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.

176 Comments on “Note to SF/F Writers: Random House’s Hydra Imprint Has Appallingly Bad Contract Terms”

  1. Disclosure: Random House is one of my publishers; specifically its Heyne science fiction imprint in Germany. I will note that Heyne (and by extension Random House) has always treated me marvelously well and I am happy to have that publishing relationship with them.

    Additional note: The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, of which I am the sitting president, sent an e-mail to its members today informing them that Hydra is not a qualifying market for SFWA membership, due to lack of advances and questionable contract terms. Other Random House imprints remain qualifying markets.

    And also: While this particular entry concerns itself with Hydra, it would be worth it for people in the mystery and “New Adult” genres to see if Hydra’s fellow eBook only imprints Alibi and Flirt are offering similar terms. I would not be horribly surprised if they are.

  2. Aptly named – Genus Hydra: a predatory animal with tentacles that stings their prey, immobilizing them before eating them alive…

  3. Wasn’t Hydra the name of the bad-guy organization from Captain America (the movie – I am unsure about the comic books)? I don’t know if they knew that before choosing the Hydra moniker, but after reading this, feel it is extremely appropriate.

    Hopefully the head of Hydra is at *least* a redhead.

  4. It’s like they sat down at the conference table and the agenda said: “What can we do to push new authors into self-publishing instead of traditional publishing?” This would just about do it.

  5. I write and publish tech ebooks for no advance and a 50% split (after the etailer takes a 4% cut), but the publisher absorbs all editorial, publicity, and cover art costs, and, most importantly, I retain the copyright. I don’t mind not getting an advance because I see royalties within a month of publication, and monthly thereafter.

    The Random House deal, on the other hand, both sucks and blows.

  6. A little point regarding similarities with music contracts: the advance paid by one’s record company is used to pay for the costs of recording the album. This includes paying a recording studio, its engineer, the producer’s fee, paying any studio musicians or audio specialists brought in, various material expenses (like tape, when it was used), mastering and all other expenses relating to generating the album master and delivering it for manufacturing. Oh, and supporting the artist(s) during that process… if there’s anything left.

    Since the contract would specify that the label gets to approve the recording facilities and producer, the artist would usually be forced to use whichever of those the label wanted them to – which might mean those costs would be OUTRAGEOUSLY high, especially the producer’s fee. Naturally, the studios and producers would pay kickbacks to the record label (which is of course illegal, but it was “cleverly” hidden and nobody talks about it), so the label would actually get a big chunk of the advance put right back in their own pockets.

    The ease with which a recording artist could blow through a $500,000 advance – and how little of the advance would end up supporting the band – would probably shock most people.

    Writers actually get to live off their advances! I agree 100% that nobody should sign a publishing deal with a company as big as Random House without getting one.

  7. So, this is the deal:You work your butt off, typing, writing,editing, researching the publishers, and they OWN your work essentially forever? Do they get your dog and car too if they sell your work overseas? Thanks, but no, Hydra..

  8. There are a huge number of predatory publishers out there, waiting to sucker some unsuspecting author into the nightmare deal of a lifetime. Scary to see an imprint of one of the “Big Six” (or “Big Five”, “Big Four”, “Big Three”, whatever it is now) doing the same thing. Thank you for bringing this to light, John.

  9. Truly, I would take my book to Lulu and self-publish before I would sign my work over to *anyone* for the entire length of the copyright with no advance. Even if I wrote the types of things my Dad writes — long-winded religious screeds with some personal history thrown in. (Which is to say, the kind of book that would be exceeding expectations if it ever went into triple digit sales.) They might not make me money, and in fact probably wouldn’t — but at the end of the day, if I wanted to take it down, it would still be mine to do that with, and they wouldn’t fuel any grand delusions about making me a successful author while they were at it. This nonsense is downright predatory.

  10. Would lack of advance, absent the other appalling terms, disqualify another epublisher?

  11. Interesting. What you’re essentially saying is that I was *lucky* not to have my MSS ready in time? :D

  12. Note that when I clicked on the website link provided in the Writer Beware blog, Chrome said the writerbeware website contained malware.

  13. If Captain America has taught me anything, it’s never to trust Hydra. Glad to see the publishing industry keeping comic books real.

  14. Those terms sound so awful that I wonder if Hydra is meant to be a vanity-publishing imprint.

  15. Particularly troubling, to me anyway, is that they’re not alone in being a large publishing conglomerate offering what amounts to contracted theft to authors under the guise of e-publishing. It’s a very bad trend.

  16. C.S. Samulski:

    “And doesn’t relying on the advance for the sum total of your earnings set you up for an unsustainable career?”

    No; some authors do just fine having their book earnings covered by advances, provided the advances are substantial enough. And in any event, in general they do better getting some amount of money up front than getting no money up front and a deal that could be tuned to keep them from getting any money at all for a substantial amount of time.

    As for the rest of your question, it’s off topic to the post at hand. The topic is not you, it’s the Hydra deal. Let’s stay on topic, please.

  17. Dear Hydra: Do not piss off successful writers, for they are articulate and have large audiences.

  18. Sounds like this could easily call back to that piece you did about not working for free. I forget what it was titled, but do remember the main take-away lesson: “fuck you, pay me”.

    Sounds pretty bad. I’m no author but I have no desire to see authors treated badly. Good on you, John Scalzi, for helping to call out this behaviour :)

  19. What an appropriate name. As you point out, this looks like a vanity publisher. Wasn’t Random House involved in another vanity press at one point? X-something, I’m pretty sure it started with an ‘X’. Maybe they decided to give it another shot.

    This really needs to be spread far and wide.

  20. The thing with an advance, if the publisher thinks it’s going to earn any money off your work, the cost of the advance isn’t the advance itself, but rather the interest on the advance between when the advance is paid and when the royalties would be earned. This is why deals without advances are so suspect, it’s saying the business model is so bad that you can’t afford interest on money, let alone the money itself. There are some circumstances where this isn’t 100% applicable, the big author who gets a big advance with no earn-out expectation where the large advance is just a higher effective royalty rate than what you will put in the contract as the royalty rate. But here, since we know Random House can afford interest on advances, this is really saying “this is where we publish books that we don’t expect will earn any royalties at all, and why would we advance money against royalties that won’t exist.”

  21. I’d love to have my (self-published) e-book in dead tree format and available to a wider audience, but there is no way I’d ever sign anything without an agent. I’m cynical enough to assume that they’re trying to screw me. But I can see how more naive would-be authors could be taken in.

  22. Can authors published by Hydra audit the publisher’s books, to confirm that all of the money charged against their royalties for “sales, marketing and publicity” is actually being spent on selling, marketing, and publicizing their book?

  23. Joshua Blimes:

    Yes, exactly so. It’s an attempt to create a high-volume, razor-thin margin business model with the well-being of the author as an afterthought.

    Seth Gordon:

    I would not be horribly surprised to discover a Hydra contract would not allow for auditing and would also funnel any legal recourse into arbitration.

  24. One thing struck me about the “set-up costs”.

    If the publisher pays them, they’re going to try to get the best bang for their buck because it’s *their* money. They’ll spend big bucks for a cover artist (for example) because they know that’ll improve sales but they won’t overpay. And they’re motivated to get the balance right. They hire smart, experienced people to make those decisions.

    With Hydra, it’s *your* money they’re spending. Even assuming that they’re honest and this isn’t just a scam to funnel more revenue back to them, they aren’t nearly as motivated to get you a cover that is good or reasonably priced. And even if they were, the management isn’t motivated to hire good people to make the purchasing decisions.

    The reason traditional publishers do this stuff so well is that it makes them money to do so and costs them when they get it wrong. I don’t see a similar driver with Hydra.

  25. One of Tammy’s main US publishers is Random House, and they’ve always treated her quite well – so the deal sheet is surprising as well as appalling. It sounds to me like something the Bertlesman lawyers came up with as their idea of the “Perfect Publishing Contract” (writer bears all risk, publisher gets half of everything and gets its ass covered forever!).

    To me, this is less a vanity press model than that briefly-competing DVD format “DIVX” ( created by Circuit City, an entertainment law firm, and The Master Of All Copyright Trolls Disney. You’d buy a $4 disc, but it would only play for 48 hours – unless you “converted” the disc to a full-use disc for a lot more money. Worse, you needed to connect your DIVX player to your phone line so it could check in on you. (Yes, I know my Blu-Ray player does the same thing – but at the same time, it also lets me stream Netflix, Hulu Plus and Pandora, so being spied on is more of a “value-add”…. :ppp )

  26. I used to work as a programmer for a (then) major motion picture studio in a group which worked closely with Producer Accounting, aka Production Accounting. Not saying who, but given the “former” and a cyborg in the office you can figure it out. It is essentially guaranteed that no property ever will make any profit after expenses, in any of the entertainment content industries.

    That is why those with clout in the film industry nowadays all have deals that are percent of the gross, not percent of the net. When things like the cost of replacement garbage cans in the data center, or pizza delivery to a sales office, can be booked against a specific film/album/book property as expenses, you know they have the tools to ensure that your book doesn’t ever make money.

  27. Actually, they look like a really BAD vanity press.

    A decent small vanity type press won’t expect to own your copyright AT ALL. They may (probably) ask you to front the money for editing/art/layout/marketing/advertising, and you won’t get an advance, but you WILL start getting a decent chunk of the profits with the very first book that is sold.

    If you as author are doing most of the work AND taking most of the financial risk, you should be getting most of the profit as well.

  28. I am reminded of the company store model in the meat packing industry, straight out of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle”.

  29. You’d think that a huge publishing company’s digital imprint could at least offer terms as good as a decent e-publisher. I mean, if the little guys can somehow produce and sell digital titles without gouging their authors…

  30. There is another fundamental difference with music contracts other than those already noted. In fact, it isn’t even a contract issue, it is an issue with intent. If I’m a wannabee Big Rawk Star (and I am) there is incentive for me to sign with Cosmodemonic Recording other than the advance.

    Everyone knows the advance is going to get shoveled back into the studio. But what the giant recording company provides me is massive distribution, massive radio play, and access to massive sales, which will lead to what provides the real dollars: My ability to pack a stadium with fans. When I’m playing live and touring, I can negotiate a cut of the gate, as negotiation happens with the venue. I can negotiate a cut of concessions as well, and I’ll keep all of my merch revenue (T-shirts, stickers, posters, etc…). So in that regard, there is a viable business model for musicians, even if the contract is predatory per se.

    Having said all that, the contract manager in me (how I avoid the “starving” bit of “starving artist”) says the time to negotiate a contract is before you sign it, not after. This does look like a dud in that it is very much like a recording contract except that the ability to pack stadiums, even if you are the Super Awesome John Scalzi, simply isn’t there for writers.

  31. You know,after several years of successful indie self-publication (following several more years of being traditionally published), I was planning to try and take the plunge back in and submit my next work for traditional publication, just to diversify. After reading that, and after also reading some of Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s recent blogs, like this one, I am seriously reconsidering that. The bit in Rusch’s article abut non-compete clauses chilled my blood. The ones she describes would keep you from writing anything else, for anyone: short stories, articles, even blog posts. You would have to pay me the entire contents of Fort Freaking Knox to get me to agree to that.

    Glad you’re doing well on the trad road, John, and I suspect that you and your agent have clout enough to avoid these kinds of shackles. But I’m more and more leery of these Big Six types.

  32. Yep, I think Patrick nailed it with the ‘company store’ model, or maybe Ready Player One‘s indentured servitude. Once you’re in, you never quite get out again, or at least not the intellectual property you just tossed into the Sarlacc pit.

  33. Now, according to Writer Beware, Hydra is offering to split the net it makes from the books 50/50,[…]

    Granted, publishing is not Hollywood, but… In a world where the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy officially turned a net loss, any deal whatsoever where payment is solely in net points is a great big screaming red flag.

  34. My non-fiction is very niche-market so I’ve never expected an advance. I submitted a MS to my first publisher (a subsidiary of John Hunt Publishing), expecting either a “no thanks” or a similar contract to the first, which was very typical for my market. Was I wrong! They not only wanted up-front money (equivalent to cover & interior design, geez, I’d get the editor for “free”) but *no royalties on the first 1,000 books sold*. At least with a known vanity publisher you pay money & start getting royalties with the first book sold! Needless to say, I declined the contract.

    I can’t believe a subsidiary of a corporation as large as Random House would attempt that sort of contract in such a huge market that typically *does* receive advances. It is indeed a ‘writer beware’ market!

  35. Three years ago, during an ebook fair and workshop, a man from the Sales sector of my country’s largest publisher candidly said to a roomfull of flabbergasted authors “I don’t see why the publisher should risk money betting on a writer’s skills and appeal. It stands to reason that if you profit from the sales, you should also pay for the losses.”
    He called it “Investing in yourself” or some other such rubbish, and went on explaining what’s basically Point Two in the contract above.
    Looks like the idea is circulating pretty far and wide.
    And it’s demented (in case someone wondered about my opinion).

  36. I have no intention of submitting to this Hydra imprint…but I gotta admit, the terms don’t look that bad to a struggling new writer.

    John, you have no idea how desperate it is out here for new authors right now. Most agents do not respond to queries at all, and publishers’ response times are measured in years. (I have a manuscript on submission to TOR, with no response to queries about it, for four years — and the editor knows me.) The traditional model is failing under the weight of the new writer boom.

    The chance to get a novel published by one of the big publishing houses is tempting, even with an atrocious contract. The goal is to get famous enough that you have a foot in the door and can then insist on better terms. Just like you did, once upon a time.

  37. Color me confused. What benefit do they offer? If you must pay the editing, art, promotion, etc why split profits with them? Surely they must advertise some tangible benefit. With google at your finger tips, offering “contacts” is not sufficient.

  38. Thanks for the break down on what this deal actually means to the writer. I can think of only one reason someone would accept a deal like this–to get a publisher’s logo on the book spine. They’ll be paying a lot for it, though.

  39. Sisimka, one problem with this devil’s deal is that it’s a virtual spine. Very few readers will connect the Hydra e-imprint with RH, so brand recognition goes straight out the airlock. Unless they have read about it elsewhere (here, for example) first.

  40. Given Penguin’s purchase of the notorious scam-press Author Solutions, and the coming Penguin/Random House merger, I can’t say that I’m entirely surprised by this development.

  41. Now that thar was some fahn, grade-A rantin’.

    TL;DR version: Hydra: All the disadvantages of self-publishing, offset by having all the disadvantages of signing with a traditional publisher!

  42. Remussshepherd:

    “John, you have no idea how desperate it is out here for new authors right now.”

    And (imagine me saying this gently as possible) you have no idea, apparently, that your exact refrain has been uttered by every newbie writer in every single possible era of publishing. The fact of the matter is that it’s always been a tough time to get published. In this era, however, it’s rather easier to access a broader market through self-publishing than it was even a decade ago — which gives new writers more options than newer writers had in previous eras. So I don’t believe it’s worse than it was before, just that the parameters of difficulty have shifted somewhat.

    What additionally has not changed is that the desperation writers feel to be published and to feel legitimated by being published often pushes them to consider options that are stupid and regrettable — for example, signing a contract that offers no money and shoves the costs of publication onto the author; in effect, making the author pay for his/her publication and lose rights to his/her work.

    Which is why, of course, I point it out — to suggest to those new writers that there are worse things than feeling desperate. If you think feeling desperate is bad, think about how losing the ability to control your work to an imprint which manifestly does not give a shit about you feel, or whether or not you succeed.

  43. A friend of mine has just had her first fantasy novel picked up by a publisher, ebook only as it’s out of their normal comfort zone, so they didn’t want to dead tree it. I’m certain she didn’t have to pay any of the costs to get it published, and she did have an awesome editor. So there are new authors getting picked up, contrary to suggestions above. (She had two autobiographical books published first, but that’s a totally different market to the fantasy one – but I guess it proved she could actually string words together in coherent manner, which may have helped. I do know she racked up an impressive rejection list, though.)

    Contract sounds awful, you’d be better off (financially and sanity wise) DIY-ing it.

  44. This is absolutely sickening as an agent I would not ever have a client sign a contract with terms like this. I say an advance is needed no matter how big or large. Stay away all writers from Hydra and any other pubisher of the same mind.

  45. I thought a “contract” was supposed to be negotiated between two parties. This sounds like a “take it or else” deal. Allegedly, the author would be “fully aware” of the terms and conditions, but I wonder if that is in fact the case. A zealous attorney might take this type of contract to court and prevail in having it termed essentially illegal. Oh yes, they have that mandatory arbitration clause. Some courts have found that those clauses are also not valid. The one side has had NO opportunity to negotiate ANYTHING.

  46. Ari B:

    That’s a choice for you to make. Speaking personally I find it hard to support publishers who I feel are engaging in predatory actions.


    By all means spread it far and wide (although I would appreciate attribution and a link back).

  47. ” If you think feeling desperate is bad, think about how losing the ability to control your work to an imprint which manifestly does not give a shit about you feel, or whether or not you succeed.”

    Definitely, particularly as that copyright provision should be the biggest dealbreaker of all. Going back to the music industry point John and others have made, some performers have gone the route of re-recording their classic songs (both Prince and Def Leppard have done this, for example), because they don’t own the master recordings of those songs. As an author, you can’t “re-write” your book ten years from now to recover from a bad contract like this. Those novels published under Hydra’s terms as presented are gone forever. So while a desperate for publication writer might take a monetary loss to try and leverage exposure into a career, you’d have to be batshit crazy to give up money and intellectual property.

  48. Man, all they have to do is partner up with James Frey-esque fiction factory, and you’d have a double-whammy of writers getting screwed.

  49. “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. ”

    And then the music companies scream about downloading.

  50. Fair enough, John. But an author might have a property for which they don’t mind giving the copyright away. I can always invent new properties. One thing I’m not seeing in Hydra’s contract is an option clause that prevents you from writing books in a new series or genre. (If that clause is in there, please correct me. That’s a clause no one in their right mind should sign.)

    I feel that in this era of publishing, the ability to generate publicity is far more important than talent, craft, or even dedication. Since a Hydra contract does come with Random House’s marketing department — even if the author is paying them — there is some value to this deal.

  51. Robin H, there’s nothing in contract law that would invalidate a take-it-or-leave-it deal. Delivering a TIOLI is just a negotiation where you refuse all counter-offers…

  52. What DOES Hydra offer in this deal? Do they promise to promote the book? Do they say where and when they will advertise it? Is there ANY benefit to the author?

  53. I have no problem being published by a small press that does not pay an advance. But they MUST cover cost of publication and I MUST retain copyright with a rights of reversal set into the contract based on book going “out of print” if less than x books are sold during x time period.

    When the big 6 started offering digital only imprints open for submission I could not see anything in what they were offering that would really be to my benefit other than maybe a better cover and editor. They talked about marketing but I’ve never seen the big 6 do much marketing for ebook versions. As a self-publisher or if I’m published by a mid- small-press I can get my book in all the same sales channels… I’m still looking into how to get listed on Overdrive and 3M … Well my small press publisher is for all of their authors.

    As a social media coach from day one I advised people NOT to submit to these imprints. Now it turns out the deals are worse than I imagined as they are similar to a vanity press and they own my work. The sad part is the number of people who will submit thinking it gets them in the door at the big 6 increasing their chances of getting a real contract down the road. Thanks for writing about this topic.

  54. I completely agree that this is abysmal behaviour and I would go nowhere near a publisher that tried to offer terms like this.

    However, your use of the word “rapacious” made me very uncomfortable. As awful as this contract is, it is not comparable to being raped; they are very different things. Casual comparisons of other situations to rape is not particularly helpful and can in fact be hurtful, which is obviously not the intent of an informative, useful post like this.

  55. John wrote: “And (imagine me saying this gently as possible) you have no idea, apparently, that your exact refrain has been uttered by every newbie writer in every single possible era of publishing. ”

    Yep. I was hearing, “Things have changed since YOU sold your first book; it’s different for now writers NOW that it was when YOU were new” within =6 months= of selling my first book. I was so new that my first book wasn’t even -on the stands- yet, and I was hearing that I didn’t understand what it was like “now” compared to how it was “back then.” And I’ve been hearing it ever since.

    RE Hydra–hey, let’s given some credit to Random House for signaling the egregious nature of this program by naming it after an evil serpent monster from classical mythology which the good guy had to behead again and again and again.

  56. Remusshepard:

    “But an author might have a property for which they don’t mind giving the copyright away. I can always invent new properties.”

    An author might be reminded what happened to the creators of Superman, and that fact that Warner Bros. had to be basically shamed into giving them the most meagre of sums while making millions off the property. Meanwhile, I invite you to tell me off the top of your head anything else that they Superman creators made.

    Which is to say that an author who is so desperate to be published that he or she is willing to get screwed will indeed find that they are getting screwed.

    “Since a Hydra contract does come with Random House’s marketing department — even if the author is paying them — there is some value to this deal.”

    I doubt it. Once again, Random House is not investing in the work and will be paid some marginal amount no matter how it does. What makes you think they would spend more than the absolute bare minimum? Hell, man, you only have to look at what sort of marketing most books that publishers pay for get (i.e., almost none) to see how much less these Hydra books will get.

    Remusshepard, a piece of advice: Don’t be willing to fuck yourself just so someone else can make some money off it.

  57. What an utter disgrace. As a consumer, I’m already less than enamoured by the attitude of the publishers and their treatment of ebooks. To find that they’re now coming up with ways to screw over authors infuriates me beyond belief. Like the music labels, they truly deserve their fate.

    I can’t wait for the time all authors – and musicians – have the clout to be able to make their work available direct….

  58. remusshepherd what publicity do you think they will be doing for their digital imprints? Their experience is in print marketing and most of their ebook marketing to this point is “oh BTW book is also available in ebook form”. You are better off hiring someone to help you learn how to build a platform and how to categorize, write descriptions/blurbs, and ebook formatting for metadata to be picked up by searches on search engines and online bookstores.

  59. Thank you for this breakdown of Hydra’s appalling terms – something authors should never agree to, neither at Hydra nor anywhere else. I’m linking to your article on my blog (in the hypothetical case that someone on the internet is following me but not you.)

  60. I am old and cynical enough to think there are few things that will shock or surprise me.

    This made my jaw drop open.

  61. @Alex D MacFarlane – Bats aren’t bugs! Er, I mean, rapacious doesn’t mean like rape, it means greedy, grasping. They do both come from the same source, but then so does raptor. And rapture.

  62. I just can’t help but think that if I had a first novel — say, ‘Agent to the Stars’ — and I gave it away, then used the publicity to negotiate a better deal for something like an ‘Old Man’s War’ series…that would be a fine career. Signing a bad contract for a throwaway property can be a stepping stone to success.

    At least it *is* a plan. That’s better than sending a manuscript to a reputable publisher who makes you wait four or more years without ever getting back to you.

  63. The word predator is important here. I’m working on a piece on academic publishing and its predators (and making some metaphorical use of the word). This is a good example of bad behavior in the (potentially) more commercial world. Sigh. More examples make for a better essay, but do not make me happier.

  64. @remusshepherd But John did not give away the copyright to ‘Agent to the Stars’, did he? And it’s been picked up by Tor and is still making him money to this day. What are you even talking about?

  65. Ooooooooooh, remussheperd, you didn’t do your research before you went there, did you?

  66. Alex, the word “rapacious” has nothing to do with rape. It means “super aggressively greedy” and in this instance, is entirely appropriate.

    Dictionary: It’s a thing!

  67. No, Jeff, he didn’t. I was re-writing John’s career in an alternate, hypothetical universe as a speculative exercise. :)

  68. Remusshepard:

    I certainly didn’t do that with Agent to the Stars. What I did was post it up on my site for people to read and if they liked they could send me money for it, which they did — about $4,000 worth. And then after Old Man’s War was published, I had a small publisher come and make me a small but legitimate offer on the book. And I said yes, because I retained the rights. And then later Tor offered me even more money for the paperback rights, which I took because I retained the rights. Then after that I sold the book in several foreign languages, and I made even more money after that, because I retained the rights. And then after that I sold the audiobook version, and I made even more money, because I retained the rights. I have made all sorts of money, in short, because I retained the rights. And I did the even before I was ever professionally published as an author.

    I want you to explain to me how selling the book and a whole bunch of rights for nothing makes any sort of sense, compared to that.

    For fun, I will note that I put Agent up on my site in 1999, i.e., long before there was a robust online path to selling one’s self-publishing.

    Again, to reiterate: Don’t be willing to fuck yourself just so someone else can get paid. Also: Just because you have a plan doesn’t make it a good plan. Also: Send Tor a note telling them that you’re pulling the book from consideration and send it somewhere else, for God’s sake. You can do that.

    Beyond that: Hey, if you really want to continue believing this terrible awful horrible contract is better than nothing despite me (someone who has actual substantial experience in the market) telling you three times that it’s really not, then fine. There’s only so many times I’m going to tell someone determined to put their head in a bear trap that they shouldn’t. After a certain point, it becomes clear that they’ve got a thing for the bear trap.

  69. John,
    Do you see this as a one off attempt to swindle new authors? Or is this a test to see if they can get traction and thereby claim “changed business circumstances require a new cost model” and make an attempt to make these part of standard contract’s terms in other parts of the business?

    When I think of a company attempting to exploit a vulnerable segment of people my first thought are companies which operate in lower end financial services (i.e. short term loans). Perhaps that’s where they are drawing their ideas from.

    One hopes that Random House becomes aware of this offer. Looks at the matter seriously, sees that exploitive policies in a subsidiary would likely cause more problems than it’s worth, and get its house in order.

  70. All I can say is:
    Piss-poor from Random House/Penguin or whatever they go by now days. I’m not surprised though, I think there will be more shit vanity publishers popping up like spring morels in the future and I hope there will be more guys and gals like John calling them on the carpet when they do pop up like the human detritus they are.

    There are better routes out there (as John has mentioned). If you are a newbie waiting to get a big break and if the Indie route works for you, who knows you might eventually get a good traditional deal with a decent advance. It’s not a one horse show anymore (or six). Good writing eventually finds readers and crap eventually is vetted and sinks to the bottom of the outhouse.

    To hand over the copyright for one’s work (basically a long fucking time after you’re dead) is not smart and with no guarantee of ever being paid is Forrest Gump. It’s probably worse than Forrest Gump, at least he founded a successful business.

    They are like a company store in the coal mines: another day deeper, another day in debt

    I’m appalled and pissed.

    Thanks for this, John. You show moxie, my friend, and for that make yourself a churro waffle covered in Ohio maple syrup.

  71. Let’s be clear, here. I’m not going near the bear trap. Publishing via Harper does not advance my goals as an author, one of which is attaining membership in SWFA.

    Second, I am postulating that giving away a first novel then abandoning that property could be a viable career move. If you had given away Agent to the Stars — copyright and all — you would be out about $4000 and your career would still have followed about the same path. The difference is that you had the skills and charisma to get Agent to readers. An author who does not have those advantages might use Harper as a substitute. I recognize that this does depend on Harper doing more than lip-service to promote the book.

    And third, I recognize that the Harper contract is abysmal. I am just openly wondering whether a career can be jump-started with an awful business deal, as long as that deal supplies some publicity and readership. Those are very important in today’s publishing world. I’ve yet to hear a solid argument why this isn’t a possible career path. It may not be a likely one, but all the paths to a career as genre author are vanishingly unlikely.

  72. My name is Frank Hall, as a frequent reader of whatever I wanted to make sure people saw this post i made earlier on my Small press website.

    3 years ago i started a small press called Hydra Publications. It is still around and growing by leaps and bounds everyday. But we have been getting some feedback about Random House with people thinking we are the same entity. We are not. We have no affiliation with Random House and i hope this post above will help keep the speculation away some.

    Thank you John for your wonderful site by the way. I love reading it!

  73. “The fences will always be tested. It’s why it’s important to keep the fences electrified at all times.”

    May I steal that for general use?

  74. remusshepard:

    “I’ve yet to hear a solid argument why this isn’t a possible career path.”

    Well, no. You’ve been given all sorts of reasons, by me and others, why it’s not a good path to take, with concrete examples. You are choosing not to accept that information, and explain away to your own satisfaction why it wouldn’t pertain, which is not on anyone else but you. Again, I’m showing you the bear trap. You seem determined to suggest it’s not a bear trap, or that the bear trap isn’t the worst thing that could happen. Well, maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. But objectively speaking, being in the bear trap is fucking bad enough.

    To be clear, the path you outline is a possible career path. It’s just a stupid, short-sighted and detrimental path that offers nothing useful, in my opinion, which is not uninformed. I wouldn’t take it, and when I was a younger writer and the opportunities to sell my work foolishly came up (and they did, to be clear, on terms much as these), I didn’t take them. The times are not so different now that there’s any additional benefit to acting foolishly with one’s rights.

    So, no, remusshepard, you’re almost certainly wrong, as regards giving away one’s rights, and I wish you would stop trying to convince yourself otherwise, whether you intend to follow that path or not.

  75. Today there are so many ways to give a novel away without giving away your rights to it. Make it a freebie on your website and on all major (and maybe minor) ebook sellers. Have a tip jar on your website for people who enjoyed the 1st novel. Have the 2nd novel up and for sale everywhere. Even non charismatic authors have found their books hitting bestseller lists because someone loved it and talked about it and word-of-mouth grew. But as a business model to give away your rights to your property that is more likely to tell a publisher you don’t have a clue and they will keep giving you bad contracts because they have no incentive to do otherwise.

    Or write serials. There are so many ways for an author to get attention today. Letting a book sit on a trad publishers desk for 4 years? The book could be out at other publishers. Or be revised and resubmitted. Or self-published to see what happens.

  76. Okay, John. I like to brainstorm, and to challenge popular wisdom. I’ll stop challenging the groupthink about this one.

  77. Remusshephard, if you want to sell your book for no advance, there are publishers who will buy it for no advance, and then pay for editing, production and cover art themselves without those costs coming back to you. They may not have the marketing budget that Random House spends on photocopies, but you will at least not be out any money and you’ll get a better contract. That seems like a much more positive way to ‘sacrifice’ a book.

  78. If you’re paying money up front, you’d better hope that you make that back in the split, and it’s very unlikely, given the current state of the market, that you’d do that. The majority of pro writers have a day job for a reason. When I got the rights to one of my series back from a US publisher, I asked the artist of its (rightly popular) cover art how much they would charge to do a cover for the next book: it would have cost $2K, essentially at mate’s rates, which I thought was pretty reasonable. I couldn’t afford it at the time, but it’s a good deal. As you say, John, extend that to the other costs – and you’re likely to be staying in the hole.

    People who have not been published often have a rather starry-eyed notion that their book will indeed outsell everyone else’s, go viral, attract movie options…etc etc. The statistical reality does not bear this out.

    I do not have your responsibilities as far as advice goes, so as a pro published author, I’d say – run far, far away from the many headed…..

  79. However, your use of the word “rapacious” made me very uncomfortable. As awful as this contract is, it is not comparable to being raped; they are very different things. Casual comparisons of other situations to rape is not particularly helpful and can in fact be hurtful, which is obviously not the intent of an informative, useful post like this.

    You really have to be trolling. You didn’t use to work in the DC Mayor’s office, did you?

    If you had given away Agent to the Stars — copyright and all — you would be out about $4000

    And all the other money he mentioned he made because he didn’t give up the rights.

  80. I read this, and I was stunned that a “reputable” publisher would even think to do this. This is a “Snidely Whiplash” contract. You sign while they twirl their long mustachios.

  81. I don’t know much about the business or anything, but when they say they own the subsidiary rights does that mean you couldn’t sell your book to a different publisher overseas, or negotiate for a movie deal, or put it out in paperback without going through them?

  82. remusshepherd, I suggest you send your latest opus to Random Hydra and report back to us with your progress each year. I’m sure we would all be thrilled to discover our groupthink was entirely wrong. That would sure show us, wouldn’t it?

  83. >You really have to be trolling. You didn’t use to work in the DC Mayor’s office, did you?

    I agree about the trolling, I’m afraid. We’ll end up having to ban grapes at this rate.

  84. when they say they own the subsidiary rights does that mean you couldn’t sell your book to a different publisher overseas, or negotiate for a movie deal, or put it out in paperback without going through them?

    Yes, that’s exactly what this means.

  85. remusshepherd,

    At the point someone uses the term “groupthink,” the Troll Warning Light is flashing brightly, but just in case…

    I’m a publisher. I write contracts all the time. My base contract is very favorable to me (although I do pay advances, and I don’t believe the contract is unfair), and I usually expect that it will get negotiated down by the author or the author’s agent.

    The Hydra contract is not written by a well-intended publisher. I would never have the audacity to slide that contract across the table. The business model behind this is to buy as many books as possible, throw them up on eBook sites, and then hope that one of them is the next “50 Shades of Grey.” If none of them are, they are out very little money; if one of them is, Random House will keep an enormous percentage of the money. If Ms James had released her book through Hydra, she would be much, much poorer.

    Is it possible that an author will come to the attention of the public via a Hydra-imprint book, and then write some subsequent property that they will sell to a more traditional market with better terms? Yes, that’s possible. Anything is possible. There are tens of thousands of roads to success… and to failure.

    It is just as equally likely that the first book the author writes is their “50 Shades of Grey,” the one that could have made them very wealthy, and that Hydra will essentially bleed dry, leaving them nothing. (The record of recording artists in this area is not pleasant to review

    And, further, there is no reason to go with Hydra, regardless of whether those two are more or less likely. If you have a book that you think will build your career, there are dozens of other ways to get it into the hands of the public that are much more to your advantage than Hydra. It has never been a better time for independent writers, in fact.

    I have to say that there’s a lot of “groupthink” around whether or not cutting off one’s arm is good or bad, too. I’m afraid it is not being daring and iconoclastic to go against received wisdom in that case, or in this one.

  86. -E, a “problem” is running out of clean underwear or stepping in dog doo. I see this the same way everyone else does…straight theft with added lawyers.

  87. Okay, let me rephrase:

    What are the qualifying boundaries for being a predatory publisher? Does no advance automatically confer this status or is it this in combination with the system of fees you describe? You said the tipping point is the one at which it becomes unequal for the author, but I think a lot of new authors aren’t sure how to measure this equality. Obviously net % isn’t sufficient, as your example illustrates, so what is the sum of needs met by the contract that sufficiently protects the author?

    I think these are all interesting questions to consider as the publishing landscape continues to change. It seems like the hard and fast rules of the SFWA may not necessarily even take into account the nuance you’ve laid out here.

    Furthermore, I guess I fail to see how “living off advances” is a sustainable career? That’s living paycheck to paycheck, which is fragile, creates little to no savings for emergencies, and relies primarily on an ability to continually produce work at a set pace. This seems a lot less sustainable than a career based around residual income.

  88. I guess I fail to see how “living off advances” is a sustainable career? That’s living paycheck to paycheck, which is fragile, creates little to no savings for emergencies, and relies primarily on an ability to continually produce work at a set pace

    In what way does “living off advances” prevent an author from saving?

    And if you could come up with a magical way that “residual income” will appear for most works, that would be nice.

  89. >What are the qualifying boundaries for being a predatory publisher? Does no advance automatically confer this status or is it this in combination with the system of fees you describe?

    No advance, or a minimal advance, is becoming increasingly common, and it’s up to the author if they want to put out work for jam tomorrow. Some royalties are better than no royalties in some cases. When you have a potentially large upfront fee, however, a phrase containing the word “off” might well be uttered.

    >Furthermore, I guess I fail to see how “living off advances” is a sustainable career?

    Grasshopper, I don’t know what John’s advice will be, as he is a savvy businessman, but IMO you are beginning to pluck the pebble from the communal hand here. Unless one is startlingly lucky, the average US starting advance is about $5K (minus agent’s 10-15% and tax). The current-sort-of-midlist might get up to $15-20K, but only after a bit of a track record. It’s better in the UK, with a starting advance of around £10K – 2 novels a year is do-able, as long as your expectations are modest. When I tell this to aspiring writers, their faces fall – in general, you’d be better off on minimal wage given the time that this takes.

  90. This actually sounds like a great deal… for a manuscript you don’t expect to do anything with, or even look at again.

    Ladies and gents, send your trunked, half-finished first drafts to Hydra Press. Tell them to add “paying someone to finish the book” to your bill.

    Okay, not really. Revenge fantasies are fun to think about, but they seldom work out so nicely in real life.

  91. So, if I’m giving them my book for the life of its copyright and am expected to pay costs for editing, etc., and I start my relationship with them having to pay off those costs, doesn’t that pretty much amount to bonded labor? Please tell me I’m wrong.

  92. Robert G Browne: Sadly, no one can tell you that unless they lie. The only way this offer could be more odious is if it included an option clause giving Random Hydra right of first refusal on your next book. I probably shouldn’t say that out loud; it’ll make whoever wrote this thing cry because they didn’t think of it.

  93. Honestly, I’m becoming increasingly confident that I did the right thing by self-pubbing my first novel. At this point, the only thing a traditional publisher could offer me that I can’t otherwise do myself or hire freelancers for is marketing and brick-and-mortar distribution and, well . . . So be it. I hired a pro editor and cover artist, did the graphic design myself, and had the thing up for sale within a week after all the finish work was done. No traditional publisher could possibly turn on a dime like that, and certainly not for an untested debut author.

    That said, the biggest reason I chose self-pub was because I didn’t think most publishers would consider my work to have broad enough appeal to please their bean counters. Whether I’m actually a decent writer is up for discussion, but it’s likely most mainstream publishers would reject me on subject matter alone, because it’s a little too niche. And since the point, for me, is getting my stuff to people who want to read it, then there’s no reason for me to repeatedly bang my head against closed doors when I can do that myself.

    Self-pub certainly isn’t for everyone. I do think traditional pub has its uses, and for people writing stuff that has broad appeal, or who need handholding on editing and design, then absolutely, that’s what they should do. But with the big guys starting to have the same moral turpitude as distribution middlemen in other creative professions, it’s nice to know there’s an alternative.

  94. Correction to my last bit: it’s not bonded in the sense that if your book never makes back that money through sales, it doesn’t appear that they can come ask you to pay it out of pocket. They only collect it from your share of any earnings, which they will conveniently hold onto for you.

    The point is, if you slapped something together yourself and tossed it up on Amazon, you would be ahead of the Hydra deal the instant you sold one copy.

  95. Furthermore, I guess I fail to see how “living off advances” is a sustainable career? That’s living paycheck to paycheck, which is fragile, creates little to no savings for emergencies, and relies primarily on an ability to continually produce work at a set pace. This seems a lot less sustainable than a career based around residual income.

    An advance is not instead of royalties. An advance is an advance of royalties. If the book earns out its advance, the author then gets royalties… residual income.

    In the case of the Hydra contract, the “advance” is in the form of money that Hydra is spending on itself, not money that was put into the author’s pocket. That’s predatory.

  96. Life of copyright contracts are not a dealbreaker–in fact they’re standard in the publishing industry. As long as there’s a good reversion clause that ties out-of-print and rights reversion to specific sales minimums, this is not a problem.

    In my blog post on the Hydra contract, I make it clear I haven’t seen an actual contract, only a deal memo–so I don’t know what kind of reversion language is in the contract. However, there’s evidence that Hydra is willing to negotiate, so authors may well be able to better the reversion clause, if it’s not precise enough.

  97. As I just put on my own blog, I think the most odious part is the blurring between publishing and providing publishing services. Publishers make money from selling books to readers. Publishing services make money by selling services to authors. That’s a bright line that *has* to be maintained.

    (Note: I am both a small/micro publisher and also provide publishing services. And I make a big deal about this to my customers as well.)

  98. I have to admit that I read this earlier today and my mind is still rolling around the “loving the beartrap” concept – because that’s such a great phrase. Which could work really well in book reviews where you need to point out that “it might be a misunderstood beartrap, and my love will save it” really doesn’t sound like a good plot (or even side-plot) to everyone.

  99. Life of copyright contracts have got to go. It’s not just Hydra who has them, they are standard in the industry. The “out of print” reversions set the bar ridiculously low so that even a few books sold a month will keep a title “perpetually” in print. I’m all for giving publishers a decent amount of time with a title…and as most books (except the really successful ones) fall of the radar within 5 – 7 years, it seams reasonable that the contracts should be limited in term. There’s no reason to believe that an extension would’t b possible, if both parties agree. And if a book “breaks out” the the author should have an opportunity to reclaim the right or negotiate better terms for the extension. If the books are doing poorly, then the author should be able to get the rights back and try their own hand to see if they can beat the publisher’s performance.

  100. As a head’s up, don’t confuse this Hydra with Hydra House, which is a new small press started by Clarion West alum Tod McCoy and is quite fabulous.

  101. Holy crap on a moldy cracker, batman. I have never been so happy I self-published. For awhile now, I haven’t even THOUGHT about traditional publishing mainly because I feel they’d get in my way and slow me down. I have a groove now. I know what I’m doing in the publishing realm (more or less). And I just don’t see a need for them in my life personally.

    This is not to denigrate trad pub. I really hope they stay alive. And I mean that. We need the healthy competition of a more varied and complex publishing world for the rest of us to swim in. But for me? Hell no. I just don’t even “think” about traditional publishing as an option anymore. If they came to my door offering some sweet 7 figure deal, then yeah maybe. But otherwise, I just don’t understand what they could do for me that I’m not already doing for myself (and probably better than they would do it because I have more incentive.)

  102. Wow. That’s appalling. I’ve also been extremely happy with self-publishing. Publishers have a place… they provide value to authors in the form of editing, cover art, marketing, etc, and in return get a large portion of the profits. That makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is for a publisher to shunt all the investment and risk onto the author and yet still think the publisher should make all the profit. That’s absurd and predatory.

    Self-publishing is great for many reasons. It’s hard work, but at least the author reaps the rewards.

  103. C.J. Would that most of that were true. Publishers offer the valuable service of editing, cover art, and marketing on SOME books for SOME authors, but increasingly VERY LITTLE editing is getting done, and most midlist authors get next to no marketing if they get any marketing at all. The point about cover art can’t be disputed, because “so far”, books are showing up in bookstores with covers on them but… yeah. A trad pub deal can be REALLY great for some authors and REALLY pointless for most. Especially now in the new publishing climate.

  104. Pointing out why it’s unwise to give away work for free to a predatory entity in the hope that you’ll get “exposure” is not groupthink, it’s common sense.

    I’m not an author, but I am an illustrator, and according to my friend A. who made it biggish (I myself haven’t but my job is steady and I like it) as a freelancer, this sort of exploitative contractual crud is extremely common in freelance circles when you’re dealing with certain types of reps/clients. Unscrupulous people go out of their way to prey on the inexperienced, try to shove the most exploitative kind of work-for-hire up people’s noses, make entitled and sketchy grabs for rights they have no business grabbing for, and pretend this is all par for the course. That their gross, greedy antics are in the artist’s best interests, and that it’s good and wise for us to give work away for a song because we are DEFINITELY ABSOLUTELY going to get exposure for it! Really! Believe them! And exposure leads to work, so it’s okay to demand that you work for free and that you sell all your rights to your work for peanuts!

    This is lies and damn lies and the people who insist that it’s totally legit and viable need to STOP DAMMIT because they’re participating in and supporting the exploitation of artists or authors and in the devaluing of their work. Exposure doesn’t mean beans if you haven’t got the money to keep working. Random House’s Hydra’s no different than this kind of a sketchy, gougey, selfish client. (Though Hydra are unlikely to call one up at 3 am and demand that you make the background more blue but not BLUE-blue you know just more blue, they’ll certainly find other ways to make your life miserable.)

    growl hiss snarl. Pardon my vehemence, I just feel particularly strongly about this.

  105. RemusShepherd, if you are looking for a cheap way to “get something out there,” pick a nom de plume you can live with, shell out some money in advance for a proofreader and cover*, and publish it yourself. You will then own the rights if that book does turn into the next Hocking, Shades of Gray, or Wool phenomenon, and publishers come calling with legit deals — but if it doesn’t turn into a huge best seller, your real name isn’t going to be associated with it. Any deal where you give away exclusive rights is a Very Bad Deal.

    (For an example of a deal that I believe will potentially advantage me in the long run, though it isn’t that great in the short run… I am licensing a short-story to a small press, with some “so long as the company remains in operation” rights, but they are non-exclusive — and the deal only applies to my story so long as it is within the anthology they’re putting together. If the nice people running it were replaced by pod people tomorrow, the contract would forbid them from taking my story and putting it up as a singleton freebie. I will hold off putting it up myself for some months after it’s published, of course (I think I even stuck something like that into the version I handed them as my counter-offer), but after that? You bet it’ll be among what I sell on my own.

    But see, there’s the thing: I can do that. Because I retained (non-exclusive) rights and re-negotiated some parts of the contract that I felt were unclear and/or inappropriate.

    No matter how many ideas I have, there’s no reason for me to give up the rights to any of them 100%; no telling when one might turn into the Next Big Thing, even if I just tossed it off like a mushroom by the side of the road, for giggles.)

    * If you are artistic, or have a relative who’ll do it in exchange for brownies, do the cover “in-house.” If you have friends or relatives who are sufficiently akin to copy-editors, you may be able to in-house that as well. Not 100% professional? That’s okay — it’s yours to revise when you can. If Hydra does a hackjob of an “edit” pass, you’re stuck with it. And whatever cover they pick, too, no matter how terrible. Being one’s own Art Director is the most awesome thing about self-publishing.

  106. For writers outside the USA, there seem to be few ways of self-publishing ebooks which don’t need you to jump through assorted hoops on taxation. See Kindle Direct Publishing for an example: you need to get an ID number from the IRS just to sign up with KDP. It’s the same hassles as faced by a print author, but with no advance it’s another up-front cost without sure return.

    I try to be realistic about my writing: it’s for a niche audience, and of variable quality. I doubt I would sell a significant number of ebooks, lost in Amazon’s virtual slushpile. About the only plus point I can see in this Hydra deal is that some faceless minion must have decided I’m worth screwing, and I am really not that sort of girl.

  107. This notice has appeared on a Facebook page (Authors helping Authors) — Dianne Gardner Please bear in mind this is not Hydra Publications a small press located in Indiana.

    Their site notes that they are not affiliated with Random House. Their imprint predates the RM one by several years. The similarity of the names raises a whole host of other uncomfortable questions.

  108. I plan to challenge the groupthink on gravity! Dammit, I’d be so much better off if it was about, oh, 75% of the current strength! I’m holding out for 24 ft/sec.^2, I’m sure it can happen! (7.35m/sec^2 when I’m outside the US)

    I’m not surprised that they’re trying this. I don’t put anything past big corporations nowadays. Oh, for the days when vanity publishing and unauthorized copies was the worst that could happen. Those look positively benign compared to bear traps.

  109. >Holy crap on a moldy cracker, batman. I have never been so happy I self-published. For awhile now, I haven’t even THOUGHT about traditional publishing mainly because I feel they’d get in my way and slow me down.

    Ten years ago. I’d have warned you against self publishing under pretty much any circumstances. Now – the climate has completely changed, as others have said. You have far more control over the process and a good chance of making a go of it. I agree with others that you might as well self pub rather than going down the Hydra route.

  110. Record companies USED to give advances (recoupable, of course, from the artist’s royalties, which for many meant no royalties at all, ever). But, except perhaps for the top-selling artists, that practice has phased out. Every record deal that has crossed my path in the last few years looks exactly like the Hydra deal, even when the artist is offering a completed product (recorded. mastered, and even packaged).
    Such is the arrogance of these industries: that they think they can survive without us. Such is the decades-old blindness of the artists: that we think we can’t survive without them.
    Neither is true.

  111. Well. Maybe I’m GLAD to be self-published. Fewer legal entanglements after I die and my work is finally “discovered.”

  112. Hey, Scalzi, So… the issue is that the publisher takes all rights, and gives you nothing (or even makes you pay). (Which is, as you note, really really awful.) What if the publisher took all the rights, BUT paid you a big chunk of money? Aren’t such deals common in, say, Hollywood, wherein you might do a novelization of a movie or a book in a series. (You know, in what we call a “work for hire”.) If so… how big do you think that chunk of money should be? How much do you think would be fair to a novice writer as a work for hire? To a mid-list? To a pro?

  113. @Mike C., without the actual contract it is difficult to say, but my guess is that would include, say, a defamation lawsuit by somebody claiming the main villain is recognizably them, or someone claiming plagiarism. Alibi/RH would be named in the lawsuit, of course, and would then deduct the bill for their BigLaw legal team’s sushi lunches from your royalties.

  114. 50/50 reflects the low marginal cost of e-publishing, which is to say, the publisher is still supposed to handle editing, marketing, and design (including cover art). And duration of copyright is ridiculous. I’ve looked at a business model of doing e-publishing for technically-challenged authors, but I wouldn’t ask for more than a three-year contract. As you say, writers can do this for themselves; if a publisher isn’t adding enough value to justify the writer’s involvement, the writer shouldn’t get involved with the publisher. I am very leery of the publisher holding copyright; I believe the purpose of copyright law is to encourage creativity, and I hate the way middlemen are using copyright law to exploit creators and consumers.

  115. @ynysprydain Five years ago I had many well-meaning people in the business trying to “warn me off the perils of self-publishing”. I did it anyway because I saw where things were headed even if they didn’t. Now I’m making a living. I would NOT be making a living if I’d gone the trad route and followed all their rules. Even if I’d gotten a good deal.

  116. And that isn’t to say boo hiss traditional publishing. Everybody has a right to follow their own path and for some it makes sense to go with a publisher. But there is money to be made for anyone motivated enough to really bust their ass in self pub. With a LOT more control of the process and your release schedule. If you’re prolific… I would NOT recommend trad pub. They will slow you down unless you are extraordinarily lucky because most don’t want more than 1 or 2 books a year from any given author. Even if you write across pen names, to the general reader your backlist is smaller because your backlist is what is associated with each pen name.

  117. Hey, Scalzi, So… the issue is that the publisher takes all rights, and gives you nothing (or even makes you pay). (Which is, as you note, really really awful.) What if the publisher took all the rights, BUT paid you a big chunk of money? Aren’t such deals common in, say, Hollywood, wherein you might do a novelization of a movie or a book in a series. (You know, in what we call a “work for hire”.) If so… how big do you think that chunk of money should be? How much do you think would be fair to a novice writer as a work for hire? To a mid-list? To a pro?

    Obviously I’m not John, and I haven’t his experience, but from what I do know of the industry–

    It strikes me that a publisher taking all rights without any strategy to actually use them is always a problem, regardless of the extra chunk of change they may be willing to pay you. Because if they take, say, all foreign language rights, but they have no ability to use them, then foreign language translations won’t be coming out in other countries, spreading your popularity and sending home royalties. If they take all adaptation rights without having any ability to start your book down the path toward Hollywood, not only do you lose out on the benefits of a proper deal negotiated with someone who can, which I imagine should involve a certain cut of the box office take if it is indeed a good contract, but you also don’t get box office numbers of new potential fans.

    I suppose if they paid you up front for these rights in amount that rivaled would you could expect to eventually see from proper use of those rights via the best negotiated contract in the world, it would be almost as good–but not quite as good, because a writer’s career longevity relies in good part on an increasing audience.

  118. John, regarding SFWA qualification (qualified markets) requirements –

    Most of the explanation is clear and unambiguous. However, one elsewhere undefined term creeps in to the online form (“small press” – as in “Is NOT a small press, self-publication, or vanity press” in the check-off boxes near the bottom).

    Self publication and vanity press are defined elsewhere. What is “small press” referring to? The minimum press run / distribution size requirements? Something like that?

  119. This deal is similar to that of too many of the micropublishers that have appeared since the ebook fad infected publishing.

    I know talented mid-list authors who sign with ebook/POD publishers who pay no advance whatsoever. And do no advertising, expecting the authors to do all of the advertising and promotions out of their own pockets. Sound familiar?

    The only thing worse than this is self-publishing which is largely the game of no-talent losers. Thus far, the ebook fad has proven to be just about the worst possible thing that could happen to literature. I hope for it to implode.

  120. Reblogged this on Lynne Bubbles and commented:
    Signal boosting this to anyone who writes SF/F and as a warning to any other writers out there as well. Because you always have to make sure to understand your contract before you sign. If you don’t understand, get either a lawyer or an agent to explain it to you so you don’t end up signing your rights away. Or not getting paid in some instances.

  121. Where’s Captain America when you need him!? I hate the way many book publishers and affiliates are evolving into evil predatorial machines now that digiatl books have become more popular. Appreciate the info!

  122. I will say that there have been times when I have offered to NOT take an advance (or only a token one) in exchange for either them putting the money into advertising, or as I knew there was a cash flow problem at the time-, But that is with a niche publisher that has always been good about paying up. There is a world of difference between writing for the big boys, and for the small but still ‘real’ publishers. Having read what a lot of people are self publishing these days (pure dreck), that contract is actually better for the writer than the publisher! But I figure that’s a ’50 Shades of Gray’ contract: no one int heir right mind would publish it, but for some reason it made enough money to pay for an entire program of looking for such crap.

  123. Excellent post, John. My only difference with what you say comes from my considerable experience with traditional publishers. In the best case, my textbook publisher indeed has a robust network for getting my books to potential textbook adopters (professors), and I negotiated not only a sizable advance (which was repaid with the first edition), and a much higher than standard royalty – but the partnership in terms of split of work and income is still far from fair. In the end, I wrote the book, and the publisher set the type, published it in print and electronically, and markets to professors – which tells me I deserve more than a 50/50% split of income, not less.

  124. As a self-published author of sci-fi, I am appalled. Did the contract punch the author right in the dick once it was signed? Contracts like that are just one of the reasons I haven’t tried to submit my works to a traditional publisher once my self-published novels started selling well. Why would I give a publisher money to publish a book and then take a smaller percentage of the revenue from the sales?

    Traditional publishers really do continue to completely misunderstand the entire eBook market and these kinds of contracts tell me that it’s gotten bad enough they are starting to fight over table scraps. Next come the crumbs.

  125. As a graduate student studying publishing, the contracts from Hydra and Alibi are essentially against everything we’re being taught in school. While we ARE being taught to write contracts to do “what’s best” for our own company, it’s also stressed that the happiness of our authors and a GOOD RELATIONSHIP with our authors are absolutely vital to the publishing process.

    These kinds of contracts seem to be products of the “big business” side of publishing, which doesn’t draw its employees from people who love reading and books and instead picks the people who can bring in the most money – most likely from ripping off authors and/or readers, as this case implies.

  126. Well, you can push against something or you can leave it for something better.

    Einstein pointed out that the mind that created the problem cannot be the same mind that creates the solution. Rather than waving our flags around until we’re too tired to type later, let’s put our collective genius together and come up with a brand new paradigm that leaves the old rules out in the cold. I’ll wager there are already people out there doing just that. It’s fun to watch; it’s even more fun to be part of it.

    So, what are our assets and strengths?

  127. Desperation always breeds new opportunities for businesses and corporations to screw people over. Random House is taking a page from the playbook of one P.T. Barnum. The best thing professional writers like us can do is try and warn people away before too many get hurt. :(

  128. With all the talk about self-publishing these days, especially among bloggers, it’s good to know the truth about businesses/publishing opportunities like this. Thanks for the great post.

  129. Hydra should be ashamed of itself! Thanks for blogging and making us aware! I bet there are more out there than Hydra. Have you found another outfit as bad?

  130. I had no idea. Thanks for this sharing this information. This is extremely thoughtless and stupid of Random House. I hope authors boycott Hydra and let it come to its senses!

  131. Seems to me, publishers should work for writers. Not the other way around. Can’t print what isn’t written.

  132. Hi John! Excellent break down of the problems of Hydra. Thank you for your insight into publishing!

  133. I think we should stop pretending. More money is made from authors than by authors. Authoring is a cottage industry. Hardly anyone makes the average wage. Nearly everyone has to do other work. Vanity publishing is the most honest and sensible approach.

  134. I’m glad to see that Random House has apparently backed off somewhat on their stance. For me, though, this has already determined that self publishing is worth the work. If you catch someone trying to steal your shirt, that means they are not someone you want to be handing the rest of your business clothes. Life is difficult enough without going into business with someone who would try this, even if they have backed off some, due to pressure.

    Who is to say that the current stance is not where they intended to end up all along, after reactions to their initial “bear trap”?

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