Random House launches ebook imprint that's run like a predatory vanity press

Writer beware. According to an email from the Science Fiction Writers of America, Random House has launched an imprint called "Hydra" with all the hallmarks of a sleazy, scammy vanity-press: no advance on royalties, perpetual, all-rights assignments of copyrights, and all production expenses charged to the writer before any royalties are paid.

SFWA has determined that works published by Random House’s electronic imprint Hydra can not be use as credentials for SFWA membership, and that Hydra is not an approved market. 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. Hydra contracts are also for the life-of-copyright and include both primary and subsidiary rights. Such provisions are unacceptable. At this time, Random House's other imprints continue to be qualified markets.

This kind of rip-off is semi-standard with record deals, but it's unheard of in legit publishing, where the author typically receives an advance on royalties that is not refundable if it doesn't earn out; where authors traditionally assign a few, time-limited rights (English print/audio/ebook for a given territory, say); and where the production costs are wholly borne by the press in exchange for keeping the lion's share of any book revenue.

Hydra's deal is much, much worse than the one you'll get from a real DIY option like BookBaby or CreateSpace or Lulu, where you only pay for services you want, keep 100% of your profits, and assign no rights at all to the "publisher." It's got all the downsides of a DIY press, and all the downsides of a traditional press, and the upsides of neither.


    1. This. I signed in to say this. What were they thinking? 
      What possible market segment were they going after? 

          1. I knew a guy that lived at home with mommy well into his 40’s AND his older brother lived there, too.
            He said that he used to have to read on the other side of the house in the bathroom at night because his brother bothered him with all his typing and stapling of “his pamplets”. 
             wanted to know more, but didn’t, if you know what I mean..

        1. No complaints there…I wish I could get a piece of the selling gold to paranoiac Beckite fundies scam.

  1. Welcome to the new normal.

    “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a contract lawyer stamping on a human face —forever. We control life, Winston, at all its levels.”

      1.  Well, if you don’t get to judgment first, you’re yesterday’s news. The internet just lets you get there faster.

    1. The article at Writer Beware refers to a “deal memo”. I’m curious to know if this is a standard part of the deal-making process for writers, as opposed to a random memo leaked from the Random House offices.

      I’m a freelance illustrator, not a writer, but this sounds similar to the offer letters I get at the beginning of a project. A company will contact me and say, “We’d like you to work on X project, here are the terms we are offering.” Then, after a round or two of discussion, they will send a contract.

      Before I posted this, I did a quick Google search for “deal memo” and it looks like this is indeed the case. Some writers even refer to deal memos as “short contracts”. It sounds like Writer Beware’s deal memo is a very good representation of Random House’s terms.

        1. In my similar-but-not-quite-identical situation, it lets me negotiate with creative directors without having to run every step past a third party. Then I can get to work on the project while the client’s legal department writes up the final contract (and, when the project involves things like non-compete clauses and liability issues, I run it past a lawyer of my own).

    2.  Well, the RH site says the author retains copyright, subject to RH’s license of those rights. In other words, RH may be saying they license the work for the life of the copyright. Just that’s enough to walk away.

    3. A better source is John Scalzi’s analysis of a Hydra contract and his analysis of a contract from Alibi, the sister imprint also from Random House.  (John Scalzi is president of SFWA, a good one, and is also a good writer.) 

      They are combining the worst aspects from both Movie (Hollywood accounting) and Music industry contracts (author pays for everything before he gets dollar one) add in vanity press (no advances) and adds more details (publisher gets ALL RIGHTS for duration of the copyright) and then twists the knife a bit more (right of first refusal on your next work, at the same terms).

      To use a less anal-rapey metaphor, they eat your baby, and have the right to eat any more babies you have until they are no longer hungry.

  2. IDK, the OP here is generally pretty well versed on these things and forward-looking, so if he’s sounding the alarm, I’m concerned.  Maybe it is a progressive development, bringing the old-line Random House-ish editorial resources to a new segment under terms tailored to fit new media.  But then again. . . .  The publishing houses were slow to recognize digital, then alarmist and regressive. . . . but success cuts through even the most occluded of eyes and eventually they were always going to try and compete.   But I worry that they won’t also seek to use digital as a rear-guard action against their old-school professional authors.   If someone needs to be the early-warning system on this, you could do a lot worse than Cory.   

  3. Sounds horrible, but I have to point out that “life of copyright,” doesn’t constitute perpetual.  And unless they’re trying to claim that these are “works for hire” they’re STILL not as bad as the record companies.

    1. And what is the duration of copyright in the US? Unless Disney’s moved the goalposts again, I believe it’s the author’s lifetime plus 70 years.

      It might as well be perpetual. If you publish a book when you’re 40, and life expectancy is roughly 70, that’s a projected 100 years of copyright protection even if the Mouse stopped meddling any further.

      1. Yes, but there was a law passed in the 70’s that allows rights holders to terminate any publishing contract after 35 years.

  4. …”life of copyright,” doesn’t constitute perpetual…

    Where have you been?  Because it’s a happier place than the endless-extension world I live in.

  5. SFWA didn’t credit me in its announcement–and I didn’t know about the announcement until I looked at my email this evening–so I don’t know if I’m the source of the information about Hydra.

    To clarify, the deal memo I saw came from Random House, and was provided to me, along with further information in a followup email from RH, by the author who received the offer. I haven’t seen the actual Hydra contract because the author hadn’t yet received one–only the preliminary offer. However, as one of the commenters pointed out upstream, such deal memos–while not writ in stone–do represent the terms that will appear in the contract.

    As I note in my post, Hydra is willing to negotiate, and authors may be able to get better terms than this standard offer–including a precise reversion clause to offset the life-of-copyright contract. In my opinion this is definitely a second-class offer. But–also in my opinion–I’m not sure that SFWA should have jumped so quickly into the fray–especially if my blog post is the source of that decision. Frankly, I hope it’s not. I would hope that such a determination would be based on a full reading of Hydra’s contract–or at the very least, on a reading of the documentation on which I based my post (which so far has not been requested by anyone at SFWA).

    1.  ” Hydra is willing to negotiate”
      Utterly meaningless if the default start position amounts to screw the author over unconditionally. Rather old fashion of me to expect negotiations to start on honourable middle ground first. It will exploit authors and agents who don’t know better or can’t negotiate. Even as a memo it reflects a corrupt attitude and moral bankruptcy.

    2. Hydra is willing to negotiate

      Tell H.Y.D.R.A. that the President does not negotiate with cultural terrorists.

      I couldn’t resist. In all seriousness, what Adela said. If I have to negotiate myself part of the way out of the hole I have to start in, why should I let myself be put at the bottom of that hole in the first place?

  6. There are sadly a growing number of these types of services, charging silly amounts of money (for various promotional and consulting services of dubious value) and claiming rights they have no cause to claim… Especially ridiculous given that Lulu and others provide a perfectly decent service without these shortcomings.

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