First, for context, this press release, from Orbit (US), the science fiction arm of publisher Hachette:
Orbit, the Science Fiction and Fantasy imprint of Hachette Book Group, announces a digital short fiction publishing program launching later this year.
Orbit (US) has offered to publish digital editions of all original short fiction written by its authors. The digital editions will be distributed widely through major retail channels, for reading on a variety of devices. Authors will be paid a royalty for each story sold, rather than the flat fee more common in the short story market.
If I were an Orbit author, or were otherwise approached about or interested in participating, here are the questions I would want answered before I would consider the program:
1. Will there be an advance on the proposed royalty, equivalent to at least the minimum professional rate required by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (five cents a word), or will the proposed royalty be the only compensation offered?
2. What is the royalty? How does this royalty compare to what the author could receive if he or she worked directly with the major electronic text retailers to release the work, as is possible?
3. When will this royalty be paid? Will it be accessible on demand, or on the customary schedule of royalty disbursement for publishers (i.e., semiannually or annually, depending on contract), or on some other schedule?
4. Aside from publication, what other services will Orbit/Hachette offer to the author? Will the author’s work be edited and copy-edited by Orbit/Hachette prior to publication, or will the onus be on the author to provide such services? Would Orbit/Hachette exercise editorial judgment and refuse to publish work it found to be unsuitable and/or unprofessional?
5. Will these short stories be offered with DRM attached to them? If so, and if the author chooses, may the story be distributed without DRM?
6. What rights/holdbacks will Orbit/Hachette require of the author? Will this be a non-exclusive publication or will the author be enjoined from finding alternate and additional publication for some term of time? If so, what length of time would that be?
7. Will participation in this program be expected of Orbit authors? Will Orbit/Hachette in any way penalize authors who do not participate?
8. What sort of promotional program will Orbit/Hachette offer for this effort? Will it be ongoing or only an early push?
There are the questions which come up off the top of my head when I think about this particular press release; I’m sure if I thought about it longer there would be others as well.
As I don’t know the answers to any of these questions, I’ll refrain from saying anything about this particular proposed program until I do. However, in a very general sense I can say that proposing writers offer up work uncompensated save for rosy promises of back-end glory is something one shouldn’t tolerate in poorly-funded start-ups done in apartment living rooms. If such a thing were proposed from, say, an arm of the second-largest publisher on the planet, itself an arm of a huge multinational corporation with roughly ten billion dollars in revenue and $180 million in profit in 2009, it should be tolerated even less.
I’d also say, in a very general sense, that most writers are in a position of needing to be paid for their work sooner than later, because most writers don’t make a whole lot of money doing what they do. Today is Tax Day here in the U.S. and even as you read this I suspect a fair number of writers are looking at the checks they have to write to Uncle Sam (not to mention state and local authorities) and wishing they had maybe a little more to get through the rest of the month. I don’t suspect any of them at the moment would be thrilled at the idea of taking no money now for an uncertain amount of money at some unspecified point in the future, were such a thing proposed to them regarding their work.
Basically, I’m hoping that Orbit thought this idea through, and that the program will offer immediate benefits for writers, making them happy and paid, sooner than later. I look forward to hearing more about it, and hopefully having those above questions answered. Soon.
Update, 11:07 am: Tim Holman, Publisher of Orbit, responds in comments.
Update, 2:00 pm: Mr. Holman returns in comments with additional details about the program. One significant point: It’s likely to be royalty-only payment.