Would I Take a Lousy Contract From Random House?

Authors are snobs. It’s about numbers and status. It’s about competition. There are so many of us at so many different points in our careers, which could totally tank on one poor-selling novel, and there are even thousands more people who feel they, “have a book in them.”

For example, when I was unpublished and I told people that I had written a bunch of short stories and was submitting them to the magazine slush piles, invariably there was someone in the room who expressed an interest in writing as a career, although they had yet to set pen to paper (or save a word doc to a hard drive.) I would try to say encouraging things, like suggesting they try writing for just twenty minutes a day to get started. But what I really thought was, “never going to be published.” Not fair I know, because writers start at all stages of life, but the stats are on my side. If you’re only thinking about writing, it’s unlikely you’ll go on to get published.

Of course at the same time, published authors I met at conferences, who were also encouraging, probably thought the same about me. Lots of people submit for years to slush piles, and most of them will never get published. The published authors indulged my claims to being an author, but probably considered me an unpublished nobody whose words would never be read by anyone other than my spouse. Then I got a dozen of my short stories published, but still I was on the first rung of the ladder. I hadn’t been published by a major American press, just a small Canadian press. And they were just short stories. See? We’re snobs. Still, at conferences I now had something to brag about. I had been paid to write. I could call myself an author.

The pecking order is obvious. The published authors are higher than indie-published, who are higher than unpublished, but only if they have sales and reviews. The traditionally published authors also compare publishers. Those published by small presses with light sales are considered less important than authors who are published by one of the majors. It doesn’t stop there, of course. We’re human beings after all. Authors published by one of the five major publishers now compare who has the bigger contract or more sales. It’s all about who is bigger. Yes, insert gender-specific anatomical references linked to size here.

So the brass ring of writing is to be published by a major publishing company, and Random House was banking on this cachet to lure new authors into a lousy contract. Their new digital-only SF¬†imprint, Hydra, came up with a deal so bad for authors that they had to scramble to defend it. I won’t go into the details because they were so well explained here by the passive voice, but I will mention that it’s similar to a vanity press profit-sharing deal. You know the kind, where the vanity press decides how much it costs to produce the book (a lot) before they calculate the “profit” that they’ll share with the author–none. Worse, if I were to sign a book deal with Hydra, I would never exclusively own that book or its subsidiary rights ever again in my life. That’s right, the deal goes until the copyright expires and the book is in the public domain. Oh yeah, and an advance? Forget about it.

So the only reason an author would consider signing this deal is they want the prestige of being published by Random House, because they sure as hell won’t be quitting their day job based on the income from the novel. Even for me, the recognition that comes with being picked up by Random House might just be too tempting, the bragging rights at the writing conventions too great. So I have to ask myself, would I give away one of my babies, taking only half the profit even though I pay all the expenses, to get a giant like Random House in my corner for just one book?

Short answer is it depends on what they’re really going to do to support their “partner” authors. If you’re new and they’re going to aggressively market, maybe it is worth giving away one novel forever. I can always write another. But if they’re going to follow the pattern of the last ten years and just throw a novel out there and tell the author it’s his or her job to market it, well, Amazon and Smashwords here I come.

My other concern is that they won’t sign for one novel, but will insist on a three or four book deal, leaving me locked in and starving for years. So my guess is that I’d say no to the lousy contract, forgoing the bragging rights in favour of continuing to be my own boss in my own small pond.

Hydra changed their tune a few days after their announcement after they had a chat with the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America about their concerns with this contract. Now Hydra says they’ll offer a more traditional advance plus royalty model and will pay for all production and shipping, (wait a minute: shipping? Isn’t this digital only?) but they’ll still take a whopping 25% ebook royalty. They’ve also agreed to dump the very vanity-press-like percentage-based fees for “publishing services.” I guess that would be editing and a cover.

But there’s still some very troubling issues. First, the author has to approve any advertising over $10,000 and that amount will be deducted from net sales before the profit spilt. As an author, I’d like to see a good accounting of how they spent the first $10,000 dollars, which in advertising is nothing, and it better not be to hire a Random House subsidiary company to provide the advertising services.

It’ll be interesting to see who gets published through this new contract, but I’m not submitting so it won’t be me. I still have high hopes for my novels. I’m not willing to give them away forever just yet.

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