If you’re an author – if you’re a writer – if you’re a reader, then you need to be aware of what’s going on over at Random House’s e-book imprints. This is bad, guys. This is really, really terrible. I’m talking music industry horrific. This is one of the big five publishing houses testing the waters to see if they can get away with the awful business model for which we rallied against the music industry.
Except worse, because at least the music industry pretended by giving an advance.
Recently, two of Random House’s e-book only imprints had their contracts come to light. And these aren’t just weird, back-ass contracts given to the writers they’re trying to scare away: a lot of writers have confirmed that this is exactly what they were offered.
No advance, but you get paid a share of the NET profit based on the cover price. That is, after you’ve paid the set-up fees for your book: editing, marketing, cover art, any extraneous fees for ISBN’s or the coffee or massage the editor desperately needs. Not to mention if they ever print your book (WHICH THEY CAN WITHOUT CONSULTING YOU – but we’ll get to that), you get to pay all those fees again. Before you see any money yourself.
How is that different from a vanity publisher? I’m having a hard time figuring it out. Actually, it’s different because with a vanity publisher, you get to choose the price of your editor – if you want one – your cover art, your marketing, your extraneous coffee-tastic fees. You know exactly how much you’ll be paying for all that and exactly what you’re willing to pay. You can shop around, find a friend who owes you a favor.
But with these imprints, you don’t even get that. It’s in-house, which means their friend whom they owe a favor can get this ridiculously lucrative deal doing the cover for your book because it’s not the publisher paying it, it’s you and you get no say.
So, after all that, and only then, and only what screggs there are, you get a percentage of the remainder. Suddenly that net amount is a lot smaller than you expected.
This is where the comparison to the music industry comes in. This is their basic business model, except they would pay the musician an advance, then deduct their fees from that advance after the fact. So the musician would see, say, a 100k advance, but that advance would get eaten up by publishing, business, airfare, and touring expenses, over which the musician would virtually have no say. So on paper, it looks awesome: 100k advance! But in reality, it quickly dwindles to 20k after all those expenses.
Now let’s get to the other, equally horrific part of this contract: primary & subsidiary rights become Random House’s for the length of copyright.
That doesn’t sound as terrible, does it?
Except length of copyright = 70 years after the author’s death.
Except primary & subsidiary rights = “the exclusive right to print, publish, sell and license the contracted work, in every possible format, in whole or in part, in every language, in the entire world”.
As Scalzi noted, they might have well added “throughout the universe” in there. It’s ridiculous. For pennies – for part of the “net” profit, whatever that turns out to be over which the author have absolutely no control – they want ALL the rights. For every possible format. And they have no incentive to do anything with it. Because they don’t have to pay the author any specified amount.
So maybe the author sells well and they are approached by a foreign publisher for foreign language rights. Well. They can’t give those rights because Hydra already has them. And maybe Hydra doesn’t feel like giving those rights just yet – or at all – and decide it’s in their best interest to sit on them. Even if it’s in the author’s best interest to sell them. Under a normal contract, the author retains those rights and can do what they want with them – maybe they don’t like Canada, so they never sell English language rights in that area. But Hydra could, without consulting the author. Hydra could do whatever the hell they want.
Do you see why this is bad? This work, these words born from a year or two or three (or more)’s worth of sweat blood and tears, and Random House wants that work without giving you any idea of what money you’ll – eventually, after they pay the editor, illustrator, taxman, janitor, intern, masseuse, psychic – earn, and then will keep the rights to that work, i.e., the ability to do ANYTHING with it without consulting you until way after you’re dead… And they could just sit on those rights. They could do your e-book and then just sit on them and you could have a hundred other offers on your door but you could never do anything with them because Hydra doesn’t think it’s in their best interest.
This. Is. Not. Okay.
This is not remotely okay.
And we have to let the publishers know that. Because this is them testing to see what they can get away with. This is them insulting the intelligence of would-be authors. This is them saying, hey look, they’re just so damned desperate to see their names in print, they’d be willing to sign with a publisher that’s shittier than a vanity press.