Immediate Thoughts on the Random House eBook Imprint Contract Changes
These thoughts come in no particular order, and represent only my thoughts, not the thoughts of any organization I may belong to. These are first impressions.
Also, these thoughts pertain to what I’ve read here and here. I have not seen any actual contracts reflecting the change in terms and so cannot comment on how the promised changes will be written up and implemented. The devil is always in the details, and the details here will matter quite a bit, considering from where we started with the contracts and their language. Even so.
Here we go.
1. Good on Random House for listening to writers, writers’ organizations, readers and others and being willing to make alterations. That’s a positive thing and should not be discounted. It’s a shame it took a furor for Random House to take a step back from its original contractual position (and that it offered those positions to begin with), but let’s move forward from that.
2. The Random House eBook imprints will offer a choice between their “profit-sharing” model (more on this) and a more traditional contractual set-up, which will include an advance against a backend 25% of net and the imprint covering all other charges and expenses. This is very good in theory; among other things it will offer authors something to compare the “profit-sharing” model to, in terms of what an author could expect to receive both immediately and in the long haul.
What’s going to be interesting to see, however, is how this model is actually handled in practice by Random House’s eBook imprints. Given the imprints’ previous business model, it’s not at all unreasonable to assume they have a bias toward pushing authors to the “profit-sharing” side of things. Something authors (and their agents) will need to be on the lookout for is these imprints underselling the advance-bearing model, both in its initial discussions with the authors and in terms of the actual advances they offer.
Which is to say, if the advances that these eBook imprints offer aren’t equitable — not in line with what advances are at other Random House imprints and/or other major publisher genre imprints (with some calibration for being eBook-only) — then that should be a red flag, and authors (and their agents) may reasonably question how serious the imprints are in offering advances as a genuinely viable choice for their authors. We’ll have to see how the rubber meets this particular road.
3. The no-advance “profit-sharing” set-up still concerns me as a slippery slope for all sorts of reasons but if the advance-offering option is equitable and reasonable and every author is offered it as a matter of course and there is no discrimination between how the two classes of authors are generally treated and serviced by the imprint, then offering a second, riskier option does not strike me as wholly predatory, as the author can turn it down and still publish with the imprint if such is her choice.
Random House’s eBook imprints have said they will take on the set-up costs and sales/marketing costs they previously tried to shove onto authors. That’s good, although again they shouldn’t have tried to do that to begin with, so my congratulations to them for seeing this particular light is, shall we say, muted. It’s important to note, however, that the imprints still intend to shift costs to authors if a book makes it to print, which is still no good. Nothing in the information about audiobooks, and whether the costs for those will also be sent along to the author; in the absence of any new information, I would assume they would be.
Also worth highlighting is the idea that the imprints would cover the first $10k of book-specific
publicity marketing (edit: Allison Dobson of Random House notes that the $10k is for marketing costs, not publicity. The error is mine; downstream edits replace “publicity,” with “marketing”) after which the costs would be tallied to the author. This is hugely important for authors to note. One, it doesn’t necessarily mean the imprint will spend $10k on marketing, just that it will cover it up to that amount. Two, $10k seems like a lot, but if a lot of marketing is happening, then you might be amazed at just how quickly $10k disappears — and how any additional money from that point will disappear from your pocket once you have to pay for it.
This is a better “profit-sharing” set-up than it used to be (at least at first glance). This does not mean I think this is a good deal. I don’t. I don’t like the print cost-sharing aspect at all, and I think the marketing cap introduces a whole bunch of weird dynamics which can force authors to choose between effectively capping the reach and sale of the book, or reducing their income significantly in the hope that more marketing will reach more buyers. There’s a reason why marketing is handled by a publisher — the publisher is able to amortize its costs and risks across an entire line. A writer, particularly a new one, doesn’t have the same option. It’s still all too easy in this arrangement for a writer to end up with little or nothing at all while the publisher makes a tidy sum in aggregate.
Personally speaking, I would not sign onto this “profit-sharing” agreement, as it’s been outlined to me, without substantial revision; I’m not convinced the 50% of the net I’d make on this set up would be more than the advance + 25% I’d make with the other set-up, especially if the book were gaining traction and could benefit from additional marketing of the sort Random House could afford as a larger corporation, but I could not as a private individual, or if there were a demand for a print/audio version.
This is why authors should remember that it’s not only the percentage of the backend that’s important, it’s everything else around the percentage, too. If you’re just focused on the 50% and missing all the rest of it, then you’ll have a problem. Make sure you know what you’re getting into. If you don’t know, ask; if you don’t know what to ask, that’s what SFWA and RWA and MWA and other writers organizations are for (not to mention, you know, agents). Even if you’re not a member yet they’ll still have information you can use and learn from.
3. The imprints appear to be taking fewer but still a substantial number of rights, some of which it doesn’t appear that they intend to do much with other than keep them in their pocket. If I were an author making a deal with them I would (or I would tell my agent to) ask for those rights or at least ask for a reversion clause if the rights were not exercised in a specific (fairly short) amount of time.
4. The “out of print” terms here are much improved, which is important because the imprint is still asking for rights for the life of the copyright. The OOP terms are what allow an out for this. Before they were nebulous. Now this is definitely not the worst reversion clause I’ve ever seen.
In short: Better, but I find the profit-sharing setup still very worrisome, and I wouldn’t recommend that option, especially for a newer author or one without much experience with contracts. The most important change — and the most welcome and critical change — is now writers have the option of being paid first and upfront, with no other costs assigned to them. That’s huge. It’s what should have been there in the first place.
Which bring us to a very important question: Will Random House extend these changes to authors who have already signed contracts with these imprints? If they do not, we still have a very, very, very big problem. There’s no point proclaiming your new, better contracts if you still have a class of author still beholden to the egregious old ones. This will be a test of legitimacy for Random House, I think. Given how much they’ve been willing to move from their old positions, I’d like to think they’ll pass it.
(Edit: Allison Dobson of Random House responds: “If this deal compares favorably to that which we have already given authors, we will happily amend those agreements.” So that answers that, and good on Random House.)
In any event: I’ll be happy to see the actual contracts.