More on the Hydra – SFWA kerfluffle

Back when Random House announced it was starting several new digital only imprints, I greeted the news with more than a hint of skepticism. I’ll admit that the main reason was because I haven’t been impressed with how RH —  or any of the other so-called Big 6 for that matter —  has handled the transition to digital media. But I held out hope that this was a step forward. It was a faint hope, mainly because RH was being mum on contract terms. That is usually a very big red flag that something is wrong.

Well, my concerns appeared to have been valid when SFWA issued a statement saying Hydra, the RH sf/fantasy digital imprint, was not a qualifying market. Among the concerns SFWA had about the Hydra contract are 1) no advance is paid; 2) authors are forced to pay via deductions from royalties for services most legitimate publishers do for free; 3) contracts are for the life of copyright.

Now, to become an active member of SFWA, you have to meet certain requirements. You must have “three qualifying short story sales, one qualifying novel sale, or one professionally produced full-length dramatic script”. If you follow the links, you’ll see what “qualifying” means. Basically, for short stories, you have to be paid at least $50 for each qualifying short story and have a cumulative total in sales of at least $250. For novels, you have to have at least one paid sale of $2,000. That is an advance of $2,000 and not sales of that much.

Random House was pretty quick in its response to SFWA’s action. It posted a response that basically said “you never talked to us and gave us a chance to respond to your concerns.” There’s an offer to meet with SFWA leadership at their earliest convenience to discuss just how wonderful Hydra is and why SFWA is all wrong about it. But the justification in the letter are stunning and not in a good way. Random House proves just how low of an opinion it has of authors and our intelligence.

Let’s begin with the fact they are calling Hydra and its sister-imprints a profit-sharing venture between publisher and author. WTF?!? They justify taking out the normal business costs most publishers, including small and micro publishers, take on by saying these costs could be so much higher and more “stressful and labor-intensive” if the author were to self-publish. The implication is that the author should be soooooo glad Hydra wants to publish their book that they open their pocketbooks and pay for the opportunity. In other words, we ought to forget the old adage that money flows to the author and pay for the privilege of having a publisher put out our book, make empty promises to us and takes money out of our pockets.

Oh, and smile as they do so for the life of the copyright! Do I really need to tell you how bad that is?

But the saga doesn’t end there. SFWA has responded to Random House’s response. There is no doubt, as you read the response, that SFWA leadership means business: You extol your business model as “different”; the more accurate description, we believe, is “exploitative.” Oh my.

The response also makes clear that, while the lack of advance is a very big stumbling block, it isn’t the only one and possibly not even the main one. SFWA also notes that one of their officers has seen the contract for one of Hydra’s sister-imprints and it has the same terrible clauses. That shows a pattern and not a good pattern.

But what gets me is how surprised Random House is acting about this. It’s as though they didn’t think anyone would have concerns about this contract? Didn’t they remember what happened when Harlequin started up their new digital line that was basically nothing but a vanity press? Both SFWA and MWA quickly listed the line as a non-qualifying line for pro sales. Harlequin finally not only changed the terms of their contract but also the name of the line in order to get past the problems.

This conflict between Random House and SFWA points out problems with both sides, in my opinion. First, it shows just how low publishers are willing to sink in order to screw authors. Second, it shows that SFWA is still behind the times because it doesn’t admit that there are those of us out here who are publishing through small digital presses that don’t pay advances and some of us are making far in excess of the $2,000 advance SFWA requires for active membership. As for their requirement of a cumulative $250 in payment for three short stories, there are authors who make much more than that in indie short story sales for ONE STORY. But those authors also aren’t eligible, at least not the way I read the guidelines.

We haven’t seen the end of the Hydra story yet. I just wonder how long it will be before another of the big publishers tries this same sort of head in the sand, let’s screw the authors even more than we are now schtick.




  1. This sort of thing is, in part, why I am self-publishing. I’m competent to do my own covers, formatting, and marketing push. Eventually I hope to have the budget to do that last bit in a big way. But until then, I have the control. I can tweak and nerf until my stories are the way I want them, not some anonymous editor with an agenda. I don’t have to knuckle under to terms that amount to servitude and then say “thank you sir, might I have more?”

    I will never belong to the ‘in crowd’ of SFWA, because I’m too independent to try and meet their criteria. Same reason I never tried to join Mensa, or any other elite group. Now, should you start a real Mad Genius Club, I want in!

  2. Hmmm, so even if i am fabulously successful writing SF in indie and become wealthy from my sales, I’ll never qualify for membership in the SFWA? Ohh, I is heartbroke. This is the first thing I have seen SFWA do in a coons age that I agreed with. Bunch of whiny liberals

    1. Um. They did it because the other contender for the president’s job (who is admittedly not my first choice, but the SFWA establishment choice is actually about par, just from the opposite side) pointed out that they’d done SFA.

    1. Interesting. Of course, they still have the “length of copyright” language in there. At least they define the out of print terminology now. But, seeing how some mid-list authors are having to fight tooth and nail — and sic attorneys on publishers — even when the OOP requirements have been triggered just to get rights back, it doesn’t make me feel any better. Nor does the fact they get worldwide rights in all languages.

      There is also language about piracy protection which, in my mind, means DRM through the nose. Not good.

      It still amazes me that Random House thought they could get away with the original business model after the uproar over the Harlequin imprint and the fallout from that.

      1. I was thinking about this. Does SFWA or anybody else have a recommended model contract, or even a set of guidelines suggesting what should and shouldn’t be included? I’ve never poked around looking for such a thing, but it seems like it would be a useful service for the various professional associations. After all, helping people to make good business is what the professional associations are for, right? Having a model contract or model terms could make it easier on everybody?

        1. Mike,

          SFWA used to have sample contracts on their site in the resource section. I haven’t poked around it deep enough in years to see if they still are. The problem is that they, like so many other organizations, are still clinging to the traditional publishing model as well — at least when it comes to contracts they will accept as qualifying for pro status.

          There’s another problem. Authors are trusting creatures. Too many simply sign a contract from their publishers without reading it because none of the questionable clauses have been there before. They don’t think about the fact those clauses might now be there.

          Add in the tendency most of us have to glaze over after a paragraph or two of legalese and even if we had a sample contract to refer to, it wouldn’t help. We’d zone out before getting through one, much less two of them for comparison purposes.

    1. Gawd, there are so many things I see wrong on just the few pages of the site I looked at, starting with how they say they will convert and format for seven different platforms and then list only six stores they will send your e-book to (including their own). Welcome to the newest round of “let’s scam the authors”.

  3. Pingback: Ouch | Head Noises
  4. Look, if _I_ can self pub, anyone can. I was over 30 when we got our first computer. An Apple II+. I’m barely competent to _use_ a computer, even now.

    I don’t understand how a respected publishing house can sink so low.

    They’re going to run out of reputation _Real_Soon_Now_.

    1. Oh, I think they are getting a reputation. Quite a reputation, in fact. Perhaps not the one they intended, but they will be well known and long remembered. 😉

      1. I don’t think they care. If they did, they wouldn’t do this sort of bull in the first place. Instead, they see just how far they can go to screw their authors and customers and then cry “foul” when someone calls them on it. Sure, they changed some of their contract terms, but they still kept in what is, in my mind, the worst one — the life of copyright terminology.

        Oh, and before folks think it is only RH doing this, there are some agents who have been trying to do it for a couple of years now. Yet another reason to make sure an IP attorney goes over any contract more than a few paragraphs long, especially if it comes from a traditional publisher or agency.

        1. I’ve wondered if the people driving this have much varried industry experience. Publish America and their ilk sound perfectly reasonable to people who aren’t deeply involved with the industry, and a whole lot who _ought_ to know better. It makes me wonder if the top people at Random House think that it is just an alternate operating system, rather than a parasite. And maybe they ought to switch over to it?

    2. Pam? I know this is a total side issue, but it always kind of bothers me when people say things like “I’m barely competent to use a computer.”

      See, from my point of view, as a software engineer, if you have trouble using a computer, that’s not your problem. That means we haven’t done our job very well. You should be able to use a computer, or program a VCR, relatively easily. You are fully competent, but I do have questions about the competence of the computer, or more specifically, of the people who designed and programmed it.

      There really shouldn’t be a “You must be this tall” requirement to use a computer. Even if it would make my job more easy.

      Sorry. I just didn’t want to let that statement stand. You’re competent, the computers aren’t very good yet. Give us time, we’re still learning how to do this stuff.

      1. Mike, I happen to take that same point of view. My issue right now is with all the “improvements” being done to commonly used programs that not only confuse the user — especially someone like my mother who doesn’t use a computer all the time — and don’t really do anything to “improve” the program, just make the interface look different. Sorry, it is a pet peeve and one that is hitting close to home right now with some of the changes M/S is doing to hotmail, my mom’s preferred email service.

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