A Contract From Alibi
Posted on March 6, 2013 Posted by John Scalzi 217 Comments
So, don’t ask me how, but I have in my hands (from what I consider a reputable source) a contract from Alibi, which is the sibling imprint of Hydra, the Random House imprint that I thumped on roundly in the previous entry. You will recall that I thumped on Hydra because its contractual terms were so heinous to authors (including, but not limited to, offering no advances). Well, it appears that Alibi’s standard boilerplate contract is no less horrible than — or, more accurately, it appears to be exactly as horrible as — Hydra’s contract was reported to be. This suggests to me that the contracts for Flirt and Loveswept, Random House’s other two eBook imprints in this grouping, are likely to have similar boilerplate.
Shall we dive in? Oh, let’s!
But before we do, just to have this out there:
THIS IS A HORRIBLE AWFUL TERRIBLE APPALLING DISGUSTING CONTRACT WHICH IS BAD AND NO WRITER SHOULD SIGN IT EVER.
I’m 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.
Got it? Great. Here we go.
0. No advance. None (which is why this is point zero, rather than point one). And already I’m all fuck this contract, for reasons I’ve noted in the previous entry.
1. Right here on the first page, the contract notes that Alibi takes the exclusive right to print, publish, sell and license the contracted work, in every possible format, in whole or in part, in every language, in the entire world, for the full term of copyright.
I would note that my agent would probably not get through this paragraph without his head actually, literally exploding, Scanners-like, all over the paper. Why? Because this is an egregious rights grab, breathtaking in its scope.
To give you some context, most (US) book contracts I sign ask for North American English Language rights — which is to say, the publisher wants the right to publish and sell the book primarily in the US and Canada, in English. This leaves me the ability to sell English language rights in the UK/Commonwealth if I want to (which is what I did for Redshirts, for example), and also to sell the book in other languages to other publishers (which is why, for another example, Old Man’s War now has 20 foreign language editions). I don’t have to share that income with the North American English-language publisher; it’s all mine.
Sometimes, I will grant worldwide English rights to a publisher — for example, as I did for The Human Division. However, when I do that, it’s for specific business reasons and I (or more accurately my agent) negotiates an advance and other compensation that reflects that I am giving up financial opportunities to by allowing my publisher worldwide English rights. That’s right! My agent makes sure I get more for letting a publisher keep those rights! As opposed, to, oh, handing them over for nothing up front. And even then, I still keep the foreign language rights. Because those foreign language rights have the potential to add up to a whole bunch of money in my pocket.
There is nothing in the Alibi contract that says that Alibi is going to do anything with those foreign rights in itself (I’m guessing it does not have a bank of translators on call, slavering to translate your work) or that it’s going to make an active attempt to sell those rights to foreign publishers (including Random House publishers across the world). It’s just… taking those rights. Because, why not? If you’re stupid enough to give them your work for nothing up front, you’re stupid enough to give them your work in every single possible language and in every single possible territory.
It’s a big enough rights grab that I’m actually surprised that the language stops with “the world.” I guess there’s a lawyer at Random House who realized that “throughout the universe” might just be tipping the hand a bit.
2. The contract says that the author and the publisher will equally share in net proceeds — which is defined as gross billings after subtracting “Net Billings,” plus amounts received from licensing (some of which are carved up differently). So what are the Net Billings?
A fee to cover sales, promotion, publicity and marketing, calculated to 10% of Net Billings (which seems self-referential and confusing; more reason to have an agent look at this thing); “title set-up costs” including plant cost, conversion fees and other expenses; and expenses relating to any possible legal actions. Likewise, if Alibi decides to publish a print version — which it totally can! You said they could! — then also in Net Proceeds are paper, printing and binding; reserves against returns (i.e., money held back while copies move about from warehouse to store) and freight and distribution expenses. Oh, and, hey: If Alibi decides to make an audiobook (it totally can!), you pick up plant costs for that, including paying the narrator.
Let’s be clear about this: With the exception of the reserve against returns (which is a complicated entity that is eventually supposed to zero out, with you getting the money you’re owed), all of those things above are things that real, actual publishers cover as part of their ordinary cost of doing business. The fact that Alibi is shifting those costs to the author is hugely significant, for reasons noted in the previous entry (i.e., Alibi is shifting an extraordinary portion of the risk of publishing onto the author’s back). But it’s also worrying to the author for two other reasons:
One, it puts the author in the hole to the Alibi for an amount which the author has almost no control over — it’s Alibi choosing how much to spend on the services and expenses which constitute the Net Billings. All the author is empowered to do (at least as I read the contract) is pay for them. It should be noted that Random House probably owns warehouses and printing presses (or has long-terms arrangements which represent sunk costs), so in effect the publisher will be charging the author for services it provides, i.e., it’s taking money from the author and putting it into its own pocket — payment for services publishers are supposed to provide as their part of the publishing equation. The contractual language does note that some expenses are to be “mutually-agreed” upon, but this just brings up another problem:
Two, it transfers the cost of these services onto the most ignorant partner in the contract — which is to say, the author. Yes, authors, I know. You are smart. But — can you tell me what “plant costs” mean? What about “conversion fees?” Can you give me a sum that you know with certainty to be in the ballpark, in terms of what those costs and fees should be? Do you know how much it costs to print and bind a book? Are you sure? Is Alibi printing them individually or in one large print run? How will that affect unit cost? What’s a reasonable sum for warehousing? You better know because the contract won’t tell you — or at least the one I have in front of me sure as hell doesn’t.
And here’s another thing to consider: When it’s the publisher fronting the costs for printing, warehousing, plant fees or whatever, it will, out of its own self-interest, they will try to lower the cost as much as possible, because not doing so will cut into its profits. But authors, when you are fronting the fees, the printing, warehousing, plant fees and everything else becomes a potential profit center for the publisher.
What impetus does Alibi have to keep those costs down? What impetus will it have to keep those costs high? And how will you know the difference? Well, if you are like most authors, you won’t — and thus, you’ll be at the mercy of Alibi in terms of what costs you owe. This is, I will note, a fine way for Alibi (or any publisher under such a scheme) to make mischief and engage in the sort of accounting that ends up making the publisher a profit and the author, well, pizza money.
3. Author copies? You get one copy, on your preferred platform. Sorry, mom! Gotta pay Amazon! Seriously, that’s just a dick move.
4. Publication rights, as noted, pretty much cover the gamut of all known printed and electronic formats (including audio) — and also the ones which may become known in the future , and also covers a bunch of subsidiary rights, including serial, book club and merchandising (i.e., toys and the like). Oh, video games? Covered. It’s up to Alibi to license these, so if they lose interest, sucks for you. This is another place where my agent, having recomported his head into something resembling its previous form, has it explode all over again. Basically, it’s all covered; Alibi gets a cut — and will get a cut for as long as the copyright exists.
5. Oh, and the next thing you write? Alibi gets to option to take that, too, for the same terms as this contract (i.e., nothing up front, charging you for all sorts of crap on the back end). If Alibi doesn’t want it, you can shop it elsewhere but cannot accept an offer that’s equal or less than Alibi’s offer. Since that offer is “nothing up front, plus we charge you for shit we’re supposed to pay for,” you should probably be fine.
6. The contract has an out-of-print clause, which could allow an author an escape route, but it doesn’t define what “out of print” means in this case — a problem because a publicly accessible file can sit on a retail server somewhere, and as long as it’s there, the book is technically for sale. This is, again, the sort of thing a good agent would flag in an instant.
Things that don’t suck about this contract? One, it doesn’t require arbitration rather than access to the courts, which vaguely surprises me. Two, it allows for auditing, which is good. Please note, however, that these are standard contract points; Alibi doesn’t get credit for having them in there. Also, it does not appear that this contract specifically requires the author to pay for editing, cover art, book design and such, but they could be covered by the nebulous “set-up costs” contract point, with its tricky “including, but not limited to” phrasing. Given everything else that’s awful about this contract I wouldn’t put it past Alibi.
And there you have 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.”
Another way to put it: There is no way I can conceive of any minimally competent literary agent looking at this contract without wanting to immediately set it on fire and then piss on the ashes. So much would have to be changed in this contract that I don’t see a competent agent bothering; they’d just send it back with the note “please send me a contract written by someone who is not currently mainlining Nyquil.”
A third way to put it: THIS IS A HORRIBLE AWFUL TERRIBLE APPALLING DISGUSTING CONTRACT WHICH IS BAD AND NO WRITER SHOULD SIGN IT EVER. Yes, I’m aware I’ve already said this. It bears repeating. It doesn’t matter whether it’s from Alibi, Hydra or anyone. Run away from it, as fast as you can, arms flailing like a Muppet’s. It’s the only rational response.
I will note that at the moment I have in my email queue a letter from Random House, written in a “more in sorrow than anger” style, which expresses disappointment that I (for one) didn’t talk to them before writing my piece on their terrible regrettable insulting Hydra deal terms, and waxing rhapsodic about their bold new business model. It’s profit sharing, you see, not like apparently any of those other book contracts out there, which comes as a surprise to me, considering how much of Tor’s and Subterranean’s profits I’ve shared in over the years.
I am speaking for myself and only for myself when I say that I looked at the letter that the folks at Random House sent me and wondered just how incredibly stupid they must think I am to believe that just because they sent a letter that read as all reasonable and nice sounding, that would somehow change the fact that the business model of their new eBook imprints is predicated on preying on writers — and preying on the writers most at risk for being preyed upon, the new and the desperate. I’m wondering in what world I would think paying authors no advances and shoving publishing expenses onto them is somehow a reasonable business model for those authors. I’m curious why they think I wouldn’t see it for what it is: A publishing imprint built to skim the slimmest of margins off the most vulnerable of writers.
So what I will say to them is this:
Dear Random House: Today I received two pieces of writing that you created. One was a letter. One was a contract. I want you to guess which of one of them better told me what you actually think of writers.
Update, March 12: Random House changes the terms of its contracts.
Disclosure: I publish with Random House’s German science fiction imprint, Heyne. They have been wonderful to work with and have always treated me well, contractually and otherwise.
Additional note: I am not a lawyer or agent. My analysis of the contract is based on my own experience reading contracts and working in publishing. I may be missing some obvious things (although I don’t believe I am)
Also: In this entry I am speaking for myself and only myself. My thoughts do not necessarily reflect the position of any organization I belong to.
I have new incentive to rewrite my mystery novel and finish my SF novel – I want to be able to not submit them to Alibi and Hydra. I probably won’t submit them to anyone else, but I will DEFINITELY not submit them to Alibi and Hydra.
Also, doesn’t ALIBI sound like the name of a cheesy Marvel Comics supervillain group? (I’d make the same point about HYDRA, but, well, it already is.)
Are there other writer’s organizations that communicate about this stuff? I mean, as a leader in the SFWA, you have an obligation to protect SF writers. What about romance and mystery writers? Are there similar organizations that can forewarn new writers in those generas?
I liked New Coke. Not sayin’… Just sayin’…
How about “throughout the known universe”? I have this mental image of SETI getting its first take-down notice.
As you pointed out in the previous post, the most gob-smacking thing about this atrocity is it’s being perpetrated not by some fly-by-night vanity press but the largest (and about to get even BIGGER) general-interest book publisher in the English-speaking world. Is this kind of shit going to get even worse when writers have to deal with Random Pengiun or whatever it’s going to be called?
Well. You don’t pull your punches, to say the least.
@Dave Hogg: I’m actually tempted *to* write something and submit it to Alibi/Hydra now – just to be able to turn around and say “Fuck no you fuckity fuckers, fuck off” …. but maybe that’s just me.
What puzzles me about this is who they think their audience is–that is, what kind of authors they’re trying to attract. Surely any author who can reliably put out good product, thus acquiring reputation, building a brand, and becoming more profitable for the company, is a) going to see through this shit and b) if they don’t, not going to be motivated to do their best work, thus not acquiring reputation, etc. In other words, not only is it wildly exploitative, it’s stupidly exploitative.
The email RH sent John, if I may call you John, seems to suggest they’re taking this seriously, or at least that they want other people to take it seriously. Baffling.
Your disclaimer, “In this entry I am speaking for myself and only myself. My thoughts do not necessarily reflect the position of any organization I belong to”, having not been included in the previous post, leaves me concerned that Random House may have threatened you and/or the SFWA in their letter. Please tell us this isn’t the case.
Every now and again I read something on the Internet that makes me want to stand up and applaud even though the writer will never actually see it.
Yup. Standing. Applauding.
It’s in fact a standard thing I say when I write something here which may impinge on SFWA’s activities. You should not read anything else into it.
That was awesome.
That’s worse than some of the really nasty work-for-hire contracts I see on some of the online freelance market sites. Much worse. Even the worst bottom-feeder clients at least pay something (even if they think a novel is worth $40) and don’t expect the writer to foot the bill for their expenses.
It’s just disgusting.
I’d guess that the global-all-languages-all-rights-reserved stuff is a direct result of RH’s experience with 50 Shades of Gray. If they happen to stumble upon the NEXT earthshaking viral hit of worldwide demand, they want to OWN IT ALL, not have to pay someone else for it first.
I’m reading this on my phone while bowling. I suspect even the bowling pins have more sense than to sign that contract, and they have no forebrains.
Well, I could be wrong. I can swear the ten pin just jumped out of the path of my ball. :-)
“I will DEFINITELY not submit them to Alibi and Hydra.”
You know, I still would, just to see if the interest is there. If they want it, there’s a good chance that someone else will, as well. I wouldn’t accept that contract, that’s insane. But since they are willing to be insane, I’d be willing to be insane, too. I’d negotiate the hell out of that contract. Take out all of the stuff I don’t like, add some stuff that I do, add some other stuff that feels like going to far, then send it back. I’d say the worst they can do is say “no”, but they’d already done the worst thing, which is offer that insulting, rapey contract.
I really keep expecting to notice that I should have flipped my calendar over and it’s actually April 1st.
Especially with the names. All the negative connotations of “Hydra” have already been pointed out, but the others, too:
Alibi — “We’re trying to cover our asses in case you accuse us of a crime”
Flirt — “We’ll talk a good game, but we aren’t going to actually put a ring on it”
Loveswept — “We’re hoping you’re so in love with the notion of being a Real! Published! Author! that your common sense will get swept away”
Yeah, wow. This is getting ridiculous. I’ve been watching the industry like a hawk over the past few years, and I am consistently appalled at just how *badly* the Big Houses are behaving. From these terrible contracts to the acquisition of Author Solutions to the stupid e-book pricing models…all of this is just idiotic. You would think, during the first time in history when big box publishers are in danger of becoming obsolete (or at least less relevant than they’ve ever been) that they would respond by treating their authors *better*. Instead, the message seems to be a unilateral, “We’re better than you, authors are desperate and stupid, so you are our slaves.” Um, what?
And I will say that I don’t necessarily think a book deal with no advance is a terrible thing in every case. Small presses, for example, that don’t have the budget to take big risks — I’m OK with not receiving an advance there. But NOT if that no-advance is then coupled with actually CHARGING the author for publishing services. That’s stupid. The only reason to go with a small press rather than self-publishing, as far as I’m concerned, is the lack of overhead cost. You forgo a portion of your royalties in exchange for editing, distribution, cover art etc. etc. etc. And, sure, if you sell past the price point, you start to lose money on the royalties, but only if the services the publisher offered didn’t provide any substantial benefit that enabled you to earn those sales in the first place. And if that’s the case, you went with the wrong damn publisher.
As a new (still wet behind the ears) author, I wanted to just thank you. I adore my current publisher and am still learning a lot about submitting my future works anywhere else. This comes in very handy. So Thanks. :-)
I like the part in the contract where they reserve the right to punch you in the mouth.
Jonathan David Ward
I think you are overlooking the fact that vanity presses are not exactly rigorous about the quality of the manuscripts which come there way; their point is to make money of the writer…
The strangest thing is that they’re pulling this stuff at a time when anybody with a Word document and an internet connection can self-publish it on Amazon and Kobo for nothing, and get a 70 per cent royalty (if you charge at least $2.99 a copy; less than that you get 35%). And you keep all the rights.
The only explanation I can come up with is that Random House is applying the same model scammers use: maybe only one in a million people is actually dumb enough to believe that a Nigerian billionaire wants to send them a ton of money. But those odds mean that, if you send out ten million emails, you’ll land ten suckers. And if just one of them has a four-figure bank account for you to clean out, you’ve made money.
Random House might just have calculated that their contract will suck in a few thousand wannabe authors, one of whom will turn out to be the new Charlaine Harris or J.K. Rowling.
What astonishes me? The fact that Random House has, of its own volition, decided it would be a great idea to transform themselves into PublishAmerica!
I mean, really? There aren’t enough WTFs in the world…
“5. Oh, and the next thing you write? Alibi gets to option to take that, too, for the same terms as this contract (i.e., nothing up front, charging you for all sorts of crap on the back end). If Alibi doesn’t want it, you can shop it elsewhere but cannot accept an offer that’s equal or less than Alibi’s offer. Since that offer is “nothing up front, plus we charge you for shit we’re supposed to pay for,” you should probably be fine.”
Am I misreading, or could signing a contract for *one* book legally entitle them to the entirety of that author’s work? If they optioned the second book, that requires the writer to allow them a chance at the third, and so on. I am not sure about the terms of the contract, but given some of the other flare-ups over publishing under a pseudonym and the like, I’m curious if it would be possible to wiggle out by publishing under a different name, or if even that would be grabbed.
Essentially, the way I’m reading this, you aren’t selling them a book, but potentially your entire career.
Re #5: Should anyone who actually signs such an abomination of a contract actually need to shop a second book, I will pay $1 cash money in hand for all rights to their second book in order to release them from their Alibi contract. Instant total rights reversion to them on their assignment to a worthy charity of my choice of 5% of any REAL advance and eventual royalties from a subsequent valid positive cash-flow-to-author resale of same (not involving highway robbery and back-alley muggings and the transfer of chattel-slavery title of their children) and a thank-you in the acknowledgments page. The 5% is just a penalty clause to remind them not to sign themselves into debt to see their book “published.”
And they can keep the $1. That alone makes it an infinitely better deal than the abomination contract.
I’m a production manager with 19 years in the biz, 14 of them with a Big Six house. I know what plant costs and conversion costs are, and I know exactly how much it costs to print a book, in any format or quantity.
There are exactly ZERO authors with more experience in that realm than I have. And you know what you don’t see me doing? You don’t see me self-publishing print of my own stuff. (I’m not epubbing my own stuff, either, but I wouldn’t rule it out for the future.)
So yeah, even if a writer did know all that stuff, it would only make it more obvious just how large the screw they can insert in one’s bottom is.
Jeez, RH just doesn’t know when to quit, do they? Gotta love that email they sent you, Scalzi…
Wow this thing is one huge bag of suck upon suck.
So this is basically the kind of contract record producers make bands sign.
Interesting info. As an academic writer, I haven’t ever gotten an advance, nor do I have an agent. I must say that over my 20+ years of publishing books in academia, I’ve been appalled at the decline in quality of publishing houses, and the nickel and diming they do. Publishing books without having them copy-edited, spelling words incorrectly, making authors pay for cover art, etc. etc. I’ve published with three different publishers, and only Waveland Press, a small academic publisher in Illinois, is professional and competent and decent to its authors.
@Stevie “I think you are overlooking the fact that vanity presses are not exactly rigorous about the quality of the manuscripts which come there way; their point is to make money of the writer…”
No, I’m not overlooking that at all.
One, their deal is not exactly like a vanity press. The writer doesn’t pay these costs upfront, but rather they are taken out of expected future earnings. That means that they (Random House) are assuming *some* risk, as far as the costs of production, distribution, art, book design, etc. are concerned. As John pointed out, they probably won’t put out their best effort, but these things aren’t free. They wouldn’t be willing to assume *any* risk without at least a little confidence in their ability to sell the book (which is why vanities demand all these costs to be paid upfront, out of the writer’s pocket).
And, two, I wouldn’t accept that contract, as described by John. I know what my rights are worth. Even if no one wants to publish my book right now, that may change in the future. I wouldn’t give my rights away, or license them, without being well compensated.
A vanity press tries to make money of the writer, these guys are trying to make money from the writer’s work without duly compensating the writer. There is a difference. In this scenario, I think the vanity press is the more honest thief.
Wow, it was really cathartic to read this! Thank you!
@Thomas M. Wagner. Quite. Yeah, times are tough in the book world. I got the memo. Plenty of Whatever readers have lived it. But if “screw the talent like truck stop hookers” is going to be the new business model for Random Penguin it strikes me as a remarkably short-sighted one. Not being a corporate asshole can be both commercially and creatively profitable — just ask our host’s publisher, Tom Doherty.
Indentured servitude: It’s what’s for dinner.
Possibly one of the worst things about this is that people will figure it’s Random, so they’re not going to get screwed — or it’s Random, so they’re going to get screwed at least as much by anyone.
Tying into another of the worst things about this, that authors who would actually do very well with a publisher who isn’t one of Random’s e-pub imprints will see this, figure “I guess that’s what Big 6 contracts look like nowadays,” and make the decision to slef-publish on the basis of incomplete information.
The next book option thing typically stops when an agent says “yeah, we’re not doing that anymore.”
It’s also not an unusual thing for a publisher to do; it’s actually one of the least egregious bits in this contract, compared to other, more standard contracts. But, inasmuch as it locks the writer into taking no advance, it’s still highly problematic.
Isn’t Hydra somehow associated with Author Solutions, the vanity press? Didn’t I read that somewhere? Isn’t Hydra on par with what Harlequin attempted to do with Horizons? That said, I don’t believe that Loveswept has this kind of contract. It’s a digital-first romance imprint with a real editor (Sue Grimshaw, formerly of Borders). I’d be surprised if it did…but not shocked, sadly.
Keri — this is actually worse than an old-time typical recording contract. Not that the recording companies wouldn’t have written this if they thought they could get away with it then.
Scalzi — I hope these posts are widely read, and widely denounced.
Jonathan, could we please reserve the word “rapey” for things pertaining to actual rape? This contract is awful but it’s not the same as nonconsensual sex.
John, or anyone familiar with the industry, I’m under the impression that an unpublished writer is going to have difficulty getting an agent (or a good one, at least). Is that true?
It seems like that’s what’s leading Hydra, et al. to try to pull these contract shenanigans. They do not expect to receive submissions from agent-ed writers.
Jonathan David Ward:
Some people find agents without much difficulty; others can try unsuccessfully for years. It varies, as so many things do. I personally found agents without too much problem.
And yeah, I think it’s clear that the business model here is predicated on the author being unagented and naive.
Makes that Scientology contract I signed look fair. At least with them there’s an exit clause, which occurs when the sun goes supernova.
Thinking about this some more, I’m leaning toward the idea that the model for this is old-time, Jim-Crow sharecropping. Except that the about-to-be-abused sharecropper starts out owning the land, but then he turns it over to the boss man, and pays all the conveyancing costs.
I didn’t mean to offend you, Geoffrey, but there are other meanings of that word. I still reserve it for things that are over-the-top, it’s not a daily usage type word.
n. – Abusive or improper treatment; violation: a rape of justice.; v – To plunder or pillage.
Anyway, I don’t need to say it anymore in this thread. I’m sorry if it brought any emotions for you.
Sounds like you should call this the ‘Goodfellas Contract’.
Jonathan David Ward: It can be tough, no doubt. I think it can go *a little* better if the writer is painfully honest with him/herself during the agent research period.
I was trying unsuccessfully to pitch my work at agents who had great reps but weren’t really right for what I was doing. Ditto a literary knitting book I was pitching a few years back. When I found the right publisher (Cooperative Press) I found the right home where my designers are I are treated exceedingly fairly. In fact, it was one of my designers who tweeted this page in horror because we just don’t have any experience with this kind of nastiness from a publisher. (witness: http://www.prweb.com/releases/2013/3/prweb10498269.htm)
Even without supernova the contracts expire in a billion years. Also the workers might get paid as much as $50 a week for a mere 100 hour work week, not to mention room and lodging. Random House has actually made the Sea Org contracts look comparatively good.
Anthony, technically the Sun can’t go supernova*, so your Scientology contract might be as fair as this. Depends on if the Church of Scientology mistakes other stellar death phenomena for supernovae.
* It’s too small for a Type II, and needs a companion star for a Type Ia.
I’m trying to imagine what a person who signed one of these contracts yesterday and read this blog entry today might be feeling. Perhaps you should include a suicide hotline number in there somewhere because, dang, when you… *thumbs through thesaurus*… VITUPERATE someone, you vituperate them straight up the ass. I hope I never find myself at the business end of your hate bazooka, John.
“That said, I don’t believe that Loveswept has this kind of contract. It’s a digital-first romance imprint with a real editor (Sue Grimshaw, formerly of Borders).”
Alibi’s editor is a real editor, and a friend of a friend. I’m sad that it’s a non-viable contract, because dammit, I have a mystery novel half-done and the connection might have been handy.
Welcome to the music biz! Seriously, this looks a lot like the horrible, horrible contracts musicians have signed for decades. Let’s hope that this nonsense doesn’t take root in another sphere.
I don’t think L. Ron Hubbard was overly concerned with facts. Money and paranoia, yes. And volcanos..(See Lawrence Wright’s book “”Going Clear”)
Unfortunately there are many uninformed authors out there. Look at how vanity presses are flourishing. And here its Random House so the poor misinformed author will think they can sit at the big kids table with the “real authors”. I’m not surprised someone sent you a copy of a real contract so you’d have full information to share with the masses. Their letter to you is a bit more puzzling given your years in the biz and 3 years as president of SFWA you aren’t going to be easily taken in. Thanks for sharing updates with us.
You think the big 6 haven’t noticed that the biggest growth market in publishing is young adult? And that all those young fan ficwriters wouldn’t like to get published? That is exactly who would be naive or needy enough to sign one of these things. One of my daughters nearly did, with a different house, same bad terms. Only reason she did not is because she showed it to us. If she had signed, i might challenge its enforcability for gross lack of consideration but in todays court system (i decline to call it justice) i would lose.
And from Random House. Bennett Cerf is rolling in his grave.
And that “next book”? They just bought the text equivalent of what the Rolling Stones offered Decca for their contractual obligation. http://www.cracked.com/article_19647_the-6-most-elaborate-f-yous-from-musicians-to-industry.html
Thanks for the heads up. So is there any decent e-publishers out there? I’ve submitted to a few, but if Alibi is this dodgy I’d find it hard to believe they’d turn down ANY submissions. Not that that is tempting me.
Let’s table the Scientology stuff, please. I understand it started as a joke, but it’s going off-topic.
Are there other writer’s organizations that communicate about this stuff? I mean, as a leader in the SFWA, you have an obligation to protect SF writers. What about romance and mystery writers? Are there similar organizations that can forewarn new writers in those generas?
Mystery Writers of America (of which I am a member) has done a good job of this, IMHO. They “delisted” Harlequin and its imprints for abusive practices in regard to their “vanity press” subsidiary a couple of years ago
Not sure about RWA, because I’m not a member.
One of the funniest things I’ve read in a while. Goes to show that you need to read everything carefully before you sign.
Totally with Marie Brennan (way above). The names are just so WTF. Obviously, so is literally everything else about it, but then you have the names. I’m reminded of the Mitchell & Webb “Are We The Baddies?” skit.
As I have yet to actually submit my manuscript(s), and do not have an agent, I guess I just assumed that book contracts were subject to negotiation. In other words, if they offered a POS contract like this, an agent might counter with, “Yeah, no. Here’s what we’re going to need.” Does that kind of thing not happen?
Makes me wonder how much of this new world order was fostered by the way Amazon does things. After all, they have popularized a model where all of the business and risk of publishing a book now falls solely on the author, and for which Amazon gets between 33-70% depending on which category of writer you fall in, for doing next to nothing except provide an online sales platform. Maybe trad publishers took a look at that and thought…why should we be such chumps and actually give an advance or do all this work and take all the risk, when authors are dumb enough to do it all themselves without a single penny of an advance and the majority of them happily hand over 2/3 for the privilege of doing all the work themselves?
I agree this contract is outrageous and it’s very sad that in these changing days that trad publishers don’t take the lead and actually make things better for writers instead of worse, because I don’t think Amazon will make it easier for writers that much longer, esp with the revelations recently about how they have been treating some indie authors.
Plus Amazon’s got this nifty deal where you give Amazon exclusive rights for 90 days just so you can give your book away for free for 3 days. And for those who want further amusement, you really should read Amazon’s rules very closely.
Thanks for this post, John. Truly appalling (and illuminating). As I was reading, I kept thinking, “Is this a joke?” I can’t believe any publisher would try this, especially a big one like Random House.
5. Oh, and the next thing you write? Alibi gets to option to take that, too, for the same terms as this contract (i.e., nothing up front, charging you for all sorts of crap on the back end). If Alibi doesn’t want it, you can shop it elsewhere but cannot accept an offer that’s equal or less than Alibi’s offer. Since that offer is “nothing up front, plus we charge you for shit we’re supposed to pay for,” you should probably be fine.”
It actually looks even worse to me… IF ALIBI DOESN’T WANT IT …. That could be that not only must you offer the next thing to Alibi, but you must accept their same contract. Perhaps I’m not reading it correctly, but it seems that you can only shop the offer if Alibi doesn’t want it. Does the writing include all writing, including short stories and blog posts? Or just novels?
Normally, I’d say that you can negotiate any terms. I know people being asked to part with all rights who regularly cross out the term and write in the applicable rights to be sold. But it looks like you’d have to send your entire revised contract back as a counter. Wonder if that works for anyoen.
The full-bore, jaw-dropping, mind-destroying RAPACITY of this contract staggers the imagination.
It’s an insult is what it is. It’s saying, “We think you’re too freaking stupid to realize that this is just shy of the worst possible contract we can offer. We know you’re desperate to be published, so we know that at least some of you will accept this offer. We have no real monetary investment in this, so even if it’s only 1 out of 10,000 desperate new authors signs up with us, we STILL make money. Suckers.”
And correct me if I’m wrong, but just being published isn’t the end-game, right? It’s to be paid to write. Just being published isn’t some sort of special state that makes publishers more inclined to offer you contracts, is it? Especially with this kind of publishing deal. I suspect that a normal publisher would see “Alibi”, then check to see if a giant flaming “SUCKER” really was floating above the author’s head.
Tangentially related, but…well, not so tangential. Freelance journalists get screwed over. A lot!
And yet I am sure that there will be a constant supply of authors happily announcing that they’ve been offered a contract by !Random House! Just too many authors, some with great books, some not, but all wanting their dream.
Please bear in mind that there is a small press out of Indiana that is named Hydra Publications long before Random House made their imprint. Hydra Publications is a wonderful publisher and I’m proud to be one of their authors. I’m upset that I have to keep clearing its name!
So as I am reading this blog post, I have the TV on in the background on a rerun channel. Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1956) just came on. The episode’s title is: “Alibi Me” . . . (Shudders)
It also almost feels like if, say, you were by some trick of fate actually making money on the horrific terms that they’ve set up for ebooks, instead of paying you, they could say “oh, hey, you’re doing so well, we’re going to make this a print book too.” At which point your account balance magically resets to less than zero. Likewise, if the print book is making money, OH HEY, Audiobook time.
And to the person/people who was commenting about it being just like music label contracts, music labels at least officially are fronting the band money to start with–they may give them an ‘advance’ of 100K, and then charge them for every single tiny thing ever on the way to the album, but they start out with money. This contract, you’re basically starting the game in the red, with no control over how much red there will be. Plus musicians usually have alternate ways of making some money outside of just the album sales, like concerts/songwriting rights/etc, which this contract basically explicitly rules out. If there’s a way to make money off of this book, past present or future, the contract has already got first dibs on it. It might be more comparable to the music contracts if this contract covered *just* the ebooks, for example, so the print and audio book rights could be sold under a separate contract, it would be fairer since the author would have a chance to make some real money once they’d proven themselves in a lower risk area. It still wouldn’t be *fair*, mind you, and the author would still probably be better off pubbing it themselves as at least they’d get a say in how much each step cost.
(And RWA, the romance group tends to be very good at sharing things with their members, and so given the existence of this post, I suspect it will be common knowledge for them very soon.)
Both of these contracts just sound like loans, to be honest. They’re providing a service and then expecting you to pay them back.
Except that they’re also taking the rights to your intellectual property. The only way that you come out ahead is if the book is a thundering blockbuster AND no publishing company offered you a decent advance for something that would sell so well. But in that situation, you’d probably be better off just getting a loan and then paying for it to be printed and marketed yourself, because I assume that costs about the same amount and then you get to keep all of the profits.
(Unless I’m missing something. And considering that I’m not particularly familiar with publishing or book marketing, that’s a distinct possibility.)
The part I can’t get over is that they sent you a chiding email, apparently hoping you’d tone it down. Do they not know you at all?
John, is there something in that contract about how you agree to be bound by the laws of [whatever state] in signing this contract, any action brought pursuant to this contract must be filed in that state, etc? If not, then that plus the lack of an arbitration clause makes me think it wasn’t slapped together by lawyers – okay, at least not GOOD lawyers – but that somebody in their publishing wing who has dealt with many contracts took a look at putting a contract together and said “Geez, how hard can it be to write one of these?!”
Yup, and the state is New York (which makes sense as Random House’s US HQ is there).
This reminds me of the employment contract at my last job. I’m a private music teacher, and my contract specified that anything I wrote or created on school grounds, even if it was between lessons or during a break, belonged to the school. I refused to sign until they changed it, which they did. My boss told me that her lawyer had told her to put that clause in, so that the school could cash in if an employee wrote a best selling music book or developed a popular program. I’ve often wondered how many of the people who worked there had even noticed that they’d slipped such a heinous clause into their contract.
Wow. That IS weird. The only think I can think of is that perhaps they used to use NAF and then when that all went down, didn’t find a replacement. If it’s not that, I’m out of ideas, other than perhaps piety – you know, deliberately putting in ONE clause of the contract that wasn’t designed to screw the author because perfection is reserved for God?
This is why I said I found it surprising.
Richard. The analogy is quite good, imagine a loan for a house, you get to live in the house but have to use the bank’s builders for any repairs or improvements. And once the loan is about to be paid off, oh look, the house is repossessed.
This sort of contract is aimed directly at me. Currently writing my first sci-fi novel and have zero experience of publishing. I have got some experience (through friends) of the music industry however and know enough that any contract without some sort of transfer of rights back to the author is one I will never sign. Be that reprint rights, audio or translations. If someone wants to make my book into a film I’m damn well making sure it’s my pocket that gets filled and not the publisher’s
Publishers are getting desperate because they’ve realized the ultimate truth… we don’t need them anymore. Yes, they still serve a purpose but they’re no longer NECESSARY. People get published in ebook form all the time now on Amazon and all of the other electronic formats. We have Kickstarter and other crowd-source funding options. We have print-on-demand options. Most of those options allow the author to retain ALL copyrights and rights to their work and complete control of their work. The big publishers no longer hold the key to the industry for entry-level authors. They’re scared and they’re resorting to these tactics to try to regain what control they can before it all slips away. They still live in the old world but it’s a whole new ballgame out there — they’re the athlete who grabs a bat to run out for a pass. It’s sad that they no longer know who they really are.
Why wouldn’t they have translators for other language editions on call? After all, it’s the authors will be paying those translators if it looks like there’s a danger the publisher is going to have to pay out on the current editions.
I don’t know about Random House, but in the early days in Germany (back when they started out as a book club imprint), Bertelsmann used to be infamous for its Mephistopheles-worthy contracts which customers could only get out of within a tiny window once a year (not quite one day, but close) before it rolled over and tied them down again. So they at least have form in the general “rubbish contracts” area.
As to “all rights everywhere are MINE for all time” — this type of thing is commonplace on the fringes of the writing and translation business; I’ve certainly seen it a fair few times. Having said that, a freelance writer hired to polish a script or a translator providing a foreign-language version will get a nice fat fee up front.
And it sounds as if in the the US there is no protection against unfair contracts, i.e. contract law supersedes any rights to fairness? That doesn’t apply everywhere.
@Elizabeth Lang – I don’t know if I would blame Amazon entirely (there are a few other corporations that involve using your content for free and making money around it with advertising and making out as if they’re doing you a favour), but I do think the target suckers here are people who want to be published writers but are scared/confused/seriously bored by all the other things that you need to self publish rather than people who have never thought about self publishing.
Possibly they’ve got a novel waiting, possibly they’ve even put it up here and there and seen nothing happen, and assume that they’re doing everything wrong. They’ve looked at Amazon’s terms, noted that there’s no advance, and that you have to (iirc, but willing to be corrected) pay for the cost of people downloading from your share. They’ve heard that you need copyediting and stuff and have no idea how to go about that, possibly even worrying about being ripped off. All this copyright stuff is confusing, but they’ve been told that the way to make it is to give your stuff away, so that’s the same right? They’re not actually willing to take classes on SEO and metadata, and assume the RH’s marketing will do that. And many of the new model success stories they’ve heard involve people making it big untraditionally and getting a lucrative contract after they have a success . Many – but not all – of the negative things in this atrocity of a contract are also negatives in self publishing, although of course there are positive things to balance those out in self publishing that aren’t present here.
To that end, cries of ‘Just publish it yourself’ are not particularly dissuasive for this class of people.
sidenote: People complaining about the word rapacious are trolls, possibly from the Land of Alpha Males, right?
Just so we’re clear here, Mr. Scalzi…you’re saying this contract is bad, right? :)
Agree with all the above, though from what I have seen the idea of an advance seems to be dwindling all over. If you are established as a writer and have a good agent you can still get one but it seems as if many publishers are not offering them as default any more. Certainly among the smaller presses and imprints.
Also, I am getting the impression that there is a perception that ‘ebooks are different’. Its been a belief inherent in the industry for a while (many big publishers seem leery of them) but with the growing prevalence of ereaders and tablets they can no longer ignore them. Many of the small press markets have set a standard where ebook contracts are no advance, high royalty (40% or more) with worldwide rights (or in many cases English speaking) and this contract seems to be aping that to a certain extent.
However, as you say, this is a major publisher with money to spare and therefore should be willing and able to invest in its authors rather than expect them to take a risk. And the stuff about paying for costs is an awful clause. Many small presses will do very little publicity on your behalf and therefore save costs this way (expecting the author to do a lot of it) but they would not consider charging the author for ‘unspecified services, the cost of which is yet to be established’. If an author on a small press wants to pay some money to do their own publicity then that is up to them but the publisher does not expect it nor charge them… It is a clear violation of Yog’s law (money moves towards the author) which I am surprised a big publishing house is pulling. In the perceptions of the majority of authors (many of whom have been scammed by publishers charging) this puts them in the same category as Publish America and similar vanity/scam presses… from a publicity point of view this is a bad mistep.
That summary sounds more like a Hollywood contract or a recording contract. But even those traditionally pay an advance, even if the cost accounting eats up any additional royalties. The cost shifting is certainly an invitation to Hollywood style accounting and making profit centers of cost centers, as you describe. And on top of the royalty-free rights grab? heh. run away.
You mention above that it looks like they want to take advantage of the unrepresented and naive; that I think is exactly it. There is a flood of newbies who see e-publishing as the golden ticket, you saw how wildly they miss-estimated income from it in the discussion about why you didn’t self publish Redshirts.
It looks like these guys are casting a net to catch a bunch of tiny fish hoping to become whales. 99% of them can fail and these guys will not suffer much if at all and the 1% that hit it big will be captured and ‘milked’ for the big score. Heck, RH could even make nice & offer some additional cash to ‘move up’ to the big house with them for the few that do make it.
This sounds very much like what record companies did (may still do for all I know) when signing unknowns back in the 50s and 60s. It made them very rich
John, out of curiosity, when Harlequin tried a similar stunt a few years ago, SFWA delisted all Harlequin imprints as eligible markets. Are there plans to take similar actions with Random House?
I don’t typically discuss active SFWA board topics here in any detail.
@Elizabeth Yang re Amazon. I certainly don’t blame Amazon for this other than for opening up a huge market of low priced and largely pulp fiction that readers are eating up and thousands of authors are making a living at. You can argue that 30% is too high a retailer commission for an ebook, but I’m going to guess that most of the poor souls who sign with these presses are still going to be selling through Amazon and paying a retailer cut.
I just wanted to write this here, because it’s worthwhile for everyone’s consideration. I’m neither agent nor attorney, however…
Book contracts are weird. In the overall world of contracts, book contracts are strange, okay? Because, if you don’t know anything about how publishing works, reading a contract – even one like the one discussed here and yesterday – might seem reasonable if you don’t know any better.
Which is why agents are of value in negotiating publishing contracts, and/or attorneys with experience with publishing contracts. (To which I want to add, but an attorney who is NOT familiar with publishing contracts, is not necessarily all that valuable here, because they won’t necessarily understand what is in a TYPICAL/STANDARD publishing contract.)
For instance, what is the “standard” for ebook royalties. Is it 10%? 15%? 20% 50? 70% It’s shifted around a lot since ebooks became popular and I honestly don’t know what would be a standard ebook royalty with a traditional publisher. I known that it’s 70% for ebooks you self-publish if your price is over $2.99 (in most platforms, anyway), and 30% otherwise, but I don’t how that compares to current publishing royalties today. I know what my agent negotiated back before ebooks really took off – the same amount as for the hard covers, which was something like 10%, which sucked then and sucks now.
The point here is that publishing contracts are somewhat loosely based on STANDARD PRACTICES WITHIN THE INDUSTRY. That is to say, for a long time, a standard royalty on a hardcover was something like 10-15%, although if you or your agent had clout, you might get more and if you or your agent didn’t, or were desperate, you might get less. And mass market paperback might be something like 6-8%, with variations depending on sales, i.e., 0-5000 copies gets 6%, 5001-10,000 gets 7%, 10,0001 + gets 8%, that sort of thing.
The additional point is that these change. They change because enough agents negotiate contracts in such a way that everybody pretty much agrees, yeah, a standard ebook royalty is now 25%. We can negotiate up a little or down a little, or nibble at the margins, or whatever, but the starting point is 25%. Writers organizations and agent organizations might exert group pressure, but (in theory, anyway), writers employ agents, not the other way around.
For example: 20+ years ago, agents charged 10%. Somewhere around the 1980s, agents decided, seemingly as a group, to charge writers 15%. They essentially gave themselves a 50% raise. For the most part, writers said, “Um, okay, sure, I guess.” Some didn’t. Sue Grafton, for instance, was very reluctant, although she eventually did agree to sign with an agent who charged 15%. Writers didn’t have much say in the matter, since writers typically work as sole contractors. (A significant exception is scriptwriters, who have a union/guild, and I like to think that if agents wanted to give themselves a 50% raise, the SWG east & west might have something to say on the matter).
All of which is to say, THESE CONTRACTS, these SHITTY, HORRIBLE, ETC, ETC contracts that John is discussing here, are probably perfectly legal. But they are not – AT THE MOMENT – STANDARD PRACTICES within the publishing industry. But apparently the largest publishing house in the country would like them to be. Which is disquieting, at the very least. But the way writers convince publishers not to try and change STANDARD PRACTICES so dramatically is to NOT SIGN THE CONTRACTS. Presumably some desperate writers will, because, for those of us who are published, we’ve been there. We know all about the desperation thing. But the fact remains, that you have way better options. The only thing these contracts give you is validation from Random House. But that’s a little bit like being told what a sweet, pretty victim you are by your mugger.
p.s. John. Sorry. If you want to delete, I understand.
One, it doesn’t require arbitration rather than access to the courts, which vaguely surprises me. Two, it allows for auditing, which is good.
And now that you have pointed this out, Alibi will change them for the worse.
I’ll have to pass your article on to some of my colleagues in academia. They are fond of complaining that their publishers are all out to get them; they should see what it looks like when that is actually the case.
Personally, I’ve only ever had one book contract. It was with Blackwell, for a textbook with two co-authors. Blackwell treated me very well indeed and were honestly more concerned about getting a quality textbook out than in getting every last dime out of the transaction. Their agent explained it this way: “Academic publishing is a small world. If we drive off all of the authors, then we won’t be able to make any money.”
I was scratching my head thinking where do I know that name, then it dawned on me: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HYDRA
Seth Ellis asks “What puzzles me about this is who they think their audience is–that is, what kind of authors they’re trying to attract.”
I suspect they are attempting to skim off the cream of the self-published writers from the giant slush-pile of genre fiction that Amazon has created with the Kindle Store. Personally, I think it’s unlikely that anyone good enough to warrant the attention of even a Hydra or Alibi like publisher would be naive enough to fall for this sort of rights grab, but you never know.
All rights, everywhere, for the length of the copyright. I can’t even wrap my mind around this. Would they like my first-born child, too?
Tully, that wouldn’t work – you only get the chance to offer if they decline the option.
There’s a worthy amount of outrage here, which is good. But it’s incumbent on us, the writers, to channel this anger into an appropriate response, one that will give publishers pause. Because if the initial outrage wanes without said response, then other publishers, large and small, may begin to implement similar programs in order to fleece unsuspecting writers.
That means going to SFWA, RWA, and any other author advocacy organization and bringing this to their attention. That means advocating for some kind of sanction against the publishers who try to push these contracts onto writers. Someone here mentioned de-listing RH as a qualified publisher for SFWA, and that’s a good start. Other writer organizations should consider doing the same.
Look, nobody gets into book publishing to make money hand over fist. If you want better margins, try software development or lemonade stands. But if this is allowed to stand, we’re all going to find it harder to make a reasonable amount of money for our work. So call your author organizations, call the media, spread this stuff far and wide — and let’s organize a response.
This contract is nothing like self-publishing through Amazon.
Amazon doesn’t claim ownership in your copyright. You are free to remove your books from their system entirely, to charge whatever price you want, to offer them at Amazon and also via other distributors at the same time. Nor does Amazon claim any rights to your future work, or try to determine what kind of contract you could accept for that work or any work.
When you act as your own publisher, it’s true that you can incur significant expenses on the publishing side, such as editing, artwork, etc. Or you may not, depending on your skills and contacts. But in any case, you make those choices yourself: which editor, which artwork, etc, as well as how much you’re willing or able to pay. Amazon doesn’t tell you who you have to hire or decide how much you’re going to pay, though they may hold you to minimal standards in formatting, editing, etc.
In this contract you have no control over any of those things. I understand that writers who haven’t thought this through might be confused about it, but really this is an entirely different beast.
To be clear, the contract does not specify that Alibi/Random House owns the copyright; just that the term of the contract is for the life of the copyright.
Also to be clear, this is something that publishers will try to specify as a matter of course — but this is mitigated by the “out of print” clause, which can revert rights to the author. What makes this contract bad in this regard is that the OOP clause is basically broken.
I do software development and from time to time I do contract work. This is basically glorified temp work. I typically prefer to do these corp to corp through a business I set up. I do this so I can get some tax breaks such as writing off my medical insurance, etc… These are benefits I normally get when I work for someone, but as a temp I have to buy myself.
I have been handed some really stupid contracts. I once lost a job because my contract company was dropped as a vendor (for fraud). The company I was working at said I could stick around and work with another temp agency if I got a written release from my non-compete clause. Non-Competes are standard. They claim they are present to keep you from hopping contract companies once you get somewhere (end clients never allow this anyway). The contract company refused. They sent me an email claiming I was there ‘intellectual property’. Was out of work for 2 months… Found a lawyer who said he could file paperwork and in 2 weeks have this thrown out. However, the end company would not go for it. It was not worth it to them to risk being sued. So though its not exactly legal, it was legally enforceable.
Some common tricks. Calling non-competes, ‘NDAs’ (non-discclosure aggrements) so they don’t sound as bad. I got one once from a contract company. They wanted me to guarantee that I would NEVER work with this fortune 500 again without going through them ever, in order for them to promise to submit me. There is no guarantee of submission. Sometimes they get these and then sit on your resume because you want too much money. Then have you thrown out if you are submitted by someone else.
Others do not have payment deadlines. Note that that the contract terms basically only allow you to have 1 contract at a time. So you are basically an employee who is paid like you are self employed. Employers don’t really need part time developers. So taking off hours work is not practical. So you have 1 income source. With no payment deadlines. They say ‘you get paid when if we get paid, if we don’t get paid, you don’t get paid’. Note its they ‘claim to get paid’. Then they throw in ways to sue you if you ever quit. If you can’t quit and they don’t have to pay you, how do you think that will work out?
Lots of others. This kind of crap is not unique to writers. One thing that is interesting is that its the smaller companies that generally give out the garbage contracts. The bigger ones generally give out pretty generic and fair terms. My take on that is that its not worth the hassle to give out BS contracts and deal with potential consequences. However, its more profitable for smaller ones to do this.
I wanted to “like” this article, since I got a couple of emails about publishing my blog work and am doing research. Thanks for posting it, very well (and humorously) written.
The worst terms I’ve ever seen were not in a contract but listed in “Writer’s Market.” There was a fiction market years ago that paid in copies, in exchange for which they wanted all rights to the story.
I never saw their contract because there was no way in heck I was going to submit there.
There was a vanity press a few years back that had a contract like this, too, only IIRC the option clause was even more egregious; if they wanted your next book, they got it on the same terms, period, and you couldn’t shop around for something better. The thing that’s shocking here is that it’s coming from a major publisher.
“All rights, everywhere, for the length of the copyright. I can’t even wrap my mind around this. Would they like my first-born child, too?”
Unnecessary. Copyright’s insanely long term now pretty much guarantees your work will stay in term through that child’s lifetime and therefor the contract remains valid. They might want their child’s child, though, so that someone can sign off on use of the family name or produce some stuff from your notes and it still have a vague smell of authenticity to it.
What annoys me on a personal level about all this is that I’m an author with a division of Penguin, and they are FABULOUS. I love them dearly. They rock. But they get bought by Random House and then Random House pulls this horrific predatory crap with an imprint and people who don’t know the difference between various imprints are gonna associate Random House = EVIL and pretty soon I’m (apparently) signed with the Great Satan.
I foresee a lot of time wasted in my future saying “No. That’s a different imprint. No, really, it matters. No. Seriously. No, my agent would eat their livers if they so much as read that contract quietly in the next room…” And if I feel like that, how must my poor editor and art director and everybody else feel?
Reblogged this on Scott B. Pruden Author & Freelancer and commented:
A great entry from “Redshirts” author John Scalzi on what could possibly be the worst publishing contract ever. Most surprisingly, it’s not from a sneaky vanity press, but a division of Random House. Remember, kids, when offered the option of paying some of your own expenses as an indie publisher and keeping all the profits OR paying your own expenses, giving up all rights, getting no advance and just generally being screwed with, please take Option A.
I do think worldwide English rights make a lot more sense in general. It is silly that Amazon.de probably has one of the best selections of English books out of all the amazons. When I lived in Germany I would always get to pick whether I want the British version or the American version. Certainly a bonus for living there. But it shows how ridiculous the current attempted partition of the English-speaking world is. Even if there weren’t ebooks, global logistics are too trivial now for it to make sense for physical books either.
Of course worldwide all languages rights doesn’t make any sort of sense. Sounds like a good way to never get your book translated even if some small press in Estonia wants to do so.
I know. It’s different in some ways. But can I give an alternative take?
I used to be a professional musician. In some ways, it’s totally different from being an author. For example, most authors write in complete sentences, rarely use drugs while convincing themselves it makes their work BETTER, and probably didn’t drop out of school, while many, many musicians did all of those things.
But much like writers, we believe deep down where we don’t let it show to anyone we don’t love a lot that we have something new, original and important to share. We believe that we have a unique perspective on being alive. And we are aching to share it with the world. In part because we want money, fame and adulation, sure.
But more because we just want to get it out there.
That truth drives us to do a lot that sabotages making a living. When we’re starting out, we’ll play a gig that doesn’t pay. When we finally have established ourselves, we’ll take a substandard gig on the promise of something better down the road. And we’ll do a favor for the people who believed in us before anyone else did. I’m not alone in this one. I’ve seen others do it, too.
And if someone had waved the equivalent of this contract under my nose when I was trying to break through, before I had a contract, I would have signed it. Without reservation, I would have grabbed the damned pen, even knowing everything you’re saying in this post, John.
I know. You’re trying to say that this contract is insulting, that they’re ripping off writers, and that writers can do better. But I assume writers are like musicians in one way. We believe that our truth is so exceptional that it will overcome any contract.
You’ve had success, John. As a fan, I know it’s well earned, and I know how long and how hard you worked to get that success. And you’ve always been very professional, which is great. And I also suspect, as I said up front, that young writers are at least (forgive me, fellow musicians, for this) a LOT smarter than musicians. But that burning need to see your stuff published, to try to communicate your truth, is almost certainly the same.
I’d sign this contract if I was a writer, John. Hell, you’re friends with a number of musicians. Ask Jonathan Coulton if he’d have signed it. His response will probably be that he signed worse. The fact that you’re a professional, organized person doesn’t change that most of us just aren’t.
So raise the alarm, if you like. Try to advise young writers. But I have a lot more sympathy for the ones who sign this contract than hatred for the evil people who perpetrated it.
@John: me too, and I am probably over thinking this, but sometimes it is easy in legal matters to distinguish “my god, what diabolical scheme are they up to?!” from plain old dumb.
@Mark Terry: that’s an excellent point.
Every day, the universe validates my decision to not bother with the traditional publishing route. Not only do I avoid outright attempts at exploitation, I keep all my rights and I can write things that traditional publishers don’t want to bother with (for example, novellas).
Not that I would advocate the “lone writer in a garret” approach. Publishing’s a team effort, no doubt. I’m in a publishing co-op, and that lets us turn out quality eBooks (nice covers, proper editing) with very little overhead. The organization is pretty loose at the moment—you could almost call it a commune instead of a co-op—but we can formalize things when we grow.
Oh, and I have no beef with Amazon and their commissions (despite the occasional kind of boneheaded move that any big corporation will make). They’re doing more to market my books (mostly through their customer emails, granted) than most traditional publishers would, and even 30% of gross is better than an unknown like me would get from a “real” publisher. I’d like to see more Nook/Kobo/iBooks in my sales figures though… maybe I should email them and say, “hey, I’m getting pretty good sales at the Kindle Store, why don’t you guys start pushing my books and see if you can outdo them?” :-)
“I’d sign this contract if I was a writer, John.”
And you would be stupid to do it, especially when in this time and this place when there are so many other options available to get one’s work out there. And as I noted on the other thread, back when I was new in the market, I had lots of opportunities to sign contracts equally egregious as this one, and I didn’t. Because there’s a limit to the amount of stupid I have.
As I said in another thread: Don’t be willing to fuck yourself just so someone else can make money.
Of course, if people are determined to let their desire or desperation get the better of them, then that’s on them. My role here is letting people know they shouldn’t.
Thanks for sharing, John. This makes me want to avoid Random House as a whole.
“Run away from it, as fast as you can, arms flailing like a Muppet’s. It’s the only rational response.”
You’d be surprised how many problems this action will resolve… ;-)
@RonZ – the buzz I’ve heard is that music contracts are routinely this bad. So it seems pretty OK to a musician?
“I do think worldwide English rights make a lot more sense in general.”
It might make more sense for the industry as a whole to try to move this way, given the changes the internets have brought, but it doesn’t make sense to sign away those rights to a new, small imprint like Alibi. Even one that is part of a larger company like Random House. As I understand it, they are no more likely to have the resources to publish and distribute in the UK or New Zealand than they are in Estonia, and they may still have to “translate” – the translation would simply be much, much faster, cheaper, and easier.
This is why we have Yog’s Law. Because anyone who can follow those five simple words (“Money flows to the author”) would be able to see this is a shitty contract.
No advance? Okay, money isn’t flowing to the author, but at least it isn’t flowing away from the author.
Author’s royalties are dunned for the cost of [stuff]? ***AANK AANK AANK VIOLATION OF YOG’S LAW DANGER WILL ROBINSON***
Just because it’s withheld from payments to you, not a check you write directly from your account, doesn’t mean it’s not your money, flowing in the wrong direction.
This is just…..gross. I’m embarrassed for Random House. Did they really think they were going to get away with this? (Don’t answer that, I don’t want to know. Unless the answer is the call is coming from inside the house, i.e., someone in Random House is trying to break the mold so completely they have to start fresh. But I like conspiracy theories.)
As a translator, I can tell you that though the fee may not be as big and fat as we would like, we do get paid up front. And we have a standard contract that usually reverts the rights of the translation to us in case of OOP.
The contractual terms are so insulting that they render these imprints little better than vanity presses. Shameful.
@Raven, musician’s contracts are at best this bad. Perhaps that’s why I’m so sure I’d sign it. When I was a professional musician, I signed worse. Courtney Love (yeah, I know, but hear me out) detailed it over a decade ago at http://www.salon.com/2000/06/14/love_7/ and it’s no better now.
I’m glad that people are warning writers away from this contract. I’m even more glad that someone as well known and, in his capacity of President of SFWA, well informed about what is out there can tell young writers that they can do better. The fact that I was willing to sell my soul doesn’t mean I want anyone else to.
My favorite moment that tells the story was back in the mid-80’s, when I was playing in a jazz band. We were on tour, a grueling 6 month odyssey that took us through every one of the contiguous 48 states, playing behind our second record on a two record contract. Our first record got pretty good reviews and so we got a well known producer for our second, and, for jazz, pretty decent promotion. And we, in fact, made the Billboard Top 100 for jazz, which is to say that, not just our mothers, but our boyfriends/girlfriends all bought copies. We got our first royalty statements while on the road.
We owed the company almost $150,000 for recording time and paying the producer, $50,000 for promotion, $50,000 for placement, and those came off the top of the $1.25 we got for every copy of our record sold. Out of that $1.25, our lawyer/manager got 10%, and the producer got 10%. We figured that, if we outsold Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, one of the great jazz records of all time, we would each make 10 grand from the record. Needless to say, we didn’t.
As I say, the sad part isn’t how badly we got screwed. The sad part is that, if we’d stayed together (my getting off of drugs broke up the band, as I couldn’t stay in the band and stay sober, and I was the one who did most of the management work and made sure we showed up on time), we’d have eagerly signed an extension on the same terms. We were making a living by playing music. We were touring and playing places we never would have had an opportunity to play without a contract. We opened for Chick Corea at the New Orleans Jazz Fest.
So I understand why people do it. I’m just glad that someone like John Scalzi is there to tell them not to. The devil doesn’t show up with a tail and the smell of sulfur. He wears a suit and hands out contracts.
This is actually worse than a vanity press. At most vanity presses you get to keep your copyright. As Scalzi pointed out in one of his posts.
We’ve been telling everyone that publishers are not playing fair when it comes to ebooks.
Signed, Your Librarian
An advanceless term-of-copyright deal for an e-book isn’t necessarily objectionable, nor is one in which the publisher takes subsidiary rights. Carina Press’ standard terms are similar, and their royalty lower than 50% of net-receipts. It’s not a fantastic deal, or a preferable deal, but it is an acceptable one for authors just starting out.
What Carina doesn’t do, that Hydra does, is deduct expenses. That’s what the publisher’s cut is for, covering expenses associated with…you know…being a publisher. Additionally, and maybe John can provide some insight here, if this contract does not give the author the power to decide which editions will be published (and thus refuse whichever associated expenses might be deducted from their royalties) then this contract is truly exploitative.
Again, excellent post. Commendable.
In the contract I read, it appeared to be very much at Alibi’s discretion.
What I dont get is this… if the company should have the right to subtract their cost before the profit sharing then for balance so should the writer. Costs such as payment for the time writing the book.
Popping in to say that while I might never ever have the opportunity to publish, it’s good to know that if I ever get to that point, I can get great advice from folks like you and the estimable Chuck Wendig, whose blog is equally awesome.
Also, @minaria: If you ever get a chance to send that fuck you letter, you have GOT to share it with us!
Lastly John, your comment about your agent’s head exploding, Scanners-like, was perfect. That head exploding scene is pretty much all I remember about that movie, it made quite the impression on my 10 year old self.
So glad that -E @11:30 brought up Yog’s Law, because that’s the very first thing I thought when read the last post, and this one. Okay, maybe not the very first, but that thought needs to be censored because this is a PGesque show here.
One day, when my levels are balanced enough for clear thought, I’ll finally make a run at writing for fun and profit. When I do, I will live and breathe “the money flows towards the author.” Thank you, John, for shining the light on this kind of crap.
That does not sound like anything approaching a partnership. “Hey let’s be partners, but I’ll make all the business decisions, and you absorb all the expenses, and after that we’ll split things 50/50. Why are you crying?”
I’m more shocked than a very shocked thing from the Land of Perpetual Shock by this and the previous post. I’ve suspected for a long time that Big Publishing was effectively squeezing low- and midlist writers but under contracts such as described here the writer is nothing more than an expendable assett. Gah!
One thing that I can’t see in here is whether these contracts are specific just to US-based authors or if they’re liable to turn up in the rest of the world? I’m assuming they’d be used no matter where the writer comes from given that they cover worldwide rights of publication but would appreciate clarification all the same.
Either way round this just makes me even more determined to follow the self-publishing model when (if) I finally finish something worthy.
How does the first-refusal clause affect self-publishing the next book? Since that’s done on much the same terms (author pays expenses, no advance), would this contract technically prevent the author from self-publishing Book 2? Just wondering how they’re defining an “offer.”
Evan Gregory @1:10:
That sounds exactly like what every writer hears sometimes: “Hey, I have this great idea for a book! You write it, and then we’ll sell it and split the earnings 50/50.”
The typical writer’s reply to this is, “Yeah, I have enough of my own ideas, thanks.”
As the writer’s reply to this contract should be, “Yeah, I can purchase publishing services myself, thanks, and I don’t have to sign away my rights and control to do it.”
One particularly sneaky bit of clause that caught my eye was “expenses relating to any possible legal actions”. While initial impressions are likely to be “if they have to sue me, I pay for the lawyers”, I think it’s even worse than that and your comment of following the music industry is what made me think of it. What if they truly ARE following the music industry and they are planning on using this to fund John Doe lawsuits against downloaders. Thus, even a wildly successful book could have all of it’s gross billings consumed by legal fees in frivolous cases across the country. And since RH isn’t paying for it, there’s no incentive to reign in the lawyers. Scary thought indeed.
“Just wondering how they’re defining an “offer.””
I suspect they purposely aren’t. Leaving it vague makes it sound better – and since they are the ones with the large legal team, chances are they will get to define it how they want later. Because even if the writer is in the right, they may need to pay the legal fees to prove it. Simply the threat of being sued by Random House will keep most authors (who sign such a contract) going along with however Alibi decides to interpret “offer” and other terms.
Reblogged this on Dangling on the Edge of (In)Sanity and commented:
John Scalzi reveals a contract every writer should run from, and it raises a very important point. It doesn’t matter that the publisher’s name is on everyone’s lips. It doesn’t matter that the publisher is or has been a respected industry leader forever and ever. Read. The. Contract. And don’t be dazzled by having that name on your book. Sometimes, it’s not worth it.
Way back in 1997(I think), I had an article accepted for publication in the ill-fated SF Eye magazine, which unfortunately folded before the article could come to press, talking about how publishers were squeezing midlist SF authors and how, and suggesting a move to alternate distribution methods. I didn’t foresee e-books, but everything I said about the growth of the indie comics and zine scene (which I was using as the model for how SF publishing could get away from traditional publishing/distro channels) has happened, and more. Thanks, John, for vindicating my suspicions in such a grand fashion. I’m unfortunately sad that the suits have figured out a way potentially to squeeze lower-tier authors using e-books now.
“Pay the Fucking Writer”, Part Infinity.
The disappointing part is that it just keeps needing to be said.
One, thank you for this. It’s incredibly valuable information and everyone should read it.
Two, this was the best thing I’ve read all day. Nicely done.
I hope you realize that Random House belongs to Bertelsmann, a German multinational media corp. I worked for RH back in the early 1970s and though it was difficult to work there (I was in the trade book division), it treated the authors well. I have friends who worked there until retirement and saw what happened to RH after it was purchased by Bertelsmann. So I am not surprised that they are trying to get away with ripping off the authors in the e-book contracts.
If RH authors refuse to sign contracts like Alibi’s, RH will need to rethink their strategy.
You have my respect and thanks for bringing this issue to light.
Speaking as a publishing lawyer who does a LOT of pro bono contract review for authors and blogs frequently about this issue:
THANK YOU JOHN.
The more attention we can place on authors’ need to read and understand contracts, and the more light we can shine on what is reasonable and what is not, the fewer emails I (and others like me) will receive from authors who have made a mistake and now regret signing away rights they could have preserved. I haven’t seen these contracts (and therefore cannot speak to the terms directly) but this post contains some important and valid points that authors should be considering before agreeing to any publishing contract – and discussion of some terms they should run from, too. “Flailing like Muppets” is the right mental image, indeed.
I’m confused what compensation is being given for the future publication rights. You are covering all costs, just as if you took it to Kinkos, so there is nothing left in the contract to give reason for those to be on the table. It’s currently illegal to trick people into signing away their house, kidney and firstborn child and get nothing in exchange, so I find it hard to believe this would be legal.
This almost makes me want to write something and submit it to Alibi just so I can get their contract, run it through a paper shredder, and mail it back to them.
You forgot about the part where you have to sign with you own blood, and then they disappear in a cloud of black smoke and brimstone.
Tell us how you REALLY feel! :-)
I once did part of a book with Wrox Press (ISBN 10: 1861007469 / ISBN 13: 9781861007469 ) where I was entertained by the bits in the contract about “all rights across all the universe.”
FYI, many years ago Disney wanted to license something from the publisher where I work in rights. Their contract DID, in fact, grant them rights “throughout the universe.” For many more reasons than that laugher, we walked on the deal.
Before the turn of the century Bertelsmann was participating in and sponsoring conferences on “achieving a royalty-free environment”, the main point of which was that they wanted to pay the minimum amount once for all rights forever. Plenty of publishing and media types went to those. The idea has been around for quite a long while.
But then so have torture, slavery, cannibalism …
You know, I wonder if the music business would be healthier today if more young artists were willing to walk away from these deals. I understand the starry eyed, “Oh wow, I’m gonna be on the radio.” type thing, but if these deals didn’t work then perhaps the music industry wouldn’t be dying of cancer like it is now. Perhaps they wouldn’t be burning through talented people like cigarettes. Perhaps more people instead of the lucky few would actually have time to create great art instead of frantically trying to keep their heads above water. It’s not that the money isn’t there, it’s just flowing to the wrong place. I’ve heard many musicians say that that’s just the way the industry is, and that is so sad. We writers need to fight tooth and nail so our industry doesn’t turn out to be like this. The “original bad deal” is a myth that needs to die.
Speaking as an ex publisher (albeit small and non-fiction) and avid consumer of ebooks I must say that the standard contract term you reference are part of the problem. Not that I in anyway agree with this outright money grab. I think you mentioned something in your other post about the contract being designed by accountants, and I think I have to agree; it is an outright money grab.
0: Advances are a tough thing in some genres (especially ones who might sell anywhere from 200 copies to 2000). The option to not offer an advance will sometimes get that poetry book in print and given their reliance on grant money that’s not a small consideration. It’s something I would like to be seen more as a negotiation point than an entitlement.
1: I think that this is fine right up until the ‘full term of copyright’ at which point it goes from something to consider to something outright insane. But we’ve all noted how geographic based rights are less and less relevant in the ebook world and often downright stupid. I am still waiting for someone to pick up the Canadian rights for books that have been in electronic format for years in the US.
2: A fairer distribution of the proceeds is a must as the future of publishing changes. Still vague language isn’t going to get us anywhere. But again, I agree if a publisher wants to take the book, then the monetary risk should be theirs.
3: Author copies? In an ebook world? Where DRM is hopefully going the way of the dodo? I wish some people would wake up and see the hope future rather than dragging the baggage of the past along.
4: I could go along with 4 if the terms were right and the asinine ‘term of the copyright’ clause were gone. If say the agreement was for a set period say 5 years with a first right of refusal on the renewal let’s say… We are going to have to change something to deal with increasing pace of how change is being introduced to monetizing intellectual property.
5: Again 5 could be made to work if the initial agreement was fair and it was a first right of refusal type of deal. But I think I mostly agree with you on that one.
6: Out of Print? See point 3. God I wish publisher’s weren’t so dense. Of is that afraid?
Would I sign one of these? Never; but that is mostly because of the length of the term. Fix that and I think we have room to negotiate a new kind of book contract.
Just my 2 cents as a quasi-devil’s advocate…
Publishing: last of the plantations.
There is so much about this situation that’s awful, but when I read one author copy, I just had to laugh. Because it’s a joke, right? Some sort of publishing limbo dance–how low can you go?
I guess zero author copies would have been tacky.
@Ursula V. Penguin bought Author Solutions, so it’s up to the same exact tricks. And, yes, the imprint *does* make a big difference. We’re agreed on that point.
Wow, do I ever need a proof reader.
Amusingly enough, Vox has shown his spoiled little rich boy roots in his response to this post.
Apparently, John has been just a little bit to loud in talking back to his betters, and should establish a more proper tone. A quite tone, and a respectful one. So as to not alert to many people to the scam.
Not only have you provided a service to writers everywhere, but you entertained us as well. I have several of your books sitting on my shelf–my husband is a big fan, and now you’ve won yourself a new one.
some_guy, can I quote you on that? In blog? Pretty please? I’ve been contemplating a signal-boost post to do both with “Please don’t sign this sort of contract” and “Please, if you are entitled to do so, cast your ballot in the SFWA elections”, and you have just summed up the dovetailing of these issues very, very aptly.
After reading this, I told my wife to hug her publisher the next time they meet. While I, as my spousal duties require, never think that she is being paid enough for her work, she is being paid.
In the interests of a balanced viewpoint Alibi/Random House/Whoever are only doing what they see done in other industries, for example Utilities companies.
The publishers are seeing these industries jack up prices as costs are rising, yet the businesses involved keep on reporting record profits every year. All that has happened is that the utility firms have realized that they can pass all their costs onto the customer and get away with it, as in most cases there are no other alternatives.
I see these bad author contracts as the publishing industry trying to cut it’s own costs in the emerging ebook business by taking a leaf out of other industries business models.
Thankfully there are alternatives here so there should be no reason for anyone to feel that they have to sign their rights away just to get published.
So will you be meeting with Ms. Dobson to discuss the advantages of the Hydra?
I figured it was because he’s so gung ho to open the gates for e-published and self-published works in the SFWA regardless of quality.
Thanks for the great (and scary) article. It’s a great reminder that one little word can cost you a lot of money.
It’s true that a company can choose any business model it sees fit. Including one that ensures no sane person would sign their contract. You’ve earned much Karma Pointscore for “Duty-To-Warn” about this and other FOUL contracts. It defies my comprehension that Yog’s Law has not acquired a corollary to warn against writing such contracts.
Trying to violate Yog…warrants serial reincarnations as a Urinal Mint..
Licensing contracts often contain “throughout he universe in perpetuity” which is ridiculous but also kind of a beautiful optimism.
Ugh. THE universe. Not he universe.
I know where they got this contract – the Music Industry. Reading this piece was Deja-Vu. We went looking for a ‘distribution’ deal for our firts album, which in theory is just a straight i-make-it-you-wholesale-it agreement and instead were offered a Pseudo ‘HAHA we own you fool’ deal masquerading as a contract.The contract we were offered included the same nebulous ‘we’ll deduct pretty much anything we want from the gross and pay you an undefined nett’ and the ‘option’ wasn’t for our next album, it was for ANYTHING we created over the next 3 years. Yep, anything at all – if we wrote a book, made a film, wrote a poem, did a puppet show. When I first read the contract over cereal I had Rice Crispies shooting out of my nose in surprise. I mean, I’ve worked and reviewed tech contracts where the whole contract is geared around two companies looking to screw each other in an organised manner, but this record deal was a whole Level Up. The band was so happy to be offered a contract I was very unpopular for refusing to sign (but it’s a deal! It’s a DEAL! They paid attention to us!) and I had to very gently explain hidden paragraph 16, bottom of the second last page, right in the middle of boring stuff on calculating returns, that gave them Unlimited Power over us for ever and ever Amen. Nutshell: we paid ALL costs up front, give them our product (at our manufacturing cost), they distribute it (we pay all promotional costs), pay us an undefined ‘nett’ up to 18 months after the sale, own us lock stock and barrel for 3 years (for ‘all creative works’ OMFG) and best part? They include the right to sell the contract/deal to a 3rd party at no recompense to us, with no say in the matter and we’d still be bound by the same contract details. Like you John, the type of contract says a lot to me about the proposed relationship. We’d had a good meeting, lots of love, yeah we dig you, lets work together and then we get something that says, effectively, ‘we think you are too stupid to read this contract or maybe desperate enough to sign it’. If it had been a normal work thing for me I woulda called up and said ‘ha ha, very funny, now send the real contract’ (or if I knew them well enough, ” WTF dude, why not just tell me to go @&#* myself?”) but I was a bit green so I just politely declined and did my swearing in private. What’s worse is I know a lot of people who HAVE signed these types of contract, both here and overseas. Sometimes creative types are so thrilled to that someone notices them that they forego unpaid obscurity for some exotic creative sharecropping serfdom. BTW I have kept that contract and occasionally read it for amusement. @#^*# those guys.
This contract actually brings to mind a story I recently read, where lesser known authors were suddenly being offered large advances for their books from parallel universes-the catch was that they were selling the rights to that book for ALL the universe’s not just the one that offered the contract. Seems similar to granting RH subsidiary rights if I am understanding this correctly. Why aren’t’ they at least willing to share the costs on a 50/50 basis just like the profits? Although I still can’t see how this contract would be fair. But as RonZ stated I can see a lot of new authors wanting to be published so badly, and since there are no up front costs being foolish enough to sign such a contract. But does this contract also mean that if RH chooses not to pursue say a video game or film option the author can’t either? And if the contract could be negotiated to only apply to an e-book format, could it then possibly be a worthy contract? I’m guessing you would have some leverage if negotiating a new contract for other formats or mediums.
I just don’t get this. How on earth do they expect to win over any authors with this kind of nonsense. No wonder so many of us have run for the hills.
some_guy, can I quote you on that? In blog? Pretty please? I’ve been contemplating a signal-boost post to do both with “Please don’t sign this sort of contract” and “Please, if you are entitled to do so, cast your ballot in the SFWA elections”, and you have just summed up the dovetailing of these issues very, very aptly.
Is there an error in the following sentence?
“And here’s another thing to consider: When it’s the publisher fronting the costs for printing, warehousing, plant fees or whatever, it will, out of its own self-interest, they will try to lower the cost as much as possible, because not doing so will cut into its profits.”
[I ask, not to be a grammar nerd, but because you might want to fix it. I’ve been grading papers all day and it’s hard to revert to reading passively. Sorry.]
Reblogged this on Jaye Em Edgecliff.
Thank you so much for spelling it out like this! This has been really helpful.
It sort of strikes me that this is not aimed at industry veterans. This type of a contract is aimed at someone who doesn’t know anything at all about contracts; it seems to me like they’re trolling the waters for newbies who don’t know legalese. Had I not been as paranoid as I am about my IP in the face of big businesses, I may very well have signed something like this out of ignorance.
I was unable to find an agent. That was why I self-published with Lulu. I’m saddened that my book hasn’t received hardly any exposure at all, but that’s because Lulu charges incredible amounts for marketing and such (which, really, is how they can publish your book for free). That said, Lulu does not promise you the sun, moon, and stars and you’re free to leave at any time for greener pastures. As I read through that contract, I’m reminded of the struggles I had when I was trying to avoid vanity publishers (for the record, Lulu is not a vanity press. You get exactly what they say you get and nothing more – which, given you pay absolutely nothing to get your book printed, and only pay if you buy it, isn’t too bad. It just sucks that everything else is so friggin’ expensive.)
In short, this reminds me of a vanity press. You pay everything up front, and get practically nothing in return, with the added BS of you losing the rights to your own work. Which, I guess, makes this even worse than an vanity publisher.
It may be time to start checking through the lists in Random House’s Legal section for an A. J. Crowley. Either that, or they’re hosting an escapee from either the music biz, or the writers of software EULAs.
As a lawyer, let me say: Welcome to every day of my life. Blech.
When I went shopping for a publisher for my first book I was woefully naive. I stuck myself with a company so abysmal that I shudder to think what I fell for. While my experience wasn’t quite as bad as Random’s (different company), I still came out with a mere pittance and a company who couldn’t even be bothered to ship orders to my bookstores. They try to push me their stupid marketing schemes (read that spam campaigns for people who apparently don’t own a delete button) in the same phone call where they’re appologizing for being a year (I kid you not) overdue with orders for book conventions. I would caution new writers to join a writer’s organization. Check the scuttlebutt on companies like these. Don’t fall for slick, thinly disguised promises just to see your book in print. DO have Beta readers and editors who give a flying bat that your book is well done. Do find an agent who cares. And don’t quit writing.
These contracts are so appalling I don’t even know where to start–and they make the hundreds of dollars in royalties I’ve been paid for each of my three traditionally published books (granted in a small, niche market) seem positively cheerful. Self publishing is pure joy in comparison. And it pays better.
Brilliance… I constantly harp on newbies in the craft market to not die of “exposure” this runs right in this link…and I have referenced the post (mostly to show the fans that it’s not just me who holds opinions on such matters…)
Reblogged this on PeterGermany's Blog and commented:
Every writer needs to read this, even if you do not agree, which is hard to see, but you should still read this.
John Scalzi is an amazing writer and when I’ve seen him talk in issues such as this I have always found his words helpful
I agree with your observation that these Random House contracts are preying on the vulnerable, ie new and aspiring writers who are ‘desperate’ to get published but also probably don’t have a great deal of knowledge of the industry–because very often you have to be “in” something before you really start to get an understanding of it.
But having also read Victoria Stauss’s analysis on Writer Beware as well, three things stuck me quite strongly.
Firstly, with the deduction of costs model from the writer’s share (so many that one wonders what the publisher is actually contributing/paying for for their share at all), Random House appears to effectively be setting up a ‘company store’ model (http://eh.net/encyclopedia/article/boyd.company.town) for these imprints, where the writers will perpetually be in debt to the company for the ‘costs’ of producing their books.(Another analogy is the ‘truck” system.) This seems a heck of a system for a purportedly reputable publishing company to be promoting.
Secondly, many years ago, I tried my hand at selling cosmetics via the party plan system, but although I did make money, I quickly realized that the way the cosmetics company was structured its primary source of income was selling the cosmetics, but the ‘consultants’ themselves, who had to buy not only their stock and training, but continually update all their sales aids and marketing material etc-al of which ahd to be purchased from the company. The business model Random House is introducing with these imprints strikes me as being very similar in concept.
Thirdly, I have read discussion that the Hydra/ Alibi etc imprints are aimed at attracting independently published authors–but from what I understand of the terms it’s very hard to see any advantage whatsoever in going the indie route: even the carrot of ‘distribution’ smacks of the chimaera in the context of the rest of the contract.
My only hope is that these imprint contracts die simply because they have nothing of any real value to offer, but it does rely on the word getting out there to those who do not have industry experience to assist in evaluating what they are being offered.
Is Random House currently the only publisher offering such contracts or are there others, I wonder?
I have a RH Loveswept contract but I had an agent and it wasn’t my first contract. There is a thing called negotiation if you know what you are doing. All of those clauses have been addressed. However, I agree they are not good and that uninformed writers who don’t have experience or think that RH can be trusted are at risk. However, when would you ever in any other business sign a contract without appropriate advice? W have to learn to treat writing as a business, and treat it as such.
What amazes me in this industry is that many writers don’t appear to learn about their market. They don’t compare their net margin from various channels before signing contracts or looking at channel profitability and likely earnings. I thought that with the ability to self publish, which I also do with great results, this would change. But talking to other romance writers they don’t appear to understand the business side of the industry. That, I think, is their main mistake – especially if you want to make a living from writing.
I’m an indie author, and I believe writers like me are the targets of this Random House obscenity. Not only do we not have agents, we cannot join associations such as the SFWA [or at least that is how I understand the eligibility criteria] which might otherwise inform us about is ‘normal’ and acceptable in the industry. We do, however, crave validation so this particular apple would look very red and shiny. Thanks for sounding the alarm. I’ll try my best to pass the warning on to those who need it the most.
I have been racking my brain for an idea for a really, really, really horrible horror story.
Now I have it. There was this author, and there was this contract…
Ach, I don’t know whether to be relieved or insulted that they haven’t made an offer to me.
This contract reminds me of the typical all-one-way contract used by the music distribution industry. You can read all about it here:
I didn’t think it would be possible to design a contract which makes Publish America look good (By comparison). I’m going to go lie down in a darkened room now.
I was an editor at a large publisher in this field back in the 90s. John gets a couple of things wrong. The first is that, aside from the revenue percentage instead of royalties and lack of an advance, the terms seem to be the same standard boilerplate terms that have been used for years. Of course, no one says you can’t negotiate those terms, even if you don’t have an agent. I can’t recall anyone who didn’t get at least some modifications. But term of copyright, subsidiary rights, options clauses (which were standard for even established authors, though sometimes restricted to next-book-in-series), and world rights were all pretty standard to ask for first-time authors, since the publisher is taking a greater risk on an unknown. But even newbies can negotiate.
One other thing John gets wrong is the world English rights vs North American rights. In a digital world, territorial rights become more and more meaningless. Yes, a retailer like Amazon does try to restrict sales by territory, but it takes draconian measure to do so. It makes much more sense to publishers, authors, and readers to be able to sell an ebook anywhere, regardless of territory. As for the possibility of a print version, that’s something that is going to become less and less meaningful for all but the top-rank authors as the ebook revolution moves forward.
John also errs in trying to claim that all of the production and marketing costs are being “charged” solely to the author. Not so. If they’re being deducted from gross income, they’re being split between the publisher and the author. The compensation is that the return in revenue has the potential to be much greater for the author. Yes, you’re getting paid later rather than up-front, but there is the potential to make more in the long-run. An advance is nice, money in your pocket, but since it’s a much smaller percentage, whether on cover price or net revenue, you’re effectively underwriting the production costs anyway. In the new model, you get paid what the publisher gets paid.
I will agree that in the ebook age, the out-of-print clause is broken and should probably be replaced by a metric linked to level of sales over some time period. I’ll also note that many of John’s objections to this contract are objections to a print edition, when the likelihood of a print editions from an ebook imprint is probably small. Binding costs and reserves against returns are utterly meaningless in selling digital editions.
While there may be objectionable parts to this contract, it’s clearly not the “worst ever.” And I think John and the SFWA are engaging in a knee-jerk reaction and applying print-publishing mentality to a digital world and reacting to change without thinking things through. John talks about his relationship with TOR as a “partnership.” Well, it’s not really. John is just a contractor, filling a content pipeline. He’s paid his fee (advance) and goes on his merry way. Sure, it may seem like a “partnership” and they undoubtedly treat him well, but it’s not a true partnership. The business model in the Hydra and Alibi contracts is a partnership, which requires shared risk for the potential of a much greater share of the profits.
There’s another little twist to that contract, which I agree is the worst contract on planet Earth, and that is this: As you point out, Random House has presses and warehouses and allalikethat, for which the author will be paying. But as a PART of the cost of the presses and warehouses and allalikethat, the author would ALSO be paying the OVERHEAD on those presses and warehouses–which means stuff like, oh, editorial salaries and benefits packages, and rent and utilities on those New York offices. So the author who signs this contract is not just giving up all rights, he’s paying the costs of operating the publishing house, all for the glory of, um, seeing his name in print. Maybe. If he’s lucky.
Thank you for posting the terms of the contract, because I always wanted to know what they were. I’m a law school drop out, and I love looking for sneaky things hiding in contracts. To Alibi’s credit, the editor was very responsive to me, giving me a lot of valuable feedback on how to improve my manuscript. Regardless, I’m glad to stay self-published after reading that bumblef*ck of a contract.
“The first is that, aside from the revenue percentage instead of royalties and lack of an advance, the terms seem to be the same standard boilerplate terms that have been used for years.”
i.e., “except for the most horribly egregious parts of the contract which represent a wholesale revision of how the business of publishing is done, this is a pretty standard contract.” Yeah, no. Also, speaking as someone who looks at contracts today, Alibi’s ask as regards subsidiary rights, etc is outsized.
Quite obviously things can be negotiated, but the point here is what the baseline assumptions are. The baseline assumptions of Alibi are pretty egregious. And while an author with an agent or (possibly but not certainly) a more experienced author might flag this stuff, a newbie author who has no idea of what the field is like, probably would not. When Alibi says “oh, this is all standard,” the author will have no frame of reference to disagree.
“One other thing John gets wrong is the world English rights vs North American rights. In a digital world, territorial rights become more and more meaningless.”
One, you’re referring to the world of the future as opposed to the world today, and in the world today, i.e., when this contract would actually be in effect, they matter. Two, you’re wrong as regards the future. Speaking as someone who lives in the digital world quite a lot, actually, territorial rights are a profit center for me now and so long as there are actual political territories that differ from one another. What will become more important is managing release dates so that books release the same time worldwide (in the same language, at least), but that’s an entirely separate thing.
“Yes, you’re getting paid later rather than up-front, but there is the potential to make more in the long-run.”
Unless, of course, Alibi/Random House, who has the ability to introduce any number of additional costs to the equation at their discretion, decides to do so, which has the potential to continually drag down the author’s income. You’re also eliding the fact that Random House owns (or has sunk costs in) the printing presses and warehouses and other services; the author is obliged to buy from the “company store.” So in “sharing the cost,” Random House is paying itself, and the author is paying Random House.
“An advance is nice, money in your pocket”
Leave it someone who is not a writer to minimize the importance of the money the author receives. An advance isn’t just “nice,” it is a concrete amount of money that a publisher is required pay an author, which cannot be fungibly frittered away by the machinations of a publisher. Moreover, the advance is called an advance for a reason — it’s advanced against the author’s share of the backend, meaning the publisher gets that money back during the life of the book. Removing that advance doesn’t change the amount of money the publisher receives from successful publication. What it does, however, is change the amount the author is guaranteed to receive. And for most authors, that’s not just nice, that’s essential.
“but since it’s a much smaller percentage, whether on cover price or net revenue, you’re effectively underwriting the production costs anyway.”
I find it interesting that somewhere between the top of your comment and here, you’ve forgotten that contract terms can be negotiated.
“John talks about his relationship with TOR as a ‘partnership.’ Well, it’s not really. John is just a contractor, filling a content pipeline. He’s paid his fee (advance) and goes on his merry way.”
Thus illustrating how little you know of my relationship with Tor, and (I’ll note) how wrong you are in assuming my relationship with Tor is completed only after I get paid an advance.
You’re also entirely wrong that the Alibi contracts a true partnership; that’s just laughably false. What it offers is a way for Random House to avoid paying advances while shifting costs it previously assumed onto the author — costs that the author will pay to Random House. It’s a nice trick, but it ain’t a partnership, in the sense that the partners are genuinely equal.
“And I think John and the SFWA are engaging in a knee-jerk reaction and applying print-publishing mentality to a digital world and reacting to change without thinking things through.”
There is some lovely irony to someone who purports to have been an editor two decades ago suggesting that someone who works daily in the field here in this millennium that he’s thinking in the past. It’s certainly true you don’t seem to have a grip on how things work in this field at the moment. It also seems pretty clear to me that you don’t think much of authors.
Just a quick way to show how this deal favors the publisher an not the writer.
If the book earns as much as its setup cost, everyone who worked on the book gets paid except the author. If the book earns twice its startup cost, everyone at Hydra/Alibi/wherever gets paid, the company doubles its money, and the author gets nothing.
Some publishers might do great work that is worth their share. I don’t know. I do know that the author deserves a share, no matter what. The book wouldn’t exist without the author.
Music labels have been ripping of musicians with contracts like this since the 50’s… and given that the publishers are owned by the same conglomerates who own many of the record labels, I guess it’s not shocking that this has happened. I can imagine some exec of the conglomerate asking, “If we charge a rock band for album art, and production and distribution and warehousing charges (even for digital sales) then why are we letting authors get off so easy?” (See the Jared Leto documentary Artifact to see how music labels put musicians further and further in the debt to them with each album they produce. Or remember how Prince had to change his name to a non-existant name, to get out of a contract.)
But seriously. Wow. I hope this isn’t a sign of things to come in the industry. And even if it’s egregious in the music industry, at least musicians have the opportunity to earn through performing live. Authors do not have this same potential revenue source.
There are a few small non-advance paying digital publishers who are using a profit sharing model, (eg. Entangled) but, wait. It’s not profit sharing there, it’s revenue sharing… BIG difference. When it’s profit sharing, and only the conglomerate has any control over, and access to the accounting, or how profit is defined, then it’s hardly fair. At least revenue is typically an easy to define, easy to prove accounting term. (This from an author who is also a CPA, CA.)
As you said, the author is the ignorant one in this contract. Not because the author isn’t smart, but because the author lacks all the information they’d need to determine whether or not the amount they are paid, (assuming they’re ever paid anything) is fair. Chances are, with this kind of deal, most authors will never earn a penny and will remain in debt to the publisher.
Praying they don’t get away with this. Thanks for spreading the word.
Um, ripping off. :) Nice to have a typo in the first line of my comment. D’oh.
I dare say that the two contracts you reviewed make me think that Random House is trying to make their imprints be the new Vangaurd ‘vanity press’ model where the author pays for everything but with a new twist of owning the rights until years after you are dead. I didn’t think you could get more hurtful to the author than the old vanity model. I’m very glad I’m going the indie publishing route.
I don’t know why Random House thinks writers would be in a position to be able to take on the costs up front. I thought that was why the standard included forwarding an advance.
First, I’m going to go to bat on point zero. When I was publisher at Stone Dragon Press, my contract was a no-advance contract because I was using print-on-demand (which was new in 1998). I told authors their books would never be out of print with Stone Dragon, and I hoped that would make up for the non-advance. After all, even if they moved to a Big Publisher, when fans came for their earlier work, it would be there. The authors I talked to seemed to understand that.
In addition, my contract had an expiration date of five years. At that point, your book was yours again with a simple letter. If you book blows up, you can take it to Big Publisher, and I can’t do anything about it. I’m small, so I can’t give you an advance and give you the release, too.
Those two things seemed fair *in combination*. They are just engineering a grab.
Second, only rubes think there’s a back end. Authors get paid from cover price, end of story. Any contract says different isn’t worth the ink it’s printed under.
For those of you keeping score, the Stone Dragon Standard Rich and Famous Contract is somewhere at StoneDragonPress.com, but I can’t tell you where, because the webmaster used frames. From the front page, click the “About SDP” link, then seach the word “contracts”.
World rights forever! I laffed so hard, I may never laff again.
which represent a wholesale revision of how the business of publishing is done
Is this the crux of the issue, that it’s a new business model? It is new, and it may be the worst business model ever or it may be revitalizing and revolutionary. But it seems a way to get more new authors published with a solid marketing program. Just because authors didn’t share the risks under the old model, doesn’t mean they won’t be better off under the new one.
One, you’re referring to the world of the future as opposed to the world today, and in the world today, i.e., when this contract would actually be in effect, they matter. Two, you’re wrong as regards the future. Speaking as someone who lives in the digital world quite a lot, actually, territorial rights are a profit center for me now…What will become more important is managing release dates so that books release the same time worldwide (in the same language, at least), but that’s an entirely separate thing.
No, I’m referring to the world of today and the very near future, when these ebooks will be published. Territories and release dates are meaningless for ebooks, which by their nature are almost designed for global distribution.
Unless, of course, Alibi/Random House, who has the ability to introduce any number of additional costs to the equation at their discretion, decides to do so, which has the potential to continually drag down the author’s income. You’re also eliding the fact that Random House owns (or has sunk costs in) the printing presses and warehouses and other services
Under a revenue sharing plan, dragging down the author’s income is also dragging down the publisher’s income. The plant cost (editorial, cover, design, and file prep) for producing ebooks is a pretty fixed one. No printing presses or warehouses required. And as a point of info, I know of no major publishers who “sink” anything into printing presses, that’s all contracted out, as is, increasingly, warehousing and fulfillment. But, of course, that’s all for printed editions. Not ebooks.
Leave it someone who is not a writer to minimize the importance of the money the author receives. An advance isn’t just “nice,” it is a concrete amount of money that a publisher is required pay an author, which cannot be fungibly frittered away by the machinations of a publisher.
I’m well aware what an “advance” means and how the accounting works. Nor am I at all minimizing the importance of an author getting paid. What I am emphasizing is that an advance against a royalty may be less money than can be had with a larger share of the net revenue.
I find it interesting that somewhere between the top of your comment and here, you’ve forgotten that contract terms can be negotiated.
Not at all. You can try for a higher royalty and as an established author you might get it. But there’s a limit to how far a publisher will be willing to go with a new author, which seems to be the focus of these new imprints. The point still stands that this royalty will be much lower than the 50% net revenue, and thus the author is already subsidizing production costs.
Thus illustrating how little you know of my relationship with Tor
I need know nothing of your relationship with Tor than the fact that you’re under contract with them in a royalty arrangement to note that this is the role of a contractor. A partnership means sharing both risk and reward. As a contractor, you bear none of the risk: if a book fails, you come out ahead. If a book succeeds, your royalty–unless it is the equivalent of 50% of net proceeds–means you reap less of the reward. Under this new model you’re not “paying” costs of production and marketing to Random House, you don’t cut them a check, you’re sharing the costs. Just because you didn’t bear those risks under the old business model, doesn’t change the facts of the new one, however you want to mischaracterize them.
There is some lovely irony to someone who purports to have been an editor two decades ago suggesting that someone who works daily in the field here in this millennium that he’s thinking in the past. It’s certainly true you don’t seem to have a grip on how things work in this field at the moment. It also seems pretty clear to me that you don’t think much of authors.
I can see in the light of your erroneous assumptions and blinding bile that nothing will get through. You can’t seem to get past applying the economics of a print world to a wholly digital world.
Oh I was indeed an editor in the genre in the late 80s through the mid-90s. The fact that I’m not working in that particular genre now doesn’t mean I’m not intimately involved in publishing, especially ebooks. I am. My grip on how thing work now is just fine. Things are changing. I also have a grip on how you would like things to work in the face of those changes, which is to reflexively recoil from anything that addresses those changes. I think the world of authors and definitely want them to succeed and prosper. I just don’t automatically assume the worst about publishers
Life imitating fiction? This reminds me of a scene in the 1974 film “Phantom of the Paradise.” Swan, who is the Devil, has handed Winslow, a musician, a contract as large as two volumes of an encyclopaedia.
Swan: Here’s the contract. Everything I’ve said and more is in it.
Winslow: I’ll read it.
Swan: At your leisure.
Winslow: “The party of the first part gives the party of the second part and his associates full power to with him at their pleasure. To rule, to send, to fetch, or carry him or his, be it either body, soul, flesh, blood or goods.” What does that mean?
Swan: That’s a transportation clause.
Winslow: “All articles which have been excluded shall be deemed included.” What does that mean?
Swan: That’s a clause to protect you, Winslow. Anyway, what difference does it make? What choice do you have?
My concern with a no-advance model is this scenario- even if the publisher is absolutely honest and has good intentions, what is the author’s recourse against bankruptcy?
“No, I’m referring to the world of today and the very near future, when these ebooks will be published. Territories and release dates are meaningless for ebooks, which by their nature are almost designed for global distribution.”
Merely repeating what you’ve previously asserted doesn’t make it true, unfortunately. You are, flatly, incorrect; eBooks are agnostic about territories. They are more sensitive to release dates, but that has nothing to do with territorial rights. If you think it’s better for an author to sell the worldwide electronic rights once for “x” rather than selling territorial electronic rights for “x” and “y,” (where both “x” and “y” are greater than zero), then allow me to suggest you bone up on your basic math skills.
“The plant cost (editorial, cover, design, and file prep) for producing ebooks is a pretty fixed one. No printing presses or warehouses required.”
This only goes to the point that you’re not paying attention to what I noted is actually in the contact, as the contract explicitly covers the right to create print books (and audiobooks, etc) and that each of these come with costs attached, formerly covered by the publisher, now borne by the author. Moreover the author as no way of controlling the costs of each of these or when they are to be applied; it’s up to the publisher, which again, create many opportunities for mischief, especially as the author is likely to be ignorant of what the actual costs of these things are rather than what they are told they are. Which does not indicate an equal partnership as you suggest.
“What I am emphasizing is that an advance against a royalty may be less money than can be had with a larger share of the net revenue.”
Or it might be more, of course. As you profess to know about what advances are and how they work, then you’re aware that sometimes authors make more via their advances than they would have earned as a straight royalty; this is equally true as regards net revenue. It’s not at all clear that not getting an advance will be advantageous to the author; it is abundantly clear, however, that the publisher does not have to pay an advance. That’s to the immediate advantage of the publisher.
“The point still stands that this royalty will be much lower than the 50% net revenue”
No, that’s incorrect, too. A royalty based on cover price, for example, can be more than 50% of net revenue, if the publisher finds itself taking a bath on the book for whatever reason. Net revenue relates to the profit the company makes the book; royalty is independent of that profit.
The best you can say is that some arrangements will be better than others, depending on circumstances, to which I would say, well, duh. Generally speaking, however, it’s best for the authors to get paid up front.
“As a contractor, you bear none of the risk: if a book fails, you come out ahead.”
You know, one of the stupider things being bruited about in these conversations is how authors bear none of the risk of publishing, as if author’s work just sort of magically appears out the ether without the authors having to decide how to manage their time and opportunity costs when it comes to creating work — or, in this case, how if a book fails then the author comes out ahead, because obviously the author is not in the least bit touched by the failure of a book and it will have no bearing on the author’s career. Here’s a funny thing — if an author’s book fails, that author might never get another book deal — meanwhile the publisher plugs along perfectly well, because it mitigates its risk over a series of releases.
So tell me again how I or any author, contractor by your characterization or not, bears none of the risk if a book fails, financial or otherwise — I want to savor the juicy, arrogant, sociopathic cluelessness of it.
“I can see in the light of your erroneous assumptions and blinding bile that nothing will get through.”
Oh, quite a lot is coming through, ex-editor. It’s probably true it’s not what you intended.
And yes, I do have an adverse reaction to people spouting off about how I’m wrong about things when it’s clear they haven’t actually paid attention to what was written, are themselves manifestly incorrect about critical things, and top that off with a smug lack of concern for the well-being of the author in the face of a corporation that wants to project itself as an equal partner in a deal which by its very nature (and the very nature of the publisher’s resources versus those of the author) is wildly and unfairly unequal. Why might that be, Ex-Editor? Can you guess?
“I also have a grip on how you would like things to work in the face of those changes, which is to reflexively recoil from anything that addresses those changes.”
Yes, that’s it. Another one for the “how to be stupidly wrong” pile.
In point of fact, I have tried and do choose to try to do all sorts of different things in terms of how I approach publishing and making money therein; I tend to report back to readers here when I do. This critical actual experience with revenue-sharing, for example, is one reason why I feel comfortable pointing out the egregious stupidity of Alibi’s contract.
You may, I’m sure, understand why I advantage my own real-world knowledge of these things over the assertions of an anonymous commenter on my site whose asserted practical experience is decades out of date, minus a suggestion here and there that they do so have current experience.
“I think the world of authors and definitely want them to succeed and prosper.”
That’s easy to say. The rest of your words, unfortunately, belie the assertion.
@scalzi I admire this takedown more than I can ever /possibly/ express!
@Ex-Editor: please define “solid marketing program.” I’m trying not to be sarcastic, especially since I have seen precious little marketing being done by publishers (exceptions being Household Names). But if a “solid marketing program” is a collection of instructions for authors to do their own marketing, that isn’t cutting it. I kind of have a feeling that you know a lot about the Alibi/Hydra/etc publishing model here…
Thanks do much for sharing and for the in depth review. New writers should all send you a vote if thanks – or wine – for this article.
Blinding bile? That’s….an awkward metaphor. Next I suppose we’ll be told that Scalzi is so enraged he’s choking on earwax.
I’m not an author, but a drummer, and this kind of deal is traditional in the music industry. Steve Albini wrote a great piece about it years ago–‘The Problem With Music.’
Astonishingly, I think I might have a worse contract than this from an otherwise “reputable” small publisher in my hands. I’ve been hoping to negotiate a FAR more aggressive ROFR clause, but with the number of other similarities between this contract and Hydra’s (points 0, 1, 4 and 6 are the same), I wonder if it’s worth it.
The publisher doesn’t do speculative fiction, so it may not be of interest to you, but let me know if it is.
You know, I still would, just to see if the interest is there. If they want it, there’s a good chance that someone else will, as well.
Why wouldn’t they want it? It doesn’t cost them ANYTHING to sign the contract, and they get to tie up your work, and your next work at the same terms (which might very well include the same option on the work after THAT). So why would they pass up signing up anyone or the power to option any subsequent work if there’s no cost to do so?
Reblogged this on mishaburnett and commented:
Definitely worth reading for anyone for anyone wanting to get published.
May I ask a question?
Why would any writer, fiction, SF or otherwise, would do *(ANY)* sort of business with a company named either Alibi or Hydra???
Because they aren’t intrinsically offensive names? “Alibi” is a concept tightly linked to the mystery genre, and naming a SF/F imprint for a famous mythological creature isn’t exactly uncommon.
Also, Hydra House are a distinctly respectable publisher and should not be tarred with the same brush as Random House’s Hydra imprint just because they share a name.
Why stoop to such shallow reasons as “ew, I don’t like the name!” to shun Random House’s new imprints when their contracts are littered with readily available profound ones?
TV appearance contracts often contain “all rights, in perpetuity, throughout the universe” — it wouldn’t surprise me one bit that the business affairs lawyers making lateral moves from from reality TV to publishing, in the same conglomerate, decided to see just how many rights they could bigfoot from similarly inexperienced authors.
Oh, and there’s one more field where the writer pays fees upfront, in order to be read and/or produced: Playwriting.
For those asking about RWA and member protection, yes, they do take this kind of thing very seriously. In fact, given their size, they actually have appreciable impact. They sent out an alert to all members last week regarding the Loveswept, Flirt, Hydra, and Alibi imprints which included this statement:
“As an association established to advance the professional interests of career-focused romance writers, RWA stresses to its members that when a writer enters into a contract with a publisher, money should flow to the writer. When a publisher offers a contract for assignment of rights, the consideration provided by the publisher in exchange for the author’s rights includes underwriting the costs of production and marketing. Cost-sharing business models are usually exploitative of authors. In addition, publishers should always be willing to revert rights to authors under mutually agreed upon, contractually specified circumstances.”
Additionally, Random House spoke with RWA’s Executive Director and RWA let their concerns be known. As much as it is true that vanity presses, etc, count on people who are desperate to be published, it would be very, very difficult for a publisher to run a successful romance line like Loveswept or Flirt if RWA were to blacklist them. The romance community is very cohesive.
What I find strange about this contract is that I didn’t expect any middleman to so desperately beg to be cut out. The whole model makes me picture railroads and Chinese people.
The obvious question is: what ARE they offering? The author now not only risks having wasted a significant amount of time (in which he didn’t make any money), but also takes all the financial risk without even getting a say in what the money is spent on.
How is there any benefit in this over self-publishing? You still have to pay the bills yourself, but at least you get to pick the menu. You still carry all the risk, but at least you get to keep your rights. Oh, and 100% of the profits.
If the publisher is merely offering PAID services (basically a convenience over having to do it yourself or find someone else to do it), how is it justified to ask for the rights and 50% of the profit on top of that?
Okay, I’m pretty much just repeating and paraphrasing what has been said already, but still… WTF? Was there a recent change of management at Random House? Did sanity leave the building?
While I don’t expect an advance (we small press folks are used to working for back-end money), I do expect my rights back after 5-7 years. Inkstained Succubus (my house, 3 titles now, 3 coming this month) is back-end money only, and we ask for audio rights. But the ONLY thing the author is ever asked to pay for is actual physical copies of the book (at a discount) over and above their two.
I managed to sign not one but TWO life-of-copyright contracts with Ellora’s Cave.They have changed the contract in the last two years, and I didn’t read it all, just the parts I already KNEW were problematic. My own damn fault. I am horrified to see a New York publisher going the same route with the rights grab. At least with Ellora, I get 37.5% royalties and I can ask for rights back if it doesn’t sell 100 copies in a year.
Another clause to look out for is the “indeminfication” one. I’ve seen a lot of these clauses that ask the writer to protect the publisher for all legal fees if there’s a dispute. Now, if you’ve stolen the story or get into a dispute with the publisher, this clause makes sense. BUT anyone can file a suit. That suit may get dismissed as frivolous. AND you’ll still pay the bill as the writer. Defending law suits for the books they publish is part of overhead. Seriously people. If I’ve done something wrong, fine.But not unless I have.
The more I see of the traditional publishing world, the happier I am to be an indie author. Someone mentioned above being part of an author coop. I am as well and it is grand. We reduce costs of self-publishing while improving quality. I feel so bad for writers who still think that a publishing contract, any publishing contract, is the Holy Grail. No, it is, at best, selling your product for way less than it is worth, giving most of the profit to someone else. At worst, as represented by this contract, it is indentured servitude.
I can’t tell you how grateful I am that you put this out there. I just received almost a carbon copy of this contract from an indie publisher who wanted to republish in new editions my existing books and take on anything else I cared to send his way.
Obviously I’m not going to sign it. But having read your blog on it, when I did read the terms and conditions (which were ludicrous–I mean, are they kidding? Do these publishers not know that authors can and do communicate with each other and share experiences?) although it made me feel slightly queasy that these people were trying to have one over on me, at least I knew where I’d seen this swindling talk before, and I knew it wasn’t me being precious. So thanks. Really appreciate it.
Reblogged this on Slightly Scorched and Crunchy-Smooshy and commented:
For those of you who wonder why agents exist in the first place… Seriously. This.
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Thank you so much for posting this. I knew things were not very bright for new authors when it came to contracts with publishers (with exceptions, of course, as noted in this thread), but I would never dream if could ge THAT bad. This thing of forcebly selling your whole idea should you decide to write a sequel is disgusting.
I entered a contest for Leya, one of the big, maybe biggest publishers in Portuguese language. The winner gets about 150k in advance and hands them universal rights (for other media such as TV, for translations, etc.) during 10 years. After selling 85k copies, the author starts getting royalties (I don’t remember how much). Even with the fat advance, I confess I was a bit scared.
Gosh, this really inspires me to go self-publishing…
Thanks again for this wonderful post!