March 11, 2013
New Random House ebook-only imprint de-listed by the SFWA
by Dustin Kurtz
Those rad-hardened spun-toroid regions of the internet that concern themselves with science fiction publishing were nearly all talking about a single story this past weekend. The Science Fiction Writers of America guild of authors has de-listed the new Random House ebook-only imprint Hydra as a qualifying market.
Practically, what this means is that work published with the press will not count towards the requirements for membership in SFWA, and that SFWA will advise its members not to publish with Hydra.
The SFWA stance is a blow to the image of the new imprint, and to the full cohort of e-book only imprints — Alibi for mysteries and Flirt for a genre which exists now, it seems, called “New Adult” — that have recently been started at Random and under the aegis of other name brand publishers like Harlequin.
The divisive issue is the nature of the contracts being offered to potential Hydra authors, the most striking elements of which are that they include no advance for authors, required payments for certain services are deducted from any eventual income, a radical 50/50 split on proceeds , and subsidiary rights belong to the publisher.
When the imprints were launched, there was speculation that they operated more like self-publishing companies such as Lulu.com than anything else, and that they indicated a different approach for Random House, setting up something akin to a farm team from which to draw potential stars but with less initial risk or outlay. This recent outcry about the contracts seems to have begun when Victoria Strauss of Writer Beware wrote about the Hydra terms and the SFWA picked up her post on its site on Feb. 28th.
What followed was a loud concerned near-consensus from the SF community, in particular from John Scalzi (current president of the SFWA). Random House’s digital publishing director Allison Dobson responded in a letter to the organization, printed in full in PW, saying:
Hydra offers a different — but potentially lucrative — publishing model for authors: a profit share. In the more traditional advance-plus-royalty model, the publisher takes all the financial risk up front, and recoups the advance before the author earns any cash royalties. With a profit-share model, there is no advance. Instead, the author and publisher share equally in the profits from each and every sale. In effect, we partner with the author for each book.
The SFWA responded with anger saying, in part,
Additionally, your attempt to shift to the author costs customarily borne by the publisher is, simply, outrageous and egregious. The first of these things alone would disqualify Hydra as a qualifying market. It is the second of these things, however, that causes us to believe that Hydra intends to act in a predatory manner towards authors, and in particular toward newer authors who may not have the experience to recognize the extent to which your contract is beyond the pale of standard publishing practices.
It remains to be seen whether the disagreement will inhibit new authors — likely not yet members of the SFWA in any case — from submitting to Hydra or other similar Random House imprints, or how the conversation will change once the still-new Hydra has their first illustrative success stories with which to deflect criticism.
There is no word, also, whether the company yet regrets naming the imprint after a monster whose main role in legend is to be slain by a mighty hero.
Dustin Kurtz is former marketing manager of Melville House.