Raptors at the Fences

I am about to head off to my daughter’s orthodontist appointment, so let me briefly address a question that I’m seeing a lot in the wake of me writing about Random House’s Alibi/Hydra imprints and their genuinely awful boilerplate contracts. The question is, more or less:

Is this where traditional publishers are going with their contracts?

The short answer: Not necessarily, but if authors and readers don’t raise hell about it, it becomes more likely.

The slightly longer answer: Look, what Random House is doing with their Alibi and Hydra imprints (and presumably their Flirt and Loveswept imprints as well) what the raptors in Jurassic Park did: They’re testing the fences, looking for weaknesses. If they find them, then why wouldn’t they charge through them, to feed on the soft and chewy morsels on the other side (i.e., authors)? And if they can get away with it, why wouldn’t other publishers follow their lead, using the excuse of “this is how the business is these days”?

This is why authors and readers have to keep the fence electrified. Authors have to say, “no, this is bullshit” and refuse to deal with imprints offering these sorts of terms, and they have to tell other authors — including and especially aspiring ones, who are the most vulnerable to crap like this — that it’s bullshit, and explain why. And they have to explain to readers why this is bullshit too. Because readers are fans of authors and they’re sensitive to the people whose work they like being exploited.

Should authors, readers and fans let Random House know they think the Alibi/Hydra contract terms are complete bullshit? Why yes, they absolutely should. Random House doesn’t want a bad public image, and the more each group expresses its dissatisfaction the worse that image gets (and the more Random House becomes a cautionary tale for other publishing houses). But it’s equally important that authors and readers talk to other authors and readers about it. At the end of the day, if authors are still submitting to Alibi/Hydra, then Random House can shrug off the momentary blight of bad press, because business is business.

I don’t think one should assume that other publishers (or perhaps even other Random House imprints) want Alibi/Hydra to succeed on these terms; I know a number of publishing pros who think the contracts there are outright appalling. But I do think that if the bar is successfully lowered then everyone will queue up to shimmy under it, because business is business. So in great measure it’s up to the authors and readers to keep the bar high. Simple as that.

30 thoughts on “Raptors at the Fences

  1. When I read yesterday’s posts about Alibi/Hydra? That’s exactly the image that came to mind, the raptors testing the fence. I’m all for business practices that benefit both the author and the publisher, but this is on the side of “what the HELL are you thinking?”

    I think a strongly-worded letter to Random House is in my future. Where phrases such as, “contracts that are at best slimy, and at worst predatory,” and “practices such as these put you squarely in league with payday loan companies – scraping the bottom of the ethics barrel,” may have to come into play.

  2. A journalist friend of mine posted this on her Facebook page the other day:

    http://natethayer.wordpress.com/2013/03/04/a-day-in-the-life-of-a-freelance-journalist-2013/

    This is where ‘the market’ will drive you if you don’t fight it on every attempt to batter your remunerations into nothing. She then went on: “Wage theft has become a standard in the industry. It’s typical for editors to demand a 60 hour work week (not just occasionally. Every week) and then expect you to only file 40 hours. It’s particularly bad for photographers. It’s also pretty typical that they expect you work a holiday, but then refuse to pay time and half.”

  3. Not to nitpick, but shouldn’t “If they find them, then they wouldn’t they charge through them, to feed on the soft and chewy morsels on the other side (i.e., authors)? ” be “If they find them, then why wouldn’t they charge through them, to feed on the soft and chewy morsels on the other side (i.e., authors)?”?

    And, more in line with the actual writing, what could a normal reader do to indicate displeasure towards this turn of events? Do they actually care of I send a letter saying that I don’t like this business model?

  4. I went ahead and posted links to both your posts on my FB page, Scalzi – and noted that my wife, Tamora Pierce, is a Random House author and her editors (including her first RH editor, Mallory Loehr, who’s now EiC of RH Children’s Books) have never been anything but great to her. Tammy and a few of her author friends have already reposted the links on FB, so we’re getting the word out that way.

    Did these houses exist before they were announced as part of the Random House family? This feels like Bertlesman bought up an indie ePub house whose contacts had these terms in them, and as you said decided to “test the fences” because – Hey! The prestige of the Random House name should be enough to pick up some newbie authors this way, right…?

  5. Well, I think it will mostly have to come from authors, not readers, which takes a lot of troops off the battlefield. Given the state of the industry, the bar ain’t going up anytime soon.

    People are willing to overlook most anything so long as they get what they want (the long term being somebody else’s problem). Poverty wages to service / menial employees in exchange for lower prices? – okie doke. Chinese slave labor for cheap stuff? – no problem. Sure, noise gets made, but lower standards are the way to bet.

    I’d expect Random House to pull back from these contracts, but would expect a pretty low bar when the dust settles. That’s what these imprints are designed for, and I don’t see RH pulling back from that.

  6. @Cindy Lou Who – if some people’s favorite authors raise a stink (as Scalzi has), you’d be surprised just how many regular people would start to care….

  7. When I worked in Canada as a software dev back in the 90’s, companies were required to pay overtime for salaried workers for work over 44 hours per week. And overtime was taxed at a very high rate, which meant the incentive for both the worker to work and the company to require overtime was reduced. It was cheaper for the company to hire more people (thus ensuring more people worked).

    When I moved to the US in ’96, I was shocked to find out that the US corps did not pay overtime. I worked 60 to 80 hour weeks for years, constantly worried that failure to do so would mean I would be replaced.

    At some point in the past, corps in the US were allowed to be those raptors at the fence in the software dev industry, and now there is no fence left. Those who express any concern about long hours (at a startup or not) are not brought back for second interviews.

    I’m not shocked that publishers are testing the wires. It’s worked for every other industry in the US. Why wouldn’t they?

  8. “using the excuse of “this is how the business is these days”

    Slightly off topic, but related: note that this is in large part why the Visual Effects industry in the US is in such a dismal state. The fences got ripped so far open that the two biggest, most successful, Oscar-winning VFX houses in LA are now bankrupt/sold off. It’s not the only reason, there were poor business decisions in there too; but forcing companies to undercut each other until they can’t make enough to operate because “that’s business” winds up destroying them. Let such things be a cautionary tale for any creative entity.

  9. If the contracts are this bad, where the authors have to pay for some of the upfront publishing costs, doesn’t this get close to the line of “vanity publishing houses”? And if so, would it be worthwhile for organizations such as the SFWA to not recognize books published under these imprints as valid Qualifying Professional Market? That would certainly be making a statement, and it might help dissuade new authors (which are the most likely to accept such awful terms) from making a really big mistake.

  10. I want my book published and get a wide distribution, but not at any cost. I have the indie publishing route to go to if I feel like I’m being screwed. If I have to absorb costs, I might as well increase my take by just self publishing on amazon or smashwords. I wouldn’t sign anything like the Alibi/Hydra contracts. Sure, I have to do my own marketing and promotion, but at least I know where the money is going.

  11. This reminds me of Simon & Schuster’s self-publishing branch, Archway: http://www.electronicinkblog.com/2012/11/gatekeepers-open-archway.html

    What’s interesting is that RH, S&S and the rest of the big six still carry a lot of prestige (and market access) for authors. Usually, prestige is a function of exclusivity. However, it seems that some of these folks are realizing that they can sell this, too, either by charging new authors a few thousand dollars for self-pub services or asking them to sign away their rights in a contract. In both cases, what’s really being sold is association with a big-name publisher.

  12. Alias/Hydra, Alibi… Is this some kind of pun on Alias, or is it a typo, or am I just not reading things correctly this morning?

  13. Publishing people should damn well want this gambit to fail. If these standards become the norm how many writers will still want to work with publishers who aren’t themselves? Self-publishing is easier than ever. Of course a good publisher can do things for you that you aren’t ready to do for yourself in terms of promotion and the like, but the terms have to be a lot less punishing for that to be worthwhile.

  14. I see a future for companies doing “book promotion” for self-published authors. The best ones will operate like publishers used to and develop a wonderful recommendation system with excellently edited/beautiful books, others will just be a listing service.

  15. One winner I see in all this? Freelance editors, artists and marketers who offer their services to self-pubbing authors who want to avoid these nightmare contracts. If authors aren’t going to get full, free service from a traditional publisher, and are going to get screwed on pay, there’s absolutely no incentive to use them anymore except for what little name-recognition they have left. Right now, the biggest barrier to self-pubbing is the stuff that most authors need help on; it’s what makes people think all self-pubbed works are a mess because they didn’t get a pro polish. But if freelancers in these areas are taking up the slack that traditional pubs are leaving, then that problem goes away.

    It may seem anathema, to ask authors to pay for these services to get published, but since that’s what traditional pubs are doing now anyway–via wretched contracts like this–why not skip the middlemen? If i’m going to be giving up potential sales profits, and possibly paying upfront, for the “services” offered by a publisher, then I may as well just go directly to the individual people providing those services, and save myself a crapload of time, energy and mental health. I’d rather my money go directly for the service rendered than get frittered away on corporate profits and overhead anyway.

  16. One question: are there any gatekeepers at these new RH imprints? I’m under the (perhaps mistaken) impression that they aren’t actually accepting all comers. Of course, the only source I have for that is their own website, which is greasier than a pan full of bacon drippings.

    If they aren’t, well, how long is that going to last? Sooner or later they’ll go after the money, same as any vanity publisher. One hopes that if this bullshit is still around in a year, the Travis Tea collective may attempt to write a sequel to Atlanta Nights under a pseudonym.

  17. I appreciate this information as a reader (not a writer). I like the people who create the things I like to read get paid. This should include reasonable money to a publisher for the work of, you know, publishing the book. But if the artist isn’t going to be rewarded, the product will suffer or disappear. So from a reader standpoint, this kind of thing is alarming and will definitely influence my buying pattern. Knowledge is power, of course, and readers need to hear about this too as they are a big force in the equation.

  18. Just a sort of nit, but I think your metaphor got in trouble in your last paragraph. If the “bar” is something one goes under, then surely lowering it makes it harder to pass and raising it easier (as in Limbo). I think “stepping over it” would be more apt than “shimmying under it.”

  19. @A Mediated Life – I’m not entirely sure how sanguine I am regarding a future in which I’m solely offering services directly to authors. Apart from anything else I’m not sure there’s any reason why, in the absence of middlemen, a large enough number of independent authors wouldn’t consider offering ‘profit sharing’ in return for editing and illustration.

  20. A Mediated Life – I, as an indie author need the most help with marketing/publicity. I’ve seen a lot of indie work by people who would fail eighth grade English, so an editor isn’t going to help them too much. I’m just glad they were offering those things for free.

    I’ve seen advertisements in goodreads and Facebook offering cover art – most of it looks pretty generic to me – so the beginning of that function is in place.

    But getting the word out about a book that actually has well-formed, grammatical sentences and some original ideas? I’ve seen a couple of sites offering marketing but they seem to offer featuring your book on their page and sending out a couple of tweets. Not very effective and I can do that myself. A couple of good reviews from free give-a-aways help, but finding a way to get noticed above the several hundred thousand (million?) self-published works on amazon alone is the real problem.

  21. –E, it looks like the place where RH’s Hydra (etc.) differs from the typical Vanity Scum Press is that they are, indeed, “loaning” you the set-up costs rather than charging them up-front. (And for this loan, they want exclusive licensing of every licensable thing of the Work, till the copyright expires… Oh, and 10% to keep the servers running, because their 50% of net isn’t enough to absorb that, apparently.)

    Because they’re making a loan, they have some incentive to winnow the applications slightly. They would probably also want “light edits” — so they can simply hand off the document to someone with a spell-checker who knows which end of the pencil to chew. (See also some traditional publishers’ ebooks, which were apparently obtained via OCR program + spellcheck, but which contained painful “correctly spelled wrong word” errors… My spouse was finding 1-3 per iPhone-sized page, on one of those. Character names, in particular, were prone to “entertaining” errors.) Sort of like how banks don’t want to loan you money unless you don’t need the loan much in the first place.

    They might have some incentive to advertise the imprint — but they might simply splat individual ebooks up on the various ebook-seller sites and figure that’s “advertising” since it’ll appear in Also-Bought lists. (In theory.) Considering the lack of promotion that most midlisters get (…I go to SF&F conventions; I get to raise my eyebrows at the panels where traditionally-published authors talk about the need for self-promotion…), I wouldn’t assume RH’s Hydra would be any better in that regard. It might turn out that you could purchase additional advertising “a la carte” — placement in the iBookstore’s homepage, perhaps, or being on Kindle’s “deal of the day” — but I don’t think verging-on-work-for-hire-without-advance is worth that placement, frankly.

    –Beth, A Cynic.

  22. Frank: Yes, publicity is one of the few areas in which trad. pubs still have their uses. Unfortunately, the biggest reason for that is because they have a virtual monopoly on publicity outlets.

    I come from an entertainment media background, and it’s the same story there: entertainment “journalism” may as well be a subdivision of movie studios, record labels and TV nets, because of how many deals are made for coverage of new properties. It’s very much a symbiotic relationship: the studio gives the news outlet “exclusive” content, which brings in audience interest, which exposes them to advertising-flavored information about the property. The losers in this arrangement: people making indie works, and true journalists who want to report on entertainment issues without the threat of losing access to the people making the content. Some of this has been mitigated in the past decade with viral marketing and independent news coverage via blogs, social media, etc., but the old patterns soon emerge: As soon as one side or the other starts getting bigger, they’re in bed with each other all over again.

    The only way around this is to bypass both traditional content production conglomerates AND traditional media. This does, of course, mean lower exposure for indie artists hoping to get news about their new work out to people who want to buy it, and therefore lower revenues on both sides, but the advantage is that both sides can sleep at night.

    Lest it be thought that I’m completely anti-corporate entertainment: I’m not. For mass-appeal stuff, absolutely, such large-scale production and coverage makes sense. But if you’re making something for underserved markets–for, say, LGBT audiences–trying to go through that gauntlet is pointless.

  23. My agent just turned down a deal from one of these epub imprints because of their disgusting contract terms, and I was glad to have him do so, because I probably wouldn’t have on my own, figuring some money is better than not. This is why I need an agent. YMMV

  24. As an aspiring author, I have to thank you from the bottom of my heart for everything you do for us, Mister Scalzi. Please do continue fighting the good fight, dear sir.

  25. I’ve been thinking about what a non-evil contract with no advance would look like. Presumably such a thing is possible; if the publisher pays for all the upfront cash costs like editing, art, publicity &c, there must be some royalty rate at which this is a reasonable deal for the author.

    You’d want worldwide English ebook rights, because region-specific ebook marketing sucks for readers, but there’s no point making a grab for other languages.

    Since ‘while in print’ doesn’t mean much for ebooks, perhaps ‘for X years, and then extendable as long as the author receives at least $Y in royalties per year’

    If the publisher is paying all the non-writing costs, you could have a sliding scale for royalties, where it’s X% initially, increasing to Z% after selling N books.

    For ebooks you’d want a much shorter payment lag than usual, and of course all the usual auditing stuff.

    That is, you’d have no advance, but a higher royalty rate and no cash outlay for professional production and marketing.

    The other question is whether this, even if non-evil, would ever be a win-win deal relative to an advance. If you assume that the publisher knows better than anyone else what the prospects are for a book (reasonable) and that the publisher is less risk-averse than an author (probably also reasonable), and can borrow internally or externally at lower rates than the author (less clear, but plausible), then they should always be able to offer an advance that is worth more than the net present value of future royalties to the author, but worth less than the net present value of future royalties to the publisher.

  26. Dear Random House,

    As we have all recently discovered, the Alibi/Hydra contract terms are disrespectful to authors. Readers are intelligent and passionate – we care about the authors we follow and we want to keep reading their works. Your new contract terms seem to make it less likely that authors will be able to find financial sustenance through their writing.

    Please consider working with the professional author community to revise your contract terms to be more reasonable and respectful of both parties. You have a right to attempt to improve your situation. Authors have the right to find other publishing houses. And readers will follow the authors – not the publishing houses. If you lose your authors, you will lose your readers.

    Thank you for publishing great works by great authors. We hope you find a way to continue doing so.

  27. Scalzi: what the raptors in Jurassic Park did: They’re testing the fences, looking for weaknesses.

    Raptors testing the fences? Quit beating around the bush, Scalzi, and cut out these mealy mouthed metaphors. I can’t tell what you really think of these contracts.

  28. Actually, I am already seeing a growing market for freelance editors, book designers, and illustrators for self-published authors. I suspect that we will see more professionals in the publishing trade leaving traditional publishers in order to freelance. While there is certainly a lot of poor quality work in self-publishing, the word is getting out–if you want to make sales to people to whom you’re not related, paying upfront for professional editing and design services isn’t optional, it’s part of the business.

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