Suspect Contracts and Author Exploitation.
Publishing leviathan Random House recently announced four all new digital only imprints: Flirt, for “adult” romance, Alibi for thrillers, Hydra for Speculative Fiction and Loveswept for romance and women’s fiction. A clever move, this way they don’t have to take as much risk and can invest in newcomers and clearly target the perfect audience. Sounds like a sweet deal for new authors right? Wrong. The business model used has spurred a huge controversy thanks to The Science Fiction Fantasy Writer of America (or SFWA).
In a feud that has developed right in front of the online community the SFWA’s president, John Scalzi, has condemned Random House’s business model for the digital imprints Alibi and Hyrda, saying that the contracts offered to writers are exploitative and deceiving. In response to the contract being offered and to discourage people from giving in to Random Houses demands SFWA has said that those who are published under the Hydra Imprint will not qualify for SFWA membership.
So what’s the issue? Here’s a little break down:
Problem One: The writer is paid nothing in advance.
This isn’t the greatest of sins, many small or independent publishers might not pay an advance, or at least the advance will be tiny. So far, not so suspect.
But wait! The issues continue…
Problem Two: Random House charge the writer, in advance, for things like editing, marketing, cover art etc. Things that, normally, the publisher pays for.
So if I write a novel, sell it to Hydra and want to see it in e-print I have to pay for all the costs before I see anything? What? I think everyone’s feelings to this can be expressed by this .gif
Why would a writer essentially pay to have their work published by someone else, when they can easily self-publish? I suppose there is the stigma attached to self-publishing, and Random House is a nice name to have attached to your work… But they could be charging you whatever they see fit! It doesn’t seem like a fair option. But hey, maybe there’s a silver lining, right?
Problem Three: Random House will keep the license for your novel for the full copy-right term. You only get it back if the novel goes out of print. But wait… this is digital publishing. So that’s a problematic clause in your contract isn’t it?
I see what you’re doing there Random House and I think everyone else does too. You want the author to sign away all their rights. Nice try, but it’s not going to fly.
Overall Random House seem to be saying “hey there newbie writer, we really love your book but before we can e-publish it we need you to sign away your rights to it, plus sign this check to pay for any costs we incur. Yeah, yeah we will pay you your share when the book makes a profit. No we won’t be giving you any money before then, don’t be silly. We’re the ones taking all the risk!” Well you aren’t really are you Random House? It can’t cost as much to publish something in e-form as it does to print onto paper, and you pay those writers.
These flaws are the major ones Scalzi points out. He also questioned what Random House must think of writers, to put them so far back in the line of who is being paid. A fair question, since no writer = no product to sell = no money for anyone.
Random House had their reply of course, trying to persuade SFWA into seeing this is a partnership. I do understand where Random House is coming from, they want it to be an even risk for both publisher and author. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t pay at least partly towards editing, or give the writer a nominal advance payment. It doesn’t seem like the sort of equal partnership a sensible business person would enter to; more like self/vanity publishing with a nicer name behind it.
They don’t appear to have anyone else convinced either; the SFWA are said to be watching Random House as a whole now, and if any similar moves are made in Del Ray or Spectra (imprints for Speculative Fiction) they will be struck from the SFWA’s qualifying markets. It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but when you consider that SFWA membership is a must if you want a Nebula nomination or to be talked about in certain circles, it is an important title especially for new authors.
It’s a brave stand, a virtual strike if you will, where the writers who sign with Random House would be scabs, letting down their fellow artist. Good for the SFWA and more power to them, because without credibility in the industry, which is what these contracts would signify the death of, we may as well all pack up shop now.
And just because I though the sentiment was spot on here’s a link to Life In Publishing’s reaction…
EDIT 12/03/2013: The backlash seems to have worked. Random House are reportedly changing the contracts. Good work Scalzi and the SFWA!