a new group of digital only imprints from the Random House Publishing Group. There was a lot of excitement about these digital only publishing imprints. There were also some concerns.

Random House’s announcement can be found
here and their FAQ page for the new imprints is here.

One of the concerns which arose was the willingness to consign the works in question to only one format. In other words, why release the books in digital format only? If they are good enough to publish digitally, why not publish them traditionally as well? My personal concern is that by doing this, Random House was saying that these books are good enough to read, but we are not going to waste the time and money (and trees) to publish them like we would a
real book.3

If this was some kind of green initiative I would be all for it. Hell, maybe I could get some kind of tax deduction for owning multiple digital reading devices. However the reality of the book world is that limiting oneself to only one format means drastically limiting ones readership. Depending on who you ask, the sales of e-books are either climbing steadily or experiencing a drop off.
4 Whatever the case may be, people still love bookstores and a surprising number of people make the majority of their reading purchases at places not traditionally thought of as booksellers (like superstores where you can get groceries, clothing, electronics, etc. all under one roof). Why would you want to give up those potential readers? A similar concern was voiced by the fine people at Writer Beware5

It turns out that this concern was nothing compared to the ones which surfaced earlier this week.

Contracts for both the Hydra and Alibi imprints made it into the hands of some well respected authors and they were appalled at what they found. In fact, they were so appalled that upon seeing the Hydra contract the
Science Fiction Writers of America announced that books published under the Hydra imprint would not be accepted as qualifications for membership.6
If you would rather read it in their own words:

SFWA has determined that works published by Random House’s electronic imprint Hydra can not be use as credentials for SFWA membership, and that Hydra is not an approved market. Hydra fails to pay authors an advance against royalties, as SFWA requires, and has contract terms that are onerous and unconscionable.7
Does this mean that works published by Hydra (or the other imprints) are not of professional caliber? No. It means that as a publisher Hydra fails to meet the requirements of a professional publisher.

How do they do this? By offering what some are calling the worst publishing contracts they have ever seen.

Random House has launched an imprint called "Hydra" with all the hallmarks of a sleazy, scammy vanity-press: no advance on royalties, perpetual, all-rights assignments of copyrights, and all production expenses charged to the writer before any royalties are paid.8

Before I continue, I just want to point you in the direction of John Scalzi. I’ll let him do the heavy lifting for a minute.

Note to SF/F Writers: Random House’s Hydra Imprint Has Appallingly Bad Contract Terms

A Contract From Alibi

Raptors at the Fences

I am sure that some of you have questions. Allow me to explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.

In the traditional model, publishers pay authors an advance. Consider this the publisher’s buy in. The publisher pays the authors a sum of money for the rights to publish their book. This is an advance against the royalties that the book will make. For a number of years (or perhaps forever) the author does not earn royalties on the book. Those royalties go to the publisher until the amount of the advance is made (at which point the book has “earned out”). After this the author begins to earn royalties on each book sold as per the specifications of the contract.

This may seem a little odd to some people, but consider the amount of time it takes someone to write a book. In essence, the authors are being paid up front for the work of the book. If they had to rely solely on royalty checks they may not have the ability to produce the next book.

The contracts in question do not provide an advance for the author. Instead, they do exactly the opposite. They flip the advance model on its heel and hold back the author’s royalties until certain production costs are covered. This is not the way things are done. There are costs which are inherent in the production of any book (editing, cover art, marketing, manufacturing costs) which are covered by the publisher.
This is what the publisher does. They have a staff of editors, artists, marketing professionals, and printing presses. This is what they bring to the plate (remember that what the author brings to the plate is the material to be published, the actual book).

There is a name for publishers (and I use that term loosely right now) who charge these production costs to the author: Vanity Press. They are exactly what they sound like. People who want to see their work in print and are willing to pay to see it in print go to these people.

The imprints in question have gotten around this designation by not charging the author for these costs up front. Instead, they just don’t pay the poor bastards until these costs are covered. How will the authors know when this happens?

Good question.

The other monumental problem is the ridiculous rights grab. To illustrate what I am talking about let’s compare the contracts I have signed with the Hydra/Alibi/Flirt contract.

I have had a number of short stories published in different anthologies. Each asked for first North American rights. Some also asked for exclusivity for various periods of time, typically one year from the date of publication. What this means is that I am assuring the publisher that the story in question has not been published anywhere else (including my own website) before. They are the first people to get a crack at showing it to the people of North America. I also agree that I will not publish said story anywhere in North America (again, including my own website
11) for a period of one year from when the book first hits the shelves.

Now this is the important bit.

After that, the rights revert back to me.

That means if I want to submit it to someone else, I can do so, provided the new publisher accepts reprints. I know people who have sold the same story five times over.

What the imprints are asking for is the right to publish the piece of fiction in every format (including those that have not been invented yet) i.e.. not only digital but hardcover, trade paperback, paperback, audio book, the movie and video game rights, library and book club publications, all of these. They get the right to print it everywhere, in any language. Most importantly, these rights never revert back to the author.

There also appears to be a clause which states that they have first chance at the next thing the authors write too. So if the authors pop out a bestseller and get famous, rather than being able to negotiate a better contract for their sophomore novels, they are stuck with the same shitty contract they signed originally.

Naturally, Random House has tried to defend these practices as a
new publishing model.

This is exactly what Scalzi was talking about in his Raptors at the Fences post. These contracts are so bad that they can not be allowed to become the norm. The problem is, to some new authors the concessions they are forced to give up might be worth the price of seeing their work published. I can only hope that they will hold on to their material rather than signing away everything in these horrible contracts.

To be on the safe side, let’s quote Scalzi.

so not kidding on this, people. This is New Coke-level badness. Everyone involved in this contract needs a time out to think on what they have done. It’s genuinely shameful that a publisher is willing to offer this contract — and for that matter, to defend it.


I want to be clear: I can say, without reservation, that this is the worst book contract I have ever personally encountered. Not only would I never sign it — which should be obvious at this point — I can’t imagine why anyone whose forebrain has not been staved in by an errant bowling ball would ever sign it. Indeed, if my worst enemy in the world was presented with it and had a pen poised to scratch his signature on it, I would smack the pen out of his hand and say to him, “I hate you, but I don’t hate you this much.”


Why partner with someone who doesn’t see you as a partner? The Hydra deal sheet is pretty clear about this — it’s not a contract of partners, it’s a contract a parasite offers to a host. But the fact is that if Hydra likes your stuff enough to want it, then you can probably find a real publisher, who offers a real partnership, including the payment of advances and the assumption of risk. Or you can publish it yourself, pay your costs up front (hey, they’re business expenses!) and keep everything you make.

and most importantly

You can do better than Hydra. So do better.

Amen brother John.13

1 I think that self-publishing is a valid choice for many authors. My complaint with self-published novels is that they often lack the editorial work that
all novels require. The benefit of traditional publishing is that work is done before the books hit the shelves. It is unfortunate that the good self-published books are tarnished by the image of the author who publishes his own material in order to avoid the traditional gatekeepers. Unfortunately, there is a lot of truth to this image. There are a lot of self-published works which have been or would be rejected by traditional publishers because they still need work.

2 Seriously, you should know better. Take a look at my
Goodreads account and see how often I am reading on my iPad or Sony e-reader.

3 Note this is
my interpretation, not the words of anyone from Random House.

4 I tried to find some hard data but after 4 reports which all used
the same study to say drastically different things I gave up and decided I was OK with being vague.

5 If you are an author, especially an author of speculative fiction, you should be aware of
Writer Beware.

6 For the unfamiliar, there are a number of genre specific and non-specific writers organizations. The big ones like the SFWA, the MWA, and the HWA (to name the genres I prefer) set standards for what is and is not considered a professional publication (among lots of other things). This is done through membership requirements. In order to qualify for membership an author typically has to have a novel length work published by a major publishing house (as defined by the organization) or a number of smaller works published by approved markets. These approved markets pay a “professional rate” (currently 5 cents per word).

Random House Imprint Hydra Not A Qualifying Market -- SFWA site

8 Cory Doctorow: Random house Launches eBook Imprint Run Like A Predatory Vanity Press --BoingBoing

9 Buttercup is marry' Humperdinck in a little less than half an hour. So all we have to do is get in, break up the wedding, steal the princess, make our escape... after I kill Count Rugen.

10 I’m going to stop here because if I start ranting about vanity presses I’ll never stop.

11 I only mention this because there are quite a few people who miss this important concept. First publication rights means it hasn’t been published in any form before. This includes places no one will have seen it like your old website on Tripod.

12 This is my interpretation of what I have seen of the situation. There is an out of print clause (when the publisher allows the book to go out of print the rights revert to the author), but since we are talking first and for most about digital publication, there is a question of whether the book ever goes out of print. So long at the publisher makes sure that the book is available digitally, the author never get the rights back.

13 In case you haven’t guessed it, I’m a big fan of John Scalzi. I first became aware of him through his hilarious
blog. I’m pleased to say his books are just as entertaining. If you are an SF fan, you have to read Redshirts.