How the Random House / Hydra Contract Becomes the New Normal (For a While)

John Scalzi has the goods on Random House’s new Hydra vanity press, and the contract really does sound awful.

If you want to publish fiction, there are two main options.

  • Go with a reputable publisher. Advantage: the publisher fronts a bunch of fixed costs around book production and distribution and pays you an advance. Disadvantage: your book might never be published, and the publisher keeps most of the revenue from your book.
  • Self-publish. Advantage: You keep the lion’s share of the revenue. Disadvantage: you get no advance, and you have to front the cost of design, editing, art, etc. (Though if you don’t give a rip about design, editing, art, etc., this cost could be close to zero.)

Random House / Hydra combines the worst aspects of both paths. Unlike going with a publisher, you get no advance, and you end up paying the fixed costs of production. Unlike self-publishing, you only get 50% of the revenue, not 70% or 90% or 97.1%. And critically, unlike either of the above options, you lose your rights over your own work, in perpetuity. Random House assumes no risk and takes 50% of your money — forever. Just unbelievably cynical and awful.

The trick will be making this kind of contract the new normal. Here’s the playbook:

  1. Full court press in industry publications and social media, arguing that the contract is actually fantastic for authors, 50% is like totally way better than 15% you guys duh, and anyone who says otherwise is a fuddy-duddy who doesn’t get The Internet and hates puppies.
  2. Select a handful of authors and spend serious money promoting them, making sure they rack up some respectable sales by hook or by crook. Brag a lot about the top-line numbers.
  3. Wait for shit-rags like Business Insider and Newsweek and Slate to dutifully churn out praise for this brave new business model. Wait for this sentiment to work its way up the media food chain.
  4. Profit???

I dunno. The thing is… if I worked for Random House, and if I were worried about competing with Amazon, Apple, Smashwords etc., I would spend some time thinking about how I could offer a better deal. I’d at least try to match their terms, and maybe add some unique features that the others can’t match. The last thing I would want to do is construct a business that is worse than what my competitors currently offer in every respect, and that promises razor-thin margins for a few more years at best.

It seems like an awfully ugly way to die.