When we purchase books, many of us probably never think about all the legal things that go on behind the scenes when a book gets published. Last week, however, the Science Fiction Writers of America were up in arms about a new contract idea from Random House that affects their science fiction e- imprint, Hydra. They are not happy, and Random House doesn’t seem to see the problem.
Traditionally, in simple terms, writers are paid an advance from the publishing company as payment for their work. The publisher assumes all costs for printing, binding, distribution etc., and the book is put on the shelves. As the book begins to sell, the publisher is paid until all their costs are recouped and the advance they gave the author has been recovered, and then the author begins to share the profits with the publisher. If costs are not recovered because a book doesn’t do well, an author might never see any more money other than their advance.
With this new model, there are differences because of the fact they are an e-imprint (which means no binding etc., but includes different costs such as digital marketing), but they’ve also switched up all the rules. An author picked up by Hydra will have to cover all the costs and will be paid no advance. That means, Random House might decide to pay their editors $5000 if they feel it is necessary, and their marketing team $8000 if that’s what they believe they need in order to make the book successful. The author has no choice in the matter and must shoulder the costs. Then, when the book starts selling, both author and publisher share the royalties. The argument is that the publisher is taking a chance on the author by giving them the opportunity and providing them with the best people in the business, and yet they both get to reap the rewards right from the start.
It seems like it might be an interesting way to do business, and one which some authors would jump at the chance for. But wait…….
The catch is that the author now also loses all rights to their work, too...indefinitely. The publisher asks for all rights, in all forms, for the life of the copyright (which could work out to be 70 years or more after the death of the author). You can see why people are upset.
Last week, there was much uproar over the whole idea, and Random House replied with their own letter to the Science Fiction Authors of America to try to make them see the light. I’m not sure it worked. It might be more work and cost more money and maybe not net the author the same residuals, but it’s looking like self-publishing might be the way to go to avoid the massive copyright problems. You can read the Random House letter here to see for yourself.
The real problem with this new model, if accepted, is that it might be game changing for the business. What if paper books went the same way? Many authors wouldn’t be able to afford the costs of producing the books and would be forced to release in ebook format only. If other imprints follow this new direction, the world of publishing is changing, for good or not. Will this be the direction ebook publishers have been longing for since their inception? We’ll have to wait and see.