Archive for March 8th, 2013

The Hydra Alibi

Man, that would be a great name for a thriller novel. A young protagonist caught in a web of confusing lies, not knowing the way out, before realizing that she’s been duped by a major corporation she trusted. And being told “that’s just the way it is.” Can she fight back against such an overwhelming force?

This is one of those awkward posts to write, because the first thing I have to do is acknowledge that I’m following other posts, largely written by departing SFWA president John Scalzi. And then I’m going to link to a lot of those posts. And then I’m going to quote a lot of those posts. I can’t imagine anyone reads this blog who isn’t aware of Whatever, who perhaps hasn’t followed this issue. But it’s something that I do want to bring up, because it’s something that I do want to talk about.

The issue is Hydra. And Alibi. And possibly, though unconfirmed, Loveswept and Flirt. These are the four new imprints that Random House recently announced. Per their FAQ, this is their raison d’être:

Why are you launching these imprints?
As publishing continues to evolve, and with more authors finding their first home in digital, we are committed to creating new ways for readers to discover books. The dedicated team understands both the content and medium, and wants to help break out authors in the digital space. The imprints will seek out the best and brightest to grow the next generation of authors in the most prolific and lively genres.

A digital-only imprint of the lively genres of science-fiction and fantasy (Hydra), thrillers (Alibi), “new adult” (Flirt), and romance (Loveswept). This isn’t the first time one of the Big Six publishers has flirted with a digital-only imprint, and it’s likely not the last. This is, however, the first one that has seen the full fury of Scalzi and the SFWA brought down on it, which happened earlier this week when contract terms leaked first to Writer Beware, then were dissected on Whatever. The high-level overview?

  1. No advance. None. Zero.
  2. The costs of book setup, which are not inconsequential, are deducted from the author’s share of profits.
  3. All rights are conveyed in the contract, primary, secondary, all languages, all formats, everything.
  4. The term of the contract is length of copyright.

What all that ends up meaning is that for no up front money the Hydra imprint gets full rights to do anything with the novel they see fit, and deduct the costs of those activities from the author’s share of the profits. At that point in the story the information was second-hand, but first-hand information soon showed up. Scalzi got his hands on an Alibi contract, and tore it to absolute pieces. Figurative pieces. Though I suppose it’s possible he printed a copy and tore that to literal pieces. I probably would have. The breakdown above held in this contract. These terms border on vanity press terms. Hell, at least most vanity presses don’t require length of copyright exclusivity.

This morning, a more official SFWA response. To pull out my favorite paragraph, which I think sums it all up:

You extol your business model as “different”; the more accurate description, we believe, is “exploitative.” We are particularly disappointed to see it arising out of Random House, a well-regarded, long-standing publishing firm. Bluntly put, Random House should know better.

SFWA has declined to recognize Hydra or Alibi as qualifying markets for membership, citing the lack of advance and the financial burden placed on the author. I’m thrilled that SFWA is all over this. I’m thrilled Writing Excuses is all over this. I’m thrilled that Scalzi is all over this. The danger of this contract, of these terms, lies in their success. If these new contracts succeed, they could serve as a blueprint for other publishers. There shouldn’t be a point where a publisher can say “this is how publishing is now.” Or “this is how the business works.” Because it’s not. And it shouldn’t be. Success of these terms relies on the ignorance of those who would sign onto them.

So why am I writing about this when I get fewer page hits in a year than either Scalzi or SFWA likely get in a day? Two reasons. First is summed up by something Scalzi tweeted while I wrote the first draft of this post:

There is no such thing as a voice too small in this matter, or a site too inconsequential. If anyone has any notion of publishing and sees this post who didn’t see the posts on Writer Beware, Whatever, or SFWA’s website then I’m glad to pass that information along. Even if that’s not possibly the case, I think it’s important for someone in my position to say something.

Why?

That’s the second reason: Because I’m the potential target of this. I’m the writer working on his first few novels, the writer who has only seen short story contracts before, the writer who potentially doesn’t know the difference between good and bad terms, the writer who thinks maybe this is just how things work now, or will in the future, then signs on the bottom line. I feel targeted by this. Certainly not personally, but by a broader inclusion within a class of unpublished. And that pisses me off.

I’d like to close with a few words of thanks. Thanks to Writer Beware and Whatever for both exposing that this contract, and more specifically for breaking down step-by-step just why it’s such a bad contract. Seriously, if you don’t want to read the posts behind all of my links, the most important one for someone who hasn’t seen a contract before is Scalzi’s breakdown of the Alibi contract. I’ll even relink it right here so you don’t have to scroll back up and figure out which one that is.

I’m glad to have people looking out for me. Once again, certainly not personally, but by the same broader inclusion. It reminds me that everyone, no matter how successful, was once that aspiring writer trying to sell his or her first novel. Was once a potential target of a company trying to pass along bad contract terms. It’s why organizations like SFWA exist, and it’s why I look forward to the day I can pay into their dues.

So be smart, go read, and be careful about what you sign.

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