Random Hydra and the Terrible, Horrible, Awful, No-Good, Very Bad Contract

Oh noes!There’s been a great deal of excitement on the interwebs for the past couple of days, as major publisher Random House has announced a wonderful! new! line of ebook imprints for various genres including science fiction (Hydra) and mystery (Alibi). It’s also, says the publisher, a wonderful! new! business model, to which new and unpublished authors should flock in droves.

Well. Maybe not so much.

Popular author and blogger John Scalzi (who also happens to be the current president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) has gone to the barricades, as has author advocate Writer Beware, along with quite a few others. I’m not going to repeat their points–those are well and thoroughly made. What I’d like to do instead is point out that if you really, truly, madly, deeply want and need to get your book published, you don’t have to give it away forever. You certainly don’t have to give it away for, effectively, free. 

There are a lot of writers out there. A lot. And many, many, many of them dream of being published.  Only a tiny percentage will ever be published by a major publishing house. A slightly larger percentage will see their books in print or ebook with a smaller press. And quite a few, these days, will bypass these middlemen and go straight to self-publishing via Amazon or other self-publishing platforms.

This is, in fact, one of the best times ever to be a writer. Back when I first started, self-publishing was barely an option, and it got no respect at all. If you wanted respect, you submitted to a major publisher and you waited  months or years and you hoped and prayed that you would be accepted and your book would be published.

That acceptance meant you got money–an advance on a percentage of the profits that the publisher calculated (hoped) (guessed) (prayed) your book would make once it went out in the world. Your job was to write the book and revise it in such a way as to pass muster with the editorial department. The publisher’s job was to provide editorial services, commission art for a cover, design the cover and the interior of the book, write any relevant cover or marketing copy, print the results, and distribute and market the finished book, including sending it to major review markets. You might do some promo, but mostly the publisher did that.

You did not sign over all rights forever, unless you were very naive or had a very bad agent. And you never paid expenses. The publisher paid you. Always.

Then the world changed. The economy tanked. Publishing underwent a series of convulsions. The ebook became a thing. Rather a big thing. And authors found themselves suddenly in the position of having real choices–not just “which imprint of which major publisher might possibly accept my book?” but “should I go that route or should I do it myself?”

Meanwhile another thing was also happening. Publishers were struggling to find ways to adapt their massive and dinosaurian corporate selves to an age of rapid  and agile digital mammals, and at the same time, the self-publishing revolution had given rise to a flood of free or cheap books, along with an increasing tendency to discard Yog’s Law: All money flows TO the author. Authors were paying for services that publishers once provided, and even authors published by major houses were doing more and more of their own promotion.

Which brings us back to the Random Hydra affair. The music industry went there decades ago, so it’s kind of inevitable that publishing should try to follow that example. After all, if you socialize risk by making authors pay all the expenses of producing and distributing their books, and privatize profit by tweaking the accounts so that money always flows to your company but never quite trickles down to the authors, your company ends up making billions, and the content producers get–well, don’t they all want to be published by a major publisher? Isn’t that all they need to be happy and fulfilled?

Random Hydra is assuming that authors are as essentially powerless, and as desperate to Be Published, as they were in the days when a major publisher was the biggest and best and essentially the only game in town. And they will capture plenty of victims–because there really are writers who just want to be published, and who don’t know or understand how the business works.

The thing is, there’s no earthly need to sign away everything just to get a major publisher’s name on your book. You don’t even need a major publisher to do what Random House is offering. Nor, if you play your cards right, do you need to spend a great deal of money to get those services.

If you have money to put up front, you can use CreateSpace, Lightning Source, or Lulu to get your ms. edited, produced, and distributed in print form. Smashwords, Kobo, Amazon Kindle, and Barnes and Noble all offer formatting and distribution for ebooks–and those needn’t cost you anything, provided you have some basic software skills and a decent amount of patience. You may and in fact should at least find someone to proofread your ms.; above and beyond that, a good, knowledgeable, eagle-eyed editor is a must if you really want to put your best book forward.

No money or very little money? How about pooling resources with fellow writers locally or online? Trade editing, proofreading, even design and formatting. Make it a group effort. That’s how Book View Cafe started, after all–and it’s in its fifth year and getting bigger and better (and more profitable) all the time.

Promo is the tough one for many of us–it certainly is for me. But again, crowdsourcing it can help. Promoting each other’s books in social media. Arranging blog tours, sending review copies. Setting up group signings for print books. School visits, book festivals, writers’ workshops–there’s a great deal you can do, that a major publisher isn’t all that likely to do for you even if you have a conventional, advance-paying, royalty-paying contract.

The literal bottom line is, you do not need to surrender all rights to your book in order to send it out into the world. You can and absolutely should limit the amount of time a publisher controls production and distribution, and you should expect to get decent pay in return. Which means an advance up front for a major publisher, or if it’s a smaller press that can’t manage that, the press still absorbs the expenses of editing, production, and distribution, and you get a percentage of any and all profits, starting and accrued from day one.

And that’s if you want what a publisher can offer–as many writers do. All that other stuff takes time away from writing, which is what it’s about in the first place. If you can or will do it yourself, you may have to put some money up front, but you’ll see income almost immediately. It may not be a lot, and it may be slow to accumulate, but it’s there. It’s real, and it’s yours. And it’s not being filtered through the myriad heads of a hydra that is going to eat most if not all of it before it ever gets to you–and keep the rights to do that for as long as you live, plus another 70 years.

Which is pretty much equivalent to selling your soul, or at least your book’s soul, for next to nothing. If you’re going to sign yourself over to the Devil, you should get a nice fat set of perks in return. Don’t you think?

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About Judith Tarr

Judith Tarr is a writer, a freelance editor and writing mentor, and a lifelong horse person. She lives near Tucson, Arizona, where she raises and trains Lipizzan horses. Her new book, Forgotten Suns, is out now from Book View Cafe. Yes, there are horses in it.
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13 Responses to Random Hydra and the Terrible, Horrible, Awful, No-Good, Very Bad Contract

  1. I’d rather self publish, yeah, than submit to a contract like this.

    • Judith Tarr says:

      It’s sucker bait. Especially in this day and age. Trap laid to catch the poor souls who either think Being Published is all they need, or else believe that they have only to Be Published in order to become incredibly rich.

      The reality is, nobody much is making money in publishing these days, except publishers. Even the big bestsellers have seen their incomes drop off steeply. The success stories are notable because they’re rare.

      And that’s what RH is betting their marks won’t realize. So they can collect their 50% of even small sums, Hollywood-account the other 50%, and pad their bottom line rather decently, while the authors see pennies if they see anything at all.

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  3. We can’t say this often enough. Publishing is not about “Oh look, I wrote a book, I’m such a special and marvelous person!” Many of us have worked long and hard to achieve professional proficiency — our work is our livelihood, not ego-horn-tooting. Even if we never achieve sufficient financial success to quit our day jobs, we go about writing and publishing at the highest levels of professional conduct. That means fair contracts.

  4. Deborah’s comment about fair contracts really resonates with me, as one aspect of my Day Jobbe life involves being the secretary for my union local. (grin). But above and beyond that, I also agree with Paul in that I’d rather self-publish than go with a contract like that. Well, heck, I am self-pubbing (starting a book launch process today, in fact, this is a book launch week for me).

    I started working out the costs of buying a few books and selling them myself, as I’ve seen friends do. Um…now I completely understand why one would do that.

    That said, I’m also pursuing traditional publication as well. The wise writer these days adopts many hats.

    • Judith Tarr says:

      Very wise all around. Print publishers are still where the major money is most likely to be, and where the notice (in reviews and promo) and distribution is concentrated. If you can get a print contract for decent terms, it’s a great way to get your name out there. What Random House is doing is removing any of the advantages, dumping all the burden on authors, and expecting to walk away with a bunch of money. It’s terrible business practice and lousy ethics (though it’s very good capitalism).

      Happy new book! I hope it does well.

  5. Christopher Weuve says:

    Ah, I see — it’s effectively self-publishing, except Random House gets lifetime of copyright rights in exchange for you using the Random House name.

    Which, if this contract is any indication, will shortly be approximately equal to PublishAmerica.

    • Judith Tarr says:

      Indeed. Other houses have been getting into vanity publishing because it’s lucrative to prey on writers who know no better, but this is particularly insidious. The others demand cash up front, so have limited their pool of marks to those with plenty of disposable income. This scheme aims at the ones who don’t have money to put into the venture, but who can be lured with promises of profits in some nebulous future–after all unspecified expenses have been paid.

      It’s an old scam in a new package.

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  7. SnickerKitten says:

    As someone with no interest in being published, I have a different yet complimentary view on this subject. I enjoy reading quality stories. Craft me a story so well written I envision myself waking up in ancient Rome; lure me in with such amazing realness that I find myself believing there were ifrits involved in the crusades. I honestly do not want to wade through virtual piles of steaming horse pucky to find the gems I yearn for. This new method takes away the experience of walking into a trusted boutique where you are guaranteed to find a treasure and instead plops the reader in the middle of Goodwill.
    Go back to the competition and struggle of authors to be noticed, accepted and have that first advance in their hands. That way authors get rewarded with fair pay for their work and I get to enjoy QUALITY sagas.