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Don’t Get Screwed: Author Solutions & Hydra

March 6, 2013 by Kiersi

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.

Read on.

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?


17 Comments »

  1. Ruth says:

    I don’t think your warning qualifies as gossip. If you want to dish on the personal lives of Penguin execs, THAT would be gossip.

    I find so much about the brave, new publishing world frightening. There was an article in TIME recently (http://techland.time.com/2012/11/29/digital-legacy-law/) about how we don’t own those e-books we buy, and how our kids can’t inherit the awesome iTunes library we’ve painstakingly amassed.

    Vanity publishing is at least a few centuries old, but that doesn’t make the slimy business practices that are becoming prevalent acceptable.The Freelancers Union gives its members a space where they can log bad clients; perhaps there should be one for authors to log underhanded publishers.

    • Kiersi says:

      Ha, good. I saw that Time article, and boy–this is only going to become a bigger issue as time goes on. Luckily, a lot of authors have already registered complaints against AS, but with big “trusted” publishers getting into the vanity imprint market themselves… who do we have to fall back on?

  2. Hi Kiersi,
    This is getting to be kind of a big deal. This morning on a Linkedin thread, I read an article about Author Solutions, posted by Maryan Pelland. I’m glad to read about this, as I never would’ve thought about the chicanery a publishing company would be involved with. As a newly-returned freelancer, I apparently have a lot of catching up to do. Thank you for facilitating that, as I find myself somewhat lost in today’s freelance arena. When I did it over 20-years ago, it was very different.
    Richard Myers

    • Kiersi says:

      If you’re back in the freelancing business, Richard, you should definitely follow up with that link to Emily Suess’s blog. She does a lot of freelance writing and has good information and resources about this kind of thing.

      The digital distribution of books has really changed the landscape, hasn’t it?

      Thanks for the comments.

  3. Brenda says:

    My stomach just rolled over. A few months back I was contacted by an independent with the offer to publish my book. At first I was flattered (dumb) then my rational brain kicked in and said.. who are these people and how do they know about you, etc., I did ask lots of questions, none of which were adequately answered. I inched a little closer without committing, but once I got a copy of the contract it was similar to what you described above. Criminals. Writer does all the work, and the publishers get the money. The profit margins are smaller for the pub houses, and since so many people are writing books and looking for fame, the vanity way offers both writer and pub house a solution. Not good. Better for a writer self-publish.

    • Kiersi says:

      You are a much smarter lady than I, Brenda. I got sick reading about it, too, because I can SO SEE MYSELF signing up for this only a few years ago. Good on you for asking the right questions and not letting the excitement carry you into a bad deal.

      I’m sure there are cases out there where vanity has worked well, but I agree with you.

  4. Yes, I’ve been seeing news of this lately. I think it’s crazy. I’ve said for a while that the good small presses and mid-size presses will be the future of publishing. I really think they might be the ones to survive in this industry. It seems some big house are definitely scared if they are making moves like this.

    • Kiersi says:

      You are SO right, Kelly. Perhaps the big houses have sort of swollen too big to keep going at the rate they are–I’ll be curious to see how this unfolds over the next couple of years.

  5. I see two possibilities- 1 The company had an author that was worth just buying up the company so they could keep the rights to the author without issue. or

    2- the publishing house said holy crap we get 10,000 manuscripts a year we would never publish, why not just encourage those people to publish them for a fee with us and make some money on all the time we wasted reading their drivel.

    • Kiersi says:

      Haha, I think the 2nd option is why a lot of publishers are heading this way. I’m sure submissions have gone up a lot over the last 10 years.

  6. Thanks for the heads up!

  7. M. Ziegler says:

    I am going with Kelly on this one. I have been hearing about this around the web too. It’s scary and interesting all at the same time. I feel bad for authors that have lost a lot of money with the sketcher places.

    • Kiersi says:

      We’re in an age where writers have to do a lot of research when an offer feels “too good to be true.” I’m curious how this will pan out long-term.

  8. Writerlious says:

    This is terrible! I can’t believe the major houses are sullying their names with vanity presses like that. You are so right that they prey on writers who dream of having their book out there, and then they end up with several boxes of books that aren’t on bookshelves anywhere, aren’t even accessible on the internet, and no one’s reading them. Ugh…

    Thank you for sharing this! The word should be spread about it.

    • Kiersi says:

      I know! It really is going to be bad press for Random House–as they have just found out, I’m sure (see update above). Nobody jumping on the Author Solutions bandwagon seems to care, though.

  9. I think this all amounts to traditional publishers getting fearful and desperate that the industry is changing and they are losing the ability to drive the market. It’s an act of desperation and hopefully more articles like this one will help spread the word about these people.

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