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.