March 13, 2013

Under pressure, Random House’s Hydra e-imprint changes author contracts


After an outcry, Random House‘s new digital sci-fi imprint, Hydra, has announced changes to its contracts, based on feedback from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, the Horror Writers of America, authors (especially John Scalzi and Victoria Strauss), agents, and others in the publishing community. As we mentioned on Monday, everyone was pretty upset about this no-advance, all print, audio, and e-book rights, copyright held vaguely forever, charging the author for production business.

Hydra and its affiliates are now offering two options to writers: an advance with a standard 25% royalties, and the 50/50 split of net revenue.

If you haven’t read Scalzi’s response to Hydra, catch up here. While it’s hard not to side with Scalzi, I’m glad to hear Random House found a way to compromise, and quickly. The company was in the unenviable position of answering to contractual questions in a public forum (i.e. the whole internet). And while they thought they were proposing a publishing partnership, authors were hearing the words NO ADVANCE. (There were other issues with the contract, as Scalzi details in full.) Scalzi has adamantly opposed any suggestion of writing for free in the past, and it’s no surprise that he “kicked up” some serious dust this week after posting the terms of the Hydra contract on his blog.

To fully understand the public outcry against Hydra, you have to consider the timing. I mean, the contractual terms may not have been attractive to writers, but tensions were high in the writing community before the news arrived. The contract came on the heels of a very public conversation about how, and when, writers should be paid. This is by no means the beginning or the end of the conversation, but on March 4, Nate Sayers made public an email exchange he’d had with editor Olga Khastan about posting his work on the Atlantic website.

Choire Sicha moderated a conversation on Branch at the end of last week so writers could respond to the issue of writing and pay. Maria Bustillos pointed out that James Thurber wrote for free for the New Yorker. Michelle Dean said the New York Review of Books didn’t pay any reviewers at first. Editors from many online publications chimed in with how they determine writers’ pay (the number might be based on the site’s traffic, a 50/50 split with the editors, even how much that writer’s friends are paid).

Ron Hogan wrote a candid response to Sayers and Scalzi this Tuesday, singling out an article by Ta-Nehisi Coates in which Coates admits he started out writing for free for the Atlantic. Hogan wonders aloud whether he is writing for free when he writes guest blog posts meant to boost publicity for his most recent book.

Hogan says:

I know that I’m making an effort to focus on professional situations that adequately reward me for the skills and experience I bring to the table, and I encourage any other writer to do the same. But the choices I’m making along the way may be different than the ones you make, and the “reward” isn’t always about money… although, at some point, if writing is going to be more than just a hobby, it has to be.

And that’s the heart of the matter, isn’t it? If you’re writing for free for another publication, is that exposure going to profit you in other ways? I imagine you could publish for a lot of places hoping to promote a book you hope to write someday; if your book contract arrives at last and the publisher isn’t offering money up front, it’s hard to justify writing the book “for free.” Authors are smart to continue an ongoing conversation about the value of their work–what they are willing to accept, and what offers they deem unacceptable.

Evan Gregory, who works for Scazi’s agency, has made a case for this model:

Royalty-only e-book publication offers a viable alternative for success in the instance that a mainstream publisher deems a book too big a risk to publish through traditional means.  I am happy to see that the big publishers are each sporting new digital-first/digital-only imprints (some of which, like Berkley’s Intermix and S&S’s Pocket Star, do pay nominal advances, though smaller royalties) and I think creating more opportunities for up-and-coming authors to get published should be encouraged, even if that means giving up an advance in lieu of back-end compensation….

The point of these digital-only/digital-first imprints should not be to lure noobs into exploitative arrangements but to use the flexibility afforded by the low overhead to explore new vistas of genre and style and to discover and cultivate readerships that can blossom into new enterprises that will benefit authors, publishers, and readers alike.

This is a crucial moment for publishers who do to define why that model is valuable to authors, and what they as publishers can offer the author in a publishing partnership. Advances aren’t the only thing publishers can offer, and if publishers choose to go without them, we have an obligation to articulate why our partnership a valuable and attractive option for the author.

Kirsten Reach is an editor at Melville House.