Note to SF/F Writers: Random House’s Hydra Imprint Has Appallingly Bad Contract Terms
Random House recently started Hydra, an electronic-only imprint for science fiction stories and short novels. But, as noted by Writer Beware here, the terms in a Hydra deal sheet shown to them are pretty damn awful:
* No advance.
* The author is charged “set-up costs” for editing, artwork, sale, marketing, publicity — i.e., all the costs a publisher is has been expected to bear. The “good news” is that the author is not charged up front for these; they’re taken out of the backend. If the book is ever published in paper, costs are deducted for those, too.
* The contract asks for primary and subsidiary rights for the term of copyright.
Writer Beware notes, appropriately, that this information comes from only one deal sheet it’s seen from Hydra. But, you know what: One attempt at this sort of appalling, rapacious behavior on the part of Random House is bad enough.
Dear writers: This is a horrendously bad deal and if you are ever offered something like it, you should run away as fast as your legs or other conveyances will carry you.
1. NO ADVANCE. Dear Random House: Are you fucking kidding me? Random House had 1.7 billion euros in revenue in 2011 (Bertelsmann, the parent company, had fifteen billion euro in revenue in the same year, with over six hundred million euro in net income) and you somehow can’t afford advances all of a sudden? Color me skeptical.
Advances are typically all authors make from a book. It’s a competitive market and most books sell relatively small numbers. One reason to go with a publisher at all — especially these days — is because you get a concrete, definable amount of money fronted to you at the start; which is to say, you know you’ll get paid at least that much. The publisher is not doing you a favor by fronting you an advance; the publisher is making a hard-headed determination of how much money it will owe you (under terms of contract) and giving you that much up front so they don’t have to bother with royalties on the back end.
It’s also — importantly — an amount of money the publisher has invested in a book, which it will not get back if the book fails. It’s the publisher’s skin in the game, as it were. If there’s no advance, there’s no skin in the game for the publisher, and no real motivation for the publisher to bust its ass on behalf of the book.
Neither Random House nor Bertelsmann is some hard-scrabble, scrappy company trying to make it in this big world; please look again at their revenues and net income. However, even if they were hard-scrabble, scrappy companies it would still be wrong not to offer advances to authors.
Now, according to Writer Beware, Hydra is offering to split the net it makes from the books 50/50, which on the surface at least is a better cut than what authors currently get from traditional publishers (which is typically 25% of net). No doubt this 50/50 net split is being dangled as a fair trade for an advance. But remember that by avoiding paying any advance at all Random House has hugely mitigated its risk — which means that it has positioned itself to start making a profit from the writer’s work from day one without any substantial financial investment on its part.
Theoretically the author would be making a profit from day one, too, but wait:
2. The author is being charged costs previously borne by the publisher. That “one time” fee for editing/design plus a continual “sales, marketing and publicity fee” of 10% of the net revenue, plus additional continual printing and warehousing fees if the book ever goes to print.
What this means is that the author starts off his or her publishing journey in the hole to the publisher for an unspecified “one time” fee that publishers previously covered as part of their ordinary expenses, and see their income permanently diminished by other charges previously assumed by the publisher; the deal sheet in question states that the “50/50 split” is after these charges are accounted for, i.e., Random House has just made sure that the real world value of that “50/50 split” is substantially closer to the 25% of net that its traditionally-published authors are offered.
And how much will that “one time” fee for editing and design be? I don’t know, but I know that good editing, cover art, page and book design aren’t cheap; Donato Giancola, the artist who did the painting for the hardcover of Old Man’s War, got paid nearly as much for his work as I got paid to write the book. It’s not in the least unreasonable to assume that “startup costs” for a book can cost thousands of dollars. So that’s thousands of dollars that are going to be applied against the income of the writer before he or she makes dollar one — but not before Random House starts making money. Remember again that Random House is shunting some (and, well, possibly all) of its editorial costs over to the writer’s ledger; it’s once again actively minimizing its own costs — and investment — by maximizing the costs to the writer.
All of which is to say that it wouldn’t surprise me if Random House’s charges and fees just somehow manage to zero out an author’s earnings for a year or two and possibly even longer. It should be noted that most books sell nearly all they are going to sell within the first couple of years; after that they get lost in the pile of newer releases, including from the author. Hydra’s deal model has the marvelous potential of cutting out the economic heart of the book for the writer — but not, it should be noted, for the publisher, who will do just fine because its costs have been mitigated up front.
Musicians out there reading this may be smiling ruefully at this point, because they will recognize this sort of accounting; it’s how the music labels worked their accounting for years, carefully calibrating their fees and costs to make sure their musicians made as close to zero as possible while the labels kept all the money. But at least the musical labels paid their musicians an advance; Random House’s innovation here is that they aren’t even doing that.
Note to Random House: You’re aware what the typical consumer thinks of music labels at this point, right? You’re aware that one of the reasons that people don’t feel bad about pirating music is because they believe strongly that the music labels screwed the musicians anyway, so why bother? So, if your contracts are even less fair to authors than musical label contracts are to musicians, what are they going to think about you? And how does it look for the industry as a whole? You’re not making it easier for anyone.
All of this is terrible, but if you’re the writer and you sign on to this, there’s not much you can do about it because:
3. The contract is for the length of copyright. Which means you will never get the property back to sell it to someone who will offer better terms, and apparently even subsidiary rights are covered in the deal. To use the music label metaphor once more, this is like the music label owning the master tapes of an album. And again one is left to wonder what in the last twenty years of the economic history of the music industry suggested to Random House that this would be a fine model for them to follow.
Again: This is on the basis of one Hydra deal sheet that Writer Beware has seen. But again: Even one deal sheet of such appalling excrescence is one too many. If this is the economic model Random House genuinely plans to follow for the future of electronic publishing, it deserves to die. It’s horrible for authors, which is bad enough, but it’s also horribly bad for the industry, both in terms of optics (do consumers really need another reason to hate large publishing companies?) and in chaining publishers to a cycle of diminishing returns.
It’s also bad because, frankly, it’s delusional. Dear Random House: It’s clear you’re targeting new, unagented authors here because no agent who is not manifestly incompetent would allow his or her client to sign such a terrible contract. But here’s the thing: New authors don’t actually need you to sell their work online. They can do it themselves — and are, and some of them are doing quite well at it. You are working under the assumption that these newer authors are so eager to be with a “real” publisher that they will suddenly forget that publishers are no longer a bottleneck to being published, or that you are offering nothing they can’t do themselves (or have done for them) and offering them nothing for the service — indeed your business model appears predicated on sucking as much as possible from them in fees and charges while offering as little as possible in way of compensation. Hydra is a vanity publisher, in sum.
Do you genuinely believe these new authors are that stupid? And if so, do you genuinely want an entire imprint of your publishing empire populated by such people?
Let’s talk about me for a moment. Anyone who knows me knows I feel pretty positively about the traditional publishing model; I work with Tor (part of Macmillan, one of publishing’s “Big Six”) because I get excellent service from it, including brilliant editing, fantastic art and design and top-flight marketing and publicity. Tor and its people earn every penny they make from my books, as far as I’m concerned, and I’m happy to partner with them and hope to do so far into the future; I am happy to defend Tor whenever someone blithely and stupidly suggests that my publisher is “just a middleman” sucking money from me. They aren’t and they don’t.
But make no mistake that my admiration for Tor — or any of my publishers, large or small — is grounded in the fact that ours is an equitable relationship. The minute the relationship stops being equitable is the moment when the relationship is done. Because the fact of the matter is that, if it came to it, I could put out my own work; pay for the editing and art and everything else and then put all the profit into my pocket. Because this is the world we live in now. I don’t usually want to, for all sorts of reasons. But I could. And at this point, so can anyone.
And this is ultimately what I would say to any author who is considering Hydra or any publisher (large or small) who would offer a deal as fundamentally awful as what Hydra seems to be offering: Why partner with someone who doesn’t see you as a partner? The Hydra deal sheet is pretty clear about this — it’s not a contract of partners, it’s a contract a parasite offers to a host. But the fact is that if Hydra likes your stuff enough to want it, then you can probably find a real publisher, who offers a real partnership, including the payment of advances and the assumption of risk. Or you can publish it yourself, pay your costs up front (hey, they’re business expenses!) and keep everything you make.
In short: You can do better than Hydra. So do better.
P.S.: As a note to any publishing house checking to see if authors will kick if you try to slide this shit past us and say it’s “the new reality of publishing” — this is us kicking. We will kick you plenty hard. Yes we will.
Update, 8:38pm: I’ve seen a contract from Alibi, Hydra’s sister imprint. It’s terrible. See my review here.