By Porter Anderson | @Porter_Anderson
From March 14, 2013
Part of my series of columns on publishing, Writing on the Ether, appearing Thursdays at the invitation of Jane Friedman at JaneFriedman.com
Publishers have an opportunity to travel in a different direction: showcase their services, highlight their successes, and exploit their added-value. Lower the draw-bridge and come up with a new way of publishing more authors more cheaply, but better than they [authors] could do if they did it themselves.
For a long time I’ve wondered why trade publishers don’t open up their lists to would-be self-published writers, bringing more of them into the publishing fold, and working with them to build writing careers. The news that has been emerging around Random House US’ Hydra imprint, reminds me why they are wise to have been hesitant.
If you need it, the background on Random House, its four hapless digital imprints, and the hostility that greeted their contracts is in this section of Ether for Authors at Publishing Perspectives—Battle Lines: SFWA Stares Down Random House.
The latest update, as you’ll have heard, sees the publisher relenting.
Victoria Strauss at the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America’s (SFWA) Writer Beware blog writes in Random House Announces New Terms at Digital Imprints Hydra, Alibi, Loveswept, and Flirt:
Based on strong criticism from writers’ groups, authors, and agents, Random House has decided to make major changes in its digital contract…For the profit-sharing arrangement, there’s still no advance. But Random House has eliminated all chargebacks for digital editions, so the split between author and publisher is 50/50 of net revenue (actual sales income) from the first copy sold. In other words: no setup costs, no 10% deduction for sales and marketing.
For the advance-and-royalty deal, authors will receive a traditional publishing contract, with the publisher covering 100% of costs. There will be an advance, and royalties will be paid at Random House’s standard ebook royalty rate of 25% of net. The contract will still be life-of-copyright, but the reversion clause has been improved.
Nevertheless, Mudville is slow to rejoice, and its caution is prudent.
David Gaughran, an influential and restrained leader in the self-publishing community, is correct to counsel that now is not the time to run cheering onto the docks, in Publishers Behaving Badly, Part…I’ve Lost Count:
The new terms from Random House are an improvement on those originally offered. Gone is the requirement for an author to pay back the costs that are normally borne by a publisher – for the ebook version at least. If the book is selected for a print edition, the author will still have to repay those costs before seeing any royalties. From the excerpts of the contract I saw, these include the cost of printing, binding, shipping, storing, distributing, and dealing with returns.
— Jonny Geller (@JonnyGeller) March 13, 2013
Gaughran goes on, however:
I find it amusing that Random House first stuck to its guns, and then only agreed to make some changes when headlines appeared comparing them to a “predatory vanity press” when they have recently struck a deal to merge with Penguin – who run their own predatory vanity press (which Random House will soon co-own!). But I digress.
That’s the despised Author Solutions, of course, Gaughran refers to. And many authors will not be as quick as he is to curb their own digressions. It’s too easy to look at a moment like this as the one when the articulate and coordinated pressure of an 8,000-member author association fired across the bow of a Big Six steamer and forced it to turn in mid-voyage.
But while I, too, believe this was a pivotal moment—two digital imprints of four had been banned by SFWA, the other two surely would have followed—the worst thing writers can do at this point is to think in terms of vanquishing a major house during the long journey to new industry control.
What can be harvested of Big Six marketing, rights-negotiation, and distribution capabilities is important to retain. Authors need every avenue of production available. The accommodations writers achieve even in imperfect transitional events like this one are of value.
In the end, Jones is correct:
Despite the large number of entities out there that exist only to make money from self-published writers and do so with impunity, it is a different thing when a big publisher goes this route. The raison d’etre of traditional publishing is to take risks on talent, and back their editors to do so. When they get it right the rewards are huge, and will help to ameliorate the cost of the misses.
I keep seeing people write, "It's a mute point." I always picture Marcel Marceau gesturing with his hands.
— James Scott Bell (@jamesscottbell) March 4, 2013
And this must remind us that standing, working publishers are more useful than the hulks of dead ones. The risk-taking function of the standard publisher, as Jones writes, shouldn’t become a thing of the past.
Even with a list driven by would-be self-published writers the publisher should assume the risk. Telling an author that they must pay to be part of the list is vanity publishing; it reverses the traditional approach and undermines what a publisher does. A publisher looking to create such a list should look at ways of taking the cost out of the risk, not passing the costs of the risk on to the author. Hydra’s initial problem was that it wanted to share the risk, but continue to take the rump of the reward (including life-of-copyright).
After outcry, RH says it improves Loveswept, Hydra terms to include genuine reversion, mktg expense cap. http://t.co/UlfJ0WL3TI
— Authors Guild (@AuthorsGuild) March 12, 2013
Turning the biggest ships under the new tidal force of authorial power may well prove to be just this, an effect of concerted but civil pressure. And course corrections will rarely be complete in a single go.
Tacking may well be the new full speed ahead.
Wow, the SFWA does NOT mess around: http://t.co/XYRd9JQZXL
— Jenny Bent (@jennybent) March 8, 2013
Jones, Strauss, and Gaughran are all good voices in the widening mix and each has a point to make about the relative value of Random House’s ultimate posture, but only as long as those imprints remain functioning at all. It is better to have come through with the imprints afloat than sinking. And it’s compromise and patience—holding out the chance for discussion Strauss has described as “cordial,” not rancorous—that will keep making it possible for Jones, who has the ear of the legacy establishment, to submit messages like this:
Publishers will need to learn how to balance the competing demands of the different types of authors they will have to manage…But publishers won’t do this if they give the impression of wanting to treat these authors as second-class citizens.
To SFWA: Congratulations—and steady as she goes.
Main Image: iStockphoto: SolarSeven