Everything You Need to Know About SFWA's Clash With Random HouseS

If you're an aspiring science fiction or fantasy writer, you've probably heard that the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America has come to blows with one of the biggest publishers in SF over the past week. But what's all this about? And how does it affect you and your dreams of being published by Random House?

So here's the deal. Random House has started four new imprints, which only publish e-books. They have the catchy names Loveswept (romance), Alibi (mystery/suspense), Hydra (SF/fantasy) and Flirt (for college-age readers). Random House wants these imprints to have more flexibility, publishing more quickly and embracing whatever's the hot new idea in each genre. The Random House page also promises:

Breaking past conventional boundaries, it will give new authors the opportunity to showcase the best of what these genres have to offer: works that are challenging, breathtaking, provocative, inspiring, funny, heartwarming, suspenseful, and hot!

So far, so good. But SFWA president John Scalzi noticed that the contracts for Hydra and Alibi have a few problems:

1) They don't pay an advance, which is usually pretty standard, even for most smaller publishers

2) They charge the writer up-front for all sorts of costs that the publisher normally pays for, including editing, sales and marketing, cover art, publicity and so on — which can pile up, and which are quite possibly whatever Random House says they are.

3) Random House takes the license to your book for the full term of copyright, and the clause allowing you to regain the right to your book after it goes out of print is really problematic. (An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Random House owns the copyright, and that there was no out of print clause whatsoever.)

All in all, this adds up to a situation where authors might never see any money from Random House, and meanwhile they never get to own their own work. Scalzi's deconstruction of it is here, and here's a collection of his other posts on the topic. In particular, Scalzi writes:

Here’s a good general question to ask any publisher: Where is the author in the line of people who get paid? The further back the author is in the payment line, the more you should be suspicious of that publisher ever paying you. You should especially not trust the word of someone who is going to get paid no matter how your book does; say, as an example, someone who pulls a monthly salary whether or not you ever see a penny from the publisher. This is why advances are a good thing: They put the author at the front of the line to get paid. Which, given that the publishing industry is all about selling what the author provides, is where the author should be. If a publisher doesn’t have paying the author first as its default, then it tells me something very significant about what they think about authors — and what priority authors are in their publishing scheme.

So SFWA declared that Hydra and Alibi were not going to be considered qualifying markets for SFWA membership, because in effect if you're published by these imprints, you are not a professional writer. (No word on whether Flirt counts, though.)

Random House responded soon afterwards, saying that SFWA should have talked to them first, and adding that SFWA doesn't appreciate how much of an even partnership these book deals will be:

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.

To which SFWA responded by saying, in effect, that there's nothing to discuss as long as the Hydra and Alibi contracts keep the afore-mentioned terms. And threatening to escalate if Random House tries this sort of thing with its more established imprints:

The contracts of these imprints mean that SFWA will now be watching Random House very closely. If the egregious features of Hydra and Alibi’s contracts begin to make their way into the contracts of Random House’s other imprints, particularly Del Rey and Spectra, we will be required to act, up to and including delisting Random House as a whole as a qualifying market for SFWA.

Top image: Inferno Insane/Flickr.com.