Random House’s Hydra and the value of affiliation

March 11, 2013 In The News, Writing Comments (0) 387

Big doings recently in the publishing industry. First John Scalzi and the folks at the Science Fiction Writers of America got their hands on a copy of the contract terms offered by Random House’s recently-created eBook-only Hydra imprint. This led to a couple of scathing blog posts from Scalzi and the formal announcement from SFWA that Hydra is no longer a qualifying publication for membership, and the recommendation that authors stay away. The same goes for Alibi, Hydra’s sister imprint for mystery works, and presumably for all the Random House eBook imprints, though SFWA wasn’t willing to make that official because they hadn’t actually seen contracts.

There followed a letter from Allison Dobson, Random House’s digital publishing director, in which she assured SFWA (and prospective writers–this was, after all, an open letter) that Hydra, and Random House, aren’t trying to rip anybody off, that it is in fact a “different – but potentially lucrative – publishing model for authors: a profit share,” and also can’t everybody just talk about this?

SFWA’s answer (paraphrased): There’s no need to talk. We saw a contract, and it’s horrible. Unless you change your terms, we’re telling everyone to stay away–and if we get wind that Random House is trying this with its print divisions, we’re going to delist those, too.

In short, it was pretty awesome.

The reason I post about it, other than doing my small part to spread the word that Hydra is terrible and writers should stay away, is to say a quick huzzah for Scalzi and SFWA. This is, after all, the grand purpose of associations and unions and such: to work together as a group to protect the individuals they represent.

Imprints like Hydra, or Penguin’s Author Solutions, or the dozens or hundreds that aren’t established by otherwise reputable big-six publishers, exist for one purpose: to exploit authors. In most cases, their primary customers–meaning, the source of their revenues–aren’t readers, but young unpublished authors hungry for success, career advancement, and a presumed audience. In this case, Hydra and Random House aren’t making any cash directly from the authors, but their contract terms leave the door open for fuzzy math that directs all revenue to the publisher, and very little to the author.

Scalzi has gone on about this at length, and in better language than I can. If you want to understand why Hydra is so bad, go and read his blog. I’m just here to cheer for him and for SFWA. By de-listing Hydra (and, really, by having a list to start with) they help steer authors who aspire to join their ranks–and count me among them–away from exploitative publishers like Hydra. More importantly, by making a public stink about such exploitation, they put pressure on publishers to change their ways. That’s a power authors don’t have on their own, and that’s why we, as authors, should continue to support SFWA, the Authors Guild, and the other unions and associations through which we wield any power.

As a writer, it’s up to you to do your due diligence about that publishing house that seems to be offering you your big break. Beyond SFWA and the Authors Guild, you also have easy access to Writer Beware and AbsoluteWrite, which are terrific resources

One of the earliest books I read on publishing (I think it was Orson Scott Card, whose opinion I respected quite a bit before gay people made him insane) taught me a simple truth: Publishers work for publishers, and agents work for writers. Publishers will exploit you if they can, and these days it’s easier than ever. We need to be vigilant, and remember our means of taking power, if we are going to defend ourselves.


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