Random House responds to SFWA on its Hydra ebook imprint

Allison R. Dobson, Digital Publishing Director of Random House, has written an open letter to the Science Fiction Writers of America responding to the warning it published about Hydra, a new imprint with a no-advance, author-pays-expenses contract that SFWA (and I) characterize as being totally unacceptable. Dobson's letter doesn't do much to change my view on that:

When we acquire a title in the Hydra program, it is an all-encompassing collaboration. Our authors provide the storytelling, and we at Hydra support their creativity with best-in-class services throughout the publishing process: from dedicated editorial, cover design, copy editing and production, to publicity, digital marketing and social media tools, trade sales, academic and library sales, piracy protection, negotiating and selling of subsidiary rights, as well as access to Random House coop and merchandising programs. Together, we deliver the best science fiction, fantasy and horror books to the widest possible readership, thus giving authors maximum earning potential.

There are other options for doing the same: Lulu, BookBaby and CreateSpace will all let you pay freelancers to do any and all of that stuff (and given that so much of publishing is now outsourced, they're likely to be some of the same people doing the job at a Big Five publisher), but none of them demand all your rights and subsidiary rights for the length of copyright, and none of them reserve the right to charge arbitrary sums to your account before they pay you any royalties.

As Munger points out, costs-plus-percentage-of-costs contracts are a moral hazard (that's why it's a felony for the US military to issue them), and they have no place in publishing.

Random House Responds to SFWA Slamming Its Hydra Imprint


  1. “Maximum earning potential” 
    ..a second later:
    “For Random House obviously, not for themselves. You don’t think we got rich by writing a lotta checks do ya? Ha ha ha ha!”

  2. I’m pretty sure that if it’d be a felony for a defense contractor to rip you off in a particular way, you’d better be extra sure that it isn’t a good deal…

  3. When something like this breaks, the usual pattern of response is:

    1. Silence in the face of the initial outrage.
    2. A corporate message explaining how [insert unacceptable behavior] is actually in the best interests of creators, consumers, and [insert random oppressed minority].
    3. Silence in the face of renewed outrage.
    4. A corporate message explaining how after due consideration, [insert corporation] has decided to make [insert minor modification] in their previous [insert unacceptable behavior], thus further benefiting creators, consumers and [insert random oppressed minority].
    5. Silence.
    6. A corporate message buried in the inside pages of a trade publication read by no more than four people explaining how they have relaunched [insert unacceptable behavior] under a new name.

    We’re at step 2. Watch for 3-6.

    1. Since EA and its apocalyptic SimCity launch has brought the failings of always-online requirements for what should be single-player games up, your comment reminds me of Ubisoft’s reps when they announced that they were abandoning the always-online DRM component about a year ago.

      The interviewer tried to make them admit that the plan was a mistake, but they steadfastly refused to acknowledge it, only that they were now doing this and they basically didn’t want to talk about the past. It was so obvious.

  4. Wait, she’s boasting that Hydra gives the author access to Random House’s marketing, editing, copyediting, etc. services?

    That’s… the only thing Random House does. Running an abusive vanity press mutation of ordinary business is not subject to special pleading when you get accused of running an abusive vanity press.

    1. I think the (implicit, because it’d sound really bad to say out loud) argument is that ‘Hydra’ is a shitty financial deal because it provides Random House’s services to people who the decision makers at their real imprints wouldn’t touch.

      That’s sort of the vanity press thing: they offer some semblance of the services of a real publisher; but at rates that reflect their…boundless… confidence in your abilities as an author.

      The Random House spokesweasel is essentially arguing that Random House is a better vanity press; because it gouges you for better services…

      1. Well, I suppose if there’s no chance this side of Mars that you’ll get your work past the slush pile in the first place, and you have the money, you might as well go with the swanky place with silicone lube and mood lighting instead of the sketchy crack addict in the alley for your getting-sodomized needs.

        But I don’t see that type of author being able to appreciate the editorial staff’s work, assuming they do anything at all, since as Cory’s mentioned previously, if you’re paying the bill, it’s to their advantage to do nothing beyond the absolute minimum.

        1. Oh, especially given the conflict of interest, in addition to the existence and availability of competent freelancers, I don’t think that there’s a chance in hell that Random House’s offer is a good one.

          Just that the implicit argument of their PR flack was not so much a ‘no, for reasons you just didn’t understand, we are actually offering you a good deal!’; but rather a ‘Yeah, you are paying to be published on our vanity imprint because no real imprint will touch you, that’s vanity publishing for you; but Authentic Random House Services!!!! are much better than the ones at Sleazy Joe’s House of Typesetting and Bait Shack.’

    2. The other implication, of course, is that those who sign traditional contracts don’t get the best-in-class services from Random House, but whatever services happen to be lying around.

      I’m sure the agents who are negotiating with Random House would be fascinated by this and love to discuss the implications at length.

      1. Eh, I don’t know that that follows. In the “traditional” model, the author and his/her manuscript is accepted and the publisher bears the costs of everything, typically including giving the author an advance on royalties and then recouping it through sales. Leaving onerous/abusive clauses about who gets the rights and for how long aside, the publisher really does need the book to sell.

        It’s in their best interest to make sure that it’s an acceptable product. That doesn’t preclude doing it for as little as possible, but it’s their money they’re spending. With Hydra, you’re basically contracting them to do all the heavy lifting with your manuscript to turn it into a book for you, so they stand to profit from day 1.

  5. Considering Random House’s prominence and history, this sort of groping desperation doesn’t bode well for publishing as a whole. Well, for traditional publishing, anyhow.

    1. You can almost say this is the “50 Shades of Gray’ response. From a traditional publishing point of view, that’s the one that got away: An unknown author who writes a book that no traditional publisher would have picked up, and yet made tons of money. And the author still owns every single right, and is a great position to negotiate for pretty much everything.

      The publishers would prefer that no longer happen.

      1. This business model is aimed at “50 Shades of Gray” wannabes, who think that “I coulda been a contenda’!”  Never mind that a success story like that is almost like winning the lottery, everyone thinks that if they just have a chance, they will be the next [fill in successful author here].  It doesn’t matter to them that they have just bought into being a sharecropper.

      2. I predicted some years back that traditional publshers would begin offering a la carte services to compete with DIY authors and service like Lulu (Harlequin got that ball rolling last year), but I never thought that a major publisher would see the kind of egregiously unbalanced vanity press with a long history of catering to desperation as a viable solution.

  6.  Totally. It’s marketing lingo and went through the company’s PR mechanism. An actual human being with any moral or ethical compass was not involved in the crafting of that statement …

    1.  Yep. I can stand reading about the dishonesty – it’s the weasel words that make me flinch.

  7. somesort of odd deja-vu glitch happening just now to Boing-Boing (at least on my end) … every refresh alternates between this post and one of Xeni’s yesterday with the woman on the old phone advert (…1913).   godblesswordpress(and all those that sail upon it)

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