UPDATE: I received an email from Allison Dobson, Director of Digital Imprints at Random House, regarding recent changes made to the Hydra, Alibi, Lovestruck and Flirt ebook-only imprint contracts (based on what I’m sure was a torrent of critical feedback). Read about the changes here, on the Writer Beware website (or see the full, official PDF here).
Essentially, they’re offering two packages: one that’s a more traditional advance-and-royalty deal, and another that’s still the original “profit sharing” deal with some important changes. No longer will Random House charge a setup cost or a fee for the sales/marketing/promotion; that’s part of the package, up to a certain amount.
So, I think that addresses a lot of the concerns raised in this post (and by other critics on the web)–but I am still leery of this emerging trend.
This is a bit of a gossip post because sometimes, I think it’s important to spread certain gossip–especially as it pertains to large publishing houses (corporations) screwing writers who aren’t aware they’re being screwed.
Let’s start with Author Solutions. I’ve followed this gal, Emily Suess, for some time now; she’s written a long-running series of posts about Author Solutions, and how they are just a terrible company. And I don’t mean only their terms. They’re a vanity press, which essentially means they charge you to publish your book (though that silliness is fairly standard in the vanity press market). I also mean their behavior: sock puppet accounts on Twitter, harassing bloggers who call them out on their practices, swindling authors out of what royalties they could get… I could go on.
So, a while ago, Author Solutions was acquired by Penguin. And the whole publishing world turned their heads in unison and said, “What the hell?” An actual true-blue publishing house had acquired a vanity press. It’s scary, when you think about it: a publishing house, one that pays authors for their work, who foots the bill (as they should) for editing/cover design/marketing, is acquiring a vanity press that works exactly the opposite way.
Okay, well. Money is money. I get that, especially as far as print publishers are concerned. They’re scared. They’re scared of e-books, they’re scared of self-publishing, blah blah blah. I was slightly rattled by the acquisition, but then I moved on with my life.
But Penguin wasn’t the only Big Six house to jump on board with this shady cartel of self-publishing imprints (Author Solutions owns like, a dozen of these–Xlibris, iUniverse and AuthorHouse are just some). Not long after, Emily posted on David Gaughran’s blog (I love this title: “Penguin’s Solution for Authors: One Racket to Rule them All”) that Harlequin, Simon & Schuster, Harper Collins and others had hired Author Solutions to build self-publishing imprints of their own.
As if the market couldn’t get any more confusing for writers looking for non-traditional publishing solutions, now all the big publishing houses are getting into this sketchy business.
Well, finally, a New York law firm is investigating Author Solutions for a possible class-action lawsuit.
Unfortunately, Author Solutions scratches the surface of what I think is an endemic problem in the publishing industry: Meet Hydra (as well as Alibi, Flirt, and Loveswept), Random House’s new digital-only imprint family.
John Scalzi had this to say about it in his post, “Note to SF/F Writers: Random House’s Hydra Imprint Has Appallingly Bad Contract Terms”:
* No advance.
* The author is charged “set-up costs” for editing, artwork, sale, marketing, publicity — i.e., all the costs a publisher is has been expected to bear. The “good news” is that the author is not charged up front for these; they’re taken out of the backend. If the book is ever published in paper, costs are deducted for those, too.
* The contract asks for primary and subsidiary rights for the term of copyright.
It’s just so deeply troubling to me to see legitimate publishing houses targeting naïve, hopeful writers with this kind of garbage. This language (very seductive, isn’t it?) is direct from Random House’s announcement page:
Under this program, authors will have a complete and unique publishing package. Every book will be assigned to an accomplished Random House editor and a dedicated publicist. They will also have the invaluable support of Random House’s experienced marketing and digital sales teams, who know how to reach out to and expand each book’s dedicated readership. Not only will authors benefit from working with the finest cover designers to ensure irresistibly eye-catching books, but they will also be offered the unique advantage of social media tools and training that will allow them to connect directly with their readers. To reach the widest possible readership, every title will be available for purchase at major e-retailers and will be compatible with all reading devices.
Wow, sounds pretty nice, huh? Oh, except for the part where the contract essentially leaves you with nothing. Where the publishing house that has traditionally footed the bill for publishing a book (as they should, considering they keep most of the profit) they are now trying to pass those costs on to the author–who, by the way, is the one who produced the work in the first place.
This is what I see self-publishing becoming, and it scares me. Not because I want to go that route myself–as anyone who knows me is already aware, I work with a traditional publisher now, and I don’t intend to change that in the future.
It troubles me because I know writers who want to go this route, and I’m afraid for them. I’m afraid for them getting screwed. I’m afraid for the snowball effect, for the slippery slope this could lead to for traditionally-published authors, too.
Obviously, that’s a dark and far-reaching prediction–big authors like John Scalzi would take their business elsewhere, or use their significant traction to self-publish on their own terms.
Still, I can’t help it. If these big publishers are not only buying up Author Solutions imprints like trailer trash on Black Friday, but starting their own imprints designed to screw authors, what’s the next frontier going to be?