“Vanity of vanities; all is vanity”
With a few famous exceptions, self-publishing, aka “vanity” publishing, has been the kiss of death for writers. For aspiring writers hoping to take a seat in the hallowed halls of authordom, launching a novel with a self-published imprimatur was almost like having an A stitched onto your bodice — as far as the major houses were concerned.
Then, along came Fifty Shades of Grey, originally published as an ebook by an obscure “virtual” publisher in Australia. Within a year, Amazon announced that it had sold more copies of Fifty Shades than Harry Potter. The publishing world was shaken. An ebook, fan fiction no less, had outsold the top-grossing series of all time. Random House, still smarting from having turned down J.K. Rowling, leapt to its metaphorical feet and did the unthinkable. It picked up a self-published ebook. This was a first for the world’s largest publisher, an opening of doors that had, up until now, been almost impossible to enter. It was hailed as a turnaround for the industry. But was it?
Random House’s sudden epiphany — “there’s gold in them thar hills!” — was followed by yet another Eureka moment. Anybody can sell electronic books! Random House immediately threw its hat into the ring, and started its own digital imprints: Alibi (mystery), Loveswept (romance), Flirt (for “New Adults,” whoever they are), and Hydra, a sci-fi imprint aptly named after a multi-headed reptile which was so poisonous even its tracks were deadly. Notwithstanding the ominous association with Greek monsters, Random House held out the biggest carrot of all time: Authors could submit their works, even those “previously published,” directly to Random House, thus bypassing the almost insurmountable hurdle of snaring an agent.
Naturally, there was a catch – or two.
The first catch was that authors would have to bear the costs of publication. This was also true for self-published authors, though now those costs would be exclusively determined by Random House. The second was that instead of receiving the traditional advance against publication, there would be “profit sharing.” The publisher and author would split revenues 50/50. As it turns out, “profit sharing” is simply a rebranding of the Subsidiary Rights clause of the standard Random House contract, in which proceeds of electronic books, audiobooks, translations, etc. are divided equally between publisher and author.
In short, by removing up-front payments to the author, while simultaneously eliminating all of its own expenses, Random House was imitating a vanity press. But, unlike vanity presses, they would take half of the profits. Random House was hoping nobody could add.
The Science Fiction Writers Association (SFWA) not only added, they subtracted their members. In a scathing letter sent to its members on March 6, the SFWA stated that it had “determined that works published by Random House’s electronic imprint Hydra cannot be used as credentials for SFWA membership, and that Hydra is not an approved market.”
The reason? “Hydra fails to pay authors an advance against royalties, as SFWA requires, and has contract terms that are onerous and unconscionable. Hydra contracts also require authors to pay – through deductions from royalties due the authors – for the normal costs of doing business that should be borne by the publisher.”
Needless to say, there are serious consequences from being blacklisted by sci-fi’s largest and most influential writer’s association. Random House was compelled to make an immediate rebuttal.
“We read with interest your posts today about the new Random House digital imprints and our business model,” wrote Allison Dobson, V.P., Digital Publishing Director. “While we respect your position, you’ll not be surprised to learn that we strongly disagree with it, and wish you had contacted us before you published your posts.”
The opening of this letter precisely mimics the simulated regret that over-protective, politically-correct parents employ when punishing their wayward children: We like you, but we don’t like what you did.
Sci-fi wrists duly slapped, Allison now proceeded to the spin, “with a profit-share model … the author and publisher share equally in the profits from each and every sale. In effect, we partner with the author for each book.” Allison describes this partnership as “an all-encompassing collaboration.”
Translation: We are on your side. We’re really your friends.
Addressing costs, Allison says, “These costs could be much higher – and certainly be more stressful and labor-intensive to undertake – for an author with a self-publishing model. Profits are generated once those costs are subtracted from the sales revenue. Hydra and the author split those profits equally from the very first sale.”
Translation: You’re too young to handle this. Leave everything to us. We know what’s best for you.
As a disciplinary device, this letter was nothing short of brilliant. It hit every aspiring author’s weak spots in a way that nobody could resist. But Random House has had plenty of practice at this game. These tactics are the stock-in-trade of publishing houses: shining promises, followed by intimidating jargon, followed by incomprehensible terms.
SFWA did not recant, and Random House was eventually forced to comply with the usual standards of print publication. Authors submitting work to Random House’s electronic imprints are now offered a choice of the advance against royalties model, with a royalty of 25 percent of net receipts, and the publisher “will cover production, shipping, and marketing for all formats at 100 percent of cost.”
The day has been won by organized labor, but in reality nothing has changed. Authors still provide the raw materials (for a small percentage), and publishers provide the finished goods (for the bulk of the profit). Whether it takes on a new guise, sports a new brand, or appears to adopt a new format: “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.”