Random House’s Letter re: Hydra

For those of you who would like to see it, it’s here.

For those of you who want to know my personal response, it’s at the bottom of this entry.

Update: SFWA responds.

41 Comments on “Random House’s Letter re: Hydra”

  1. They have no shame, apparently. Then again, I’d imagine that would have to be the case to come up with those contracts in the first place.

  2. Wow….that’s…that’s…sorry, my bullshit filter just overloaded. Give me a second to reboot it.

    (I’m referring of course to the Random House letter. John’s response is bullshit free).

  3. I am sick to death of hearing this phrase from publishers: “the publisher takes all the financial risk up front.”

    But, apparently, they don’t view the hundreds of hours the writer put into the actual writing of the damned thing to actually be in any way a financial investment. Screw you!

  4. Gee, isn’t it odd that their vague, generic, & bullshit response doesn’t address ANY of the detailed points raised regarding how bad their contract is! No mention of how their “profit-share model” justifies copyright forever, rights to your next work, publishing rights for other formats, or no out-of-print provisions. Keep on them, John!!

    Any word on any mystery writers’ or romance writers’ groups up in arms like SFWA is?

  5. I’d certainly like to see all RH imprints suffer sanction for the actions of the ‘bad apple’ imprints. Holding the whole accountable for the practices of some of its tentacles could have results. Else, unlikely.

  6. Perhaps it’s just me, but I hear RH crying, “Teach the controversy!” As I have a cold right now, I have an excuse to go mainline some Nyquil (as someone else has suggested RH is doing). Maybe then it will make sense?

  7. @Mark Terry EXACTLY. Your time is valuable. Time is money. Any other attitude sees you as a slave producing product.

  8. Assuming the publishing house knows something about what sorts of books sell in what numbers for what price, and it’s read the manuscript to be acquired, it can’t really be said to have taken a risk, can it? I would think the risk is especially low if you acquire and publish enough books for some kind of statistical distribution to kick in; so I aquire the rights to 10 books, 4 sell about as well as I expect, 2 sell a bit better, two sells a bit worse, 1 sells really well, one disappears.

  9. Sounds like they’re trying to do to authors what the film and TV industry’s doing to VFX artists.

    Only *MORE* so.

  10. I Like how that letter has done absolutely nothing to address the main issues at hand, like the copyright forever and rights to all media types -__-

  11. Reblogged this on The Last of the… and commented:
    For those that don’t folloow Scalzi’s blog and the Random House Contract bull, here’s the response they gave SFWA… completely bullshit if you ask me. Sounds like just another way to screw authors out of money.


  12. Brian Ledford @ 4:19–

    Your figures are overly optimistic. As far as I can tell, huge swathes of the publishing industry really have no idea what will sell or what will tank, particularly nowadays. I say this as an industry insider. Even the editors with the best track records, with the full support of their marketing/sales departments, still sometimes have money-pissing duds. The equation of “what makes a book sell” is multifaceted, and full of variables and unknowns.

    The industry largely operates on the spaghetti principle (throw spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks = throw books onto the market and see if any of them start selling well). There are three ways in which your operating income is made:

    1. Backlist. Having books that reprint and continue to sell for years is like printing money. However, in the world of ebooks and piracy, this income stream is threatened. I’m unconvinced it’s dead or even dying; more like going through a major life change. It will be a different situation when the transition to a stable ebook market is finally achieved, but in the meanwhile everyone is very confused and not sure what they should be doing.

    2. Dependable bestsellers. Publishers make plenty of money with the books from reliably bestselling authors–I’m sure George RR Martin’s publishers are confident the next SOIAF book will do well for them. (Note, though, that misreading this market can be extremely expensive for a publisher. Authors sometimes have downward arcs on their careers, and a publisher who enticed an author away from another publishing house by paying through the nose will often get burned.)

    3. Unexpected bestsellers. The real money is in the book that a publisher paid very little for, but then takes off and they’re scrambling to reprint it fast enough. This is a nice scenario that makes beaucoup bucks for everyone involved, and allows the author to leverage their next book as if they are in category 2, above.

    The problem, as it has always been, is the midlist. These are the books that may or may not pay for their own overhead. They may or may not contribute a little bit to profit. But they are necessary to a real publishing house because (a) a publishing house only exists if they actually, you know, publish books and no one can own all the bestsellers; and (b) this is where the dependable bestsellers with backlists come from. In an ideal scenario, a midlist author gains a following and the publisher throws more marketing dollars at their books and helps push them up the bestseller list. Meanwhile, the author’s backlist is still being published by the same company, so they’re cleaning up in multiple revenue streams.

    But the price of that is the high risk. Out of 10 books on a typical mass market novel publisher’s midlist, one will be a good money earner, two will be somewhat profitable, two will break even, and five will actively lose money. The problem for the publisher is that they don’t know which five.

    None of which is to excuse what Random House is trying to do with these abusive contracts. But people seem to think that publishers have some sort of magic understanding of what will sell. If they did, we’d all be making a lot more money.

  13. Somehow “a different–but potentially lucrative–publishing model for authors” makes me think of planning for retirement by buying a lottery ticket. I mean, the ticket is potentially lucrative–there’s a chance (remote, oh, how remote!) I’ll win something instead of losing the ticket price altogether.

    At least the lottery people don’t claim that I have to split my winnings with them 50-50.

  14. John, I just posted the following comments on the PW webpage about the content of the Random House letter to you: “As a 25 year published/writing science fiction author, I fully support SFWA Prez John Scalzi’s decimation analysis of the Random House Hydra/Alibi contract terms. This is not a “profit sharing” venture. It is a subsidy publishing effort where all the subsidy is prepaid from the author, while all copyright ownership is “given” to the publisher for whatever minor or zero effort RH might exert on any ebook version of a scifi, horror, romance, YA or other genre novel. As someone who has had his work published by two New York major publishers, a small press, and have self-published on Amazon using their Createspace software, I have done all that Random House offers to do, and contrary to their letter, it cost me less than $100 for the outside work, plus a few months of my own time for editing, layout, etc. Only rich newbie authors and those who cannnot read, write or are deaf will sign the Random House ebook contract.”–T. Jackson King, SFWA Active member since 1988

  15. Their response really tells you what Random House Corporation thinks of writers. That in spending a large portion of one’s life writing a work, one is not engaged in a financially risky action. That all the financial risk of publication is theirs- so they deserve the reward. As far as the writer goes, they should just be glad they have the chance to have their work read- and if it turns out to be a big deal, well- Random house is nice enough to give them a small finder’s fee and a pat on the head.

    Although I love editors, and the people who format the work for publication, and think they are valuable part of the process, I am not so sure that the Big Six publishers are.

    In music, the tools to self publish have vastly improved. Producers (music’s equivalent of editors) also seem to be less tied to the labels as ever before- more artists in their own right working in collaboration with the musicians.

    It seems that for all I love about books, it seems like the book business needs a major work over. I guess I see the value of parts of the process, but more and more, I sort of hope they fail so that other things can rise in their place.

  16. Wow, how condescending. “You should have given us the opportunity to blow smoke up your ass before you (rightly) called us on our bullshit.” *shakes finger* “We’re very disappointed in you!”

    And this, “…there are specific costs associated with bringing a book successfully to market, and we state them very straightforwardly and transparently in our author agreements.” They neglect to point out that in a traditional contract-with-advance, these costs are covered by the publisher.

  17. I have to say that I am personally outraged by this; as a reader I have spent many years not only buying lots of books but also defending publishers in the never-ending ‘useless middlemen’ debates on the web.

    If it has not occurred to Random House that they are throwing oil on the flames then it should have; the wanton stupidity with which they are encouraging piracy is breathtaking. Someone, somewhere, should have stopped this nonsense before it reached the stage where it was an open invitation to rip off every book they publish.

    Even if they lack the ethical standards to offer fair deals to authors they should have the commercial acumen to realise that they are shooting themselves in the foot; about the only explanation I can think of is that they got so excited about how much money they could make that they didn’t stop and ask themselves how much money they could lose…

  18. Man, what a letter! I haven’t encountered such a bald-faced pile of BS since the last time a minion at an electronics store tried to sell me an extended warranty. You don’t need to be an agent or read John’s evisceration post to recognize that the author of this letter is trying to pull a con. I can name a lot of “different – but potentially lucrative” schemes looking for suckers – maybe she thinks SF writers have never heard of sharecropping?

  19. The blame for this crap can be traced back to Harlequin, and that makes it clear that this sort of thing will only spread if authors and professional organizations don’t stand firm. The RWA eventually caved when Harlequin set up Horizons/Dellarte, and now publishers think they’re free to set up vanity presses without consequences.

    Because they’re not kidding anybody with their attempt to use more politically correct wording. “Sharing start-up costs” is just a clever way of saying they’re offering a vanity publishing service at a discounted price. The sole reason for these “imprints” is take back some of the sales currently going to all the random amateurs who hammer out Kindle books by the truckload. They’re going to take crappy books, do a quick spell check, slap on some generic stock art they bought in bulk, and charge the author for all of it. It’s likely only a matter of time before they pull a Harlequin and start suggesting Hydra/Alibi in their rejection letters, with coy hints that the authors can use it as a segue into a more traditional publishing contract with Random House.

  20. “… potentially lucrative ….” Aha! A plan that really pays off once you find a second even prime number. I’ll get back to you on that ….

  21. A lottery ticket is “potentially lucrative” as well. I suspect the odds for actually seeing some of the lucre are better with the lottery ticket than with any of the associated imprints.

    Also, I suspect once the word spreads about this, a lot of Random House’s existing (traditionally contracted) authors are going to be getting their agents to look VERY CAREFULLY at any new legal paperwork pushed across the desk toward them by the nice people at RH. If they try it once, they’ll try it again, after all.

  22. “Hydra and the author split those profits equally from the very first sale.”

    I don’t see how there can be any profits from the first sale. Certainly not from the first hundred, if not thousand, sales. Costs are subtracted from revenues before profits can exist. If your costs total $5000 (a number plucked from the air with no basis in reality) and your book sells for $10 (actually $9.99 but I’m rounding up to keep the arithmetic simple) you need to sell 501 copies in order to see any return. There are no profits, only recouped costs, from the first 500 sales. If you need to split off a share for the operator of the virtual storefront, Amazon or whoever, there are no profits from the first 1000 or 1500 sales.

    The actual numbers will vary but there is no question that there will be no profits from the very first sale. Anyone who claims otherwise is either trying to deceive you or is too befuddled to be worth doing business with.

  23. hmmm. The first untruth that jumped out at me was the “partners from the first book.” The implication is, that if one book sells, the author will get some money. The contract explicitly says otherwise. Unless they assign a portion of the upfront costs on a per book basis, which requires an estimate of initial sales, the first thousand books or so will sell with no money for the author. How is that “partnership from the first sale?” I guess I’m confused as to who they think they’re fooling? This is a vanity publishing contract, which is fine, but don’t deny that that’s what this is. Paying to publish your own book, with no risk to the publisher? Vanity press does that all the time.

  24. >I am sick to death of hearing this phrase from publishers: “the publisher takes all the financial risk up front.”

    >But, apparently, they don’t view the hundreds of hours the writer put into the actual writing of the >damned thing to actually be in any way a financial investment. Screw you!

    Yes, exactly. Shows what they think of the effort that writers put in.

  25. Not sure why, but it really bothers me that the letter is addressed to “John, Victoria, Jaym and SFWA Members”. Seems overly friendly and not very respectful. Like they think you are cute for objecting, not adults with influence.

  26. John, is there anything consumers can do besides voice our opinion to Random House? Any way to vote with our wallets? Obviously boycotting Random House books would be detrimental to the authors, too, so the usual response to bad corporate policies seems counterproductive in this case.

  27. I suspect that many of the authors that have books in print with RH (Del Rey, Spectra) also have works in print with other publishers- you certainly CAN send a message to RH and still still support authors/ artists/ content creators.

  28. Great response from SFWA! Since per usual no comments on that item, I will leave it here: a Clash of the Titans is happening and we get front row seats. If I were an author I’d be doing everything I could to support SFWA in this epic battle. Its outcome will long set the standard by which publishing houses treat authors. My advice; if you are a full or parttime wordsmith join SFWA and FIGHT for your rights. Ain’t nobody going to give them to you.

  29. Josh Cochran:

    Speaking only for myself, I know that I have no interest in boycotting Random House in a general sense. I’m disinclined to buy books from the imprints mentioned, however, and I don’t mind either Random House or authors who are thinking of submitting to those imprints knowing that fact.

  30. “sale” implies that money (or something of value) changes hands, right?

  31. I’m really glad that you and SFWA are taking action to protect writers from this sort of thing.

    It makes me wonder about SFWA’s approach to the world of e-publishing in general, though. I feel as if my agent got me a good contract from Double Dragon – they provided the covers, formatting, and editing, and rights revert to me after 5 years – but publishing with them doesn’t qualify me for SFWA membership because they don’t pay an advance, and I don’t have 1000 documented downloads.

    I’m wondering two things; first, do e-book publishers pay advances, or does this criterion limit SFWA acceptability to print publishers? And second, does requiring 1000 documented downloads for e-publishers, when you only require a print run of 1000 copies for a print publisher, further disadvantage those of us who write e-books? After all, a download for me is equivalent not to a printed copy but to a sale, and I don’t see you requiring people who publish with print publishers to have actually *sold* all of those 1000 printed copies.

    It’s great that SFWA is trying to protect people against rapacious e-publishing contracts. But as someone with a pretty decent e-publisher, I feel that the SFWA criteria pretty much exclude me and my publisher, for reasons that are not going to go away. Wouldn’t it be helpful for SFWA to encourage non-predatory e-publishers, a well as chasing off the predators?

  32. Sounds like your chances of making money are better if you take the offer of the millions waiting for you in Nigeria

  33. It boggles the mind that Random House thinks people who wordsmith for a living are stupid enough to be fooled into thinking that the definition of “profit sharing” is treating only the author’s share of the royalties, left as the only profits the author will ever see, as expense coffers for unspecified amounts entirely at the whim and discretion of the publisher! I helped build a multi-million dollar company on a profit sharing model; calling this bullshit boilerplate “profit sharing” is an insult to anyone with two brain cells to rub together.

    The Pullman Company and Carnegie Steel were more equitable employers than Hydra and Alibi…at least their indentured servants could drive to a market in another town. And the sheer brazen BALLS of that copyright land grab has me repeatedly checking the calendar to make sure it’s not April 1st. It’s like they began their strategy meeting by asking how can we fuck over content creators in a way that makes the RIAA look like a goddamn charity by comparison?

    The lack of advance is the least of their problems. It may be enough on its own to keep them from being SFWA approved, but dumping all of the financial liability and risk on to the author while taking half the profits free and clear, taking all of the rights and demanding first refusal on fucking the author over whatever she does next should be enough to make even the most desperate aspiring author recognize RH is offering to bend them over the barrel. I’d say the only thing that sets this above a content mill is the byline, but at least a content mill has the decency to shoulder costs of publishing their ill-gotten material.

  34. While the “business model” is horrible for book buying/selling, it does seem like it would be a good one for buying a car. “Mr dealer, the traditional car buying paradigm has the car purchaser assuming all the financial risk up front, so I propose a new exciting partnership, where you give me the car and then we split the profits 50-50 when I sell it used. after taking all the gas and oil changes into account, of course.”

  35. It seems to me that someone needs to ask them 1) What are you doing to earn your 50%? 2) What are you doing to earn all these fees? And remind them that the answer can’t be the same for both parts.

  36. Is there a way as a consumer where I can identify works that are being published under these contracts? I would hate to reward Random House for these kinds of shenanigans. As for the author while I feel sorry, take it as a learning experience.

  37. Sure, the contract could be implemented fairly as they say in their reply. But the contract does not REQUIRE that it be so.

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