In which I piss off SFWA and Random House at the same time

It's a strange new world for us in the publishing biz, and apparently there is no depth to which Certain People will not sink to screw us.

Call me naive, but I was clinging to the hope that New York was this bastion of professionalism in which publishers act according to the rules they themselves set. Those who have wrangled with New York just fell out of their chairs, rolling on the floor in hysterical laughter before they click on to someone who isn't so goddamn stupid.

Or, y'know, they can go read this piece by John Scalzi, brilliant author/blogger and outgoing president of Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, as he tears apart an allegedly professional contract offered by Random House imprint Hydra to new ebook authors. Go ahead. I'll wait.

Oh sweet fluffy Jesus - I am no lawyer and other than a handful of contracts in my filing cabinet, I have no real expertise in contract law. But that is by far the most disgusting example of screw the author I've ever seen.

To summarize, in case you don't want to go read Scalzi: Random House proposes to take all rights forever and to require the author to pay for standard publisher expenses like layout, design and marketing, after which they will split the costs. I find this quite similar to the person who comes up to me at a convention and says, "I have an idea for a story. Why don't you write it and we'll split the money?" Only this is more annoying, because Random House damn well knows better. They are not some well-meaning start-up on someone's kitchen table. This is a cynical opportunistic grab to huckster new writers, and I've always felt there is no one lower than the people trying to scam writers. If you're going to scam someone, try someone who actually has money.

Here's the thing that bugs me: the folks at SFWA, Horror Writers Association and other writers' groups have fought the good fight for many years, insisting that only book contracts that offer advances plus royalties will count for membership. At a convention once, SFWA reps had a panel trying to convince all us authors to join. I told them it sounded great, but I would not qualify for membership, because my publishers are all small-press houses that don't pay advances. Even the mid-size publisher that put my first series in bookstores nationwide and publishes more than two dozen books a month doesn't offer advances.

Is there any chance that SFWA et al will bend on that issue? I asked. They were sympathetic, but said no: they maintain that standard because they want publishers to keep paying advances. Sometimes that's all the money the author gets, and they deserve to get it up front.

Yes, we do. But it isn't going to happen. I'm ten years in this business now, with my seventh book on the way. My books have been in every Borders in America (RIP) and I've done the book tour over and over. I've never paid to publish a book and I (mostly) get my royalty checks on time. I work my ass off, my books get good reviews, and I've never gotten an advance, with the exception of a work-for-hire contract writing a game novelization.

Frankly, I wasn't all that interested in getting advances: I like getting royalties from day one, and it takes some pressure off me, knowing that if the book flops through some boneheaded publisher decision, it won't end my career as a writer because I failed to earn through my advance.

Note the famous case of poor Seanan McGuire, whose book Discount Armageddon was supposed to be released on March 6 last year. Amazon disregarded such niceties and started shipping the book in late February. Not to be outdone in dickishness, Barnes & Noble immediately followed suit. This is a problem because the only number that counts in New York publishing is the number of copies sold the week of release. If the book doesn't sell a bunch that first week, it's a failure. No matter that it takes time for word-of-mouth to gain traction, even on the internet. No matter that people are rarely waiting in lines outside closed bookstores at midnight for books that don't involve a bespectacled boy wizard. It's the first week or nothing.

This left McGuire in the bizarre position of begging her readers not to buy her book. Wait for the release date, she said, because if they all ran out to buy the book the last week of February, the numbers would stink for release week of March 6, and she could lose her entire career. When I read that, I thought, "Oh, to hell with New York's advances. Who needs that kind of stress?" Sending a book out in the universe is hard enough, with your soul laid bare in words for people to tread upon. As much as I'd like to get a big fat check up front, I'm also happy to know that as soon as people start buying my book, the money starts rolling toward me, and not toward paying off some giant debt I accrued when I signed the contract two years ago. Because that's what it is, really - a paycheck loan.

In the depths of my roiling career, I have sometimes lamented that all I wanted was a publisher who could sell more books than I can sell myself, because I'm frigging tired. I have tried selling direct online as my own bookstore, and I've done the constant con-and-bookstore tours where I lived out of hotel rooms 31 days a year. I would like a publisher to put my books on the shelf and send me a check. But that's pretty much ignoring the reality that if your name isn't King, Patterson or Rowling, you probably are your own marketing department. No one can sell a book like an author can.

But what SFWA et al don't get is that publishers don't give a flying fuck at a rolling bicycle wheel whether or not their contract terms qualify their authors for membership. SFWA can insist that qualified contracts require authors to be carried about on a silken pillow or that publishers caught using Poser to create cover art should be whipped with a cat-o-nine-tails, and it'll have the same effect on publishing contracts as the advance requirement does.

That does not get Random House off the hook for the rest of that benighted piece of flotsam they call a contract, mind you. Their response was basically a celebration of vanity press, where they provide "best-in-class services" at a fee charged to the author, while calling it "profit sharing." This means Random House has no real incentive to keep costs low, since their primary income will come from authors instead of, y'know, selling books. Scalzi's contract analysis is spot-on, though I'd replace the exploding agent's head with my own, since I (like most authors I know) have no agent and no plans to acquire one.

And that's the key: the vast majority of authors are floating in the turbulent seas of the new publishing world without agent lifeboats. So many new authors leap at the first contract they're offered, because hey - someone wants to publish them! It's exciting and fills your head with butterflies. An author who shall remain nameless signed his first contract without reading it, not realizing he had given away any right to the book for the life of the copyright, which is his lifespan plus 70 years. It's easy to miss things like the definition of "out of print," requirements for regular sales reports, quarterly or biannual royalty payments, reserves against returns, rights of first refusal on your next work, and other creepy things publishers wiggle into contracts because they know you can't read clearly through the tears of joy.

That's what really scares me about this: that new authors will fall for it. They'll think this is just the cost of doing business, because hey - it's Random House! And SFWA and HWA, with all due respect, aren't much help beyond posts like this. While they quite rightly call Random House out for this, they can't do anything to help the rest of us, because their rules keep us out of the clubhouse too. The real impact of the advance requirement is keeping vast numbers of authors out of the organizations that are trying their hardest to leverage better terms for authors... and they're losing membership by the fistful, or so I was told.

Is that because the organizations are no use - which I do not believe - or because most of us new (read: 10 years or less published) authors can't possibly qualify without those New York contracts that will screw us with our pants on? What does it say when an author can be nominated for HWA's highest honor, the Stoker, and still not qualify for membership because his small-press novel didn't have an advance? Sometimes small press makes up for the lack of advance with a royalty as high as 10 percent on gross receipts with no hold against returns. Compare that to Leisure's famous contract, back when it was the top horror mass-market publisher... paid its authors 4 percent royalties, a rate I consider roughly analogous to indentured servitude. 

Here's the other danger of a kerfuffle like this: aspiring writers will look at this and say, "Screw all the publishers. I can bop onto Amazon right now and put my novella up for the Kindle. If I've got to pay for the thing to get published at Random House, then I'll just pay CreateSpace or Lulu to do it, then I get to keep all the money!"

First: don't. Just don't. I'm begging you. There is more that a good publisher can do for you than just set up cover art and get your book listed on Amazon. Anyone can do that, it's true. But a good publisher helps you build the book from the inside out. A good publisher hooks you up with a strong editor who helps you find all the little problems in your book - and your book has problems. You are not a special snowflake who created the Great American Novel the first time out, and it's a brilliant stroke of lightning sure to outsell Fifty Shades of Gray, because that was a piece of shit.

Yes, it was, and no, you're not. There are a thousand things you learn from a publisher, from design to marketing to editing. They aren't just ISBN factories popping out identical books like a Cadbury Egg assembly line - and the real shame on Random House is that they know this, and they just don't care. A real publisher can look at a book and see things like snake trails, breaking words, gutter depths and other things we don't really register on a conscious level, but have a strong impact on the reader. I learned about descriptive passages and sentence structure and the little bits of Fail that we don't register until nasty letters come from readers.

A good publisher makes you a better writer. It's that simple. You learn by doing, and you learn best by working with good people who are motivated to make your book better and sell it, because that's how they earn money. Not working with people who are solely motivated by taking your money.

I strongly believe every writer should at least start with a good small-press publisher, and deserves to paid for his or her work. I believe contracts like Random House are the beginning of the death knell for New York... but not for traditional publishing, since the vast majority of publishers would be embarrassed to see that contract under their masthead, and not one of the publishers I've worked with (or even that I know personally) would have proposed that authors should cover their costs out of their pockets.

But I also believe SFWA, HWA and other such organizations will finally need to concede the issue of advances, if only to create a small-press category to allow those of us without advances to participate in the discussion, to join up and help fight to keep the rest of this crap out of our contracts. Otherwise, the dwindling crowd of New York-published authors will be the only ones fighting the good fight, and the rest of us are still bobbing in the sea, treading water.

Now that I've pissed off SFWA, HWA, Random House and the self-published, I think I'll quit. After all, I've got a book to write. It's coming out later this year from my publisher, and no, I didn't get an advance. But I didn't pay anyone a goddamn dime, and I think y'all are gonna love it.


  1. Anonymous9:31 PM

    I'm actually happy about this stumble by Random House. Every misstep the Big Six make adds a new layer of credibility to small press. What we have to do as authors is navigate this new landscape online better than everyone else. I have confidence we will.

    As far as SFWA goes, eff them. Eff them and their gatekeeper, elitist snobbery. I'm planning an upcoming piece just about them and their self-righteousness.

    Great piece, E.

  2. I agree w/you with maybe the small exception that the self-pub thing can be viable for some people.

    The SFWA et al need to wake up and smell the crappy economy.

    Thing is, what do you do when everyone wants perfectly packaged stories that fit neatly into a specific genre so they don't have to think too hard on the sales pitch? I'm still pursuing publishers for books I think will appeal to them as easy sells, but I've opted to at least attempt the Kindle thing for the book I've been shopping for four years. I understand small press has to pick w/caution the books they think will sell. I wrote my first novel with the intention of blurring genre lines, and of course, as I suspected might happen, it's been an impossible sell. I get comments like "I love it, but it doesn't suit our house." Hear that enough, and even the most patient soul gets fed up.

  3. Thank you for the great piece, Elizabeth. I've been published by a small press, both e-book and print since 1996. I fully intend to stay with them for all the reasons you lists. I've received royalties on my first book regularly for the last 17 years. Yes it's still available. I'm not rich, but I've not paid to have anything done, either. But I've hit that "They have to pay advances" or their not "legitimate." Bull. Rant on my dear, you're right on.

  4. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt, hon. I HAVE had advances, hefty ones, but am still not eligible for a single one of the authors organizations, because the books advanced upon WEREN'T IN THE RIGHT GENRES. Some days it's like beating my head against a granite wall, or like running full tilt on the infamous D&D "go-nowhere floor." You run as hard as you can, as long as you can, and you're still right back where you started. And nobody seems to care enough to really try to help us do more than tread water.

  5. FOLLOW-UP: It occurs to me that I might sound as if I'm putting down my publishers, especially the small ones. I'm not. Like Elizabeth says, I've learned a lot and they've been tremendous helps, very patient and encouraging. But you know, they just don't have the finances behind them that the Big Houses have got. Cash flow has to be large in order to afford advances, and usually the smaller houses, while producing good books, don't have the kind of cash flow that enables them to do all that kind of stuff.

  6. Nail. On the Head. In all cases.

    I do know authors can and do self-publish with the right mindset: they get professional editing, do their research, and treat it as a business; however, they are not served by the professional organizations as they should be. I know there are also plenty of "special snowflakes" out there, but the good writers, the _smart_ writers, who have done their research, worked on their craft, and produced wonderful books and strong products by themselves, through small presses (who do look out for their authors very well--better than some of the Big presses I've seen, too)... so many of them do not get the representation and support they deserve.

    Thanks for putting this out there, Elizabeth! I hope more people read this.

  7. So, SFWA announced that this doesn't count for admission in their group. But if they're requiring advances anyway - which they're not giving - then its a moot point and not the good move it appeared to be when they did it. Fuckers.

  8. I mostly agree as well. I've been pubbed by small press/original ebook publishers since 2001 (not NY I mean) and am still not eligible for most of the organizations per their archaic rules. Publishing has changed and will keep changing due to the economy, intense pressure from many other digital entertainment venues and other societal factors. I think the main issue small press and all ebook writers need to combat now is the rampant piracy although bad contracts are certainly a problem. But the cost to all in sales revenue is skyrocketing by the torrent, underground and blatant theft of our work!!

  9. I am in full agreement with most of your excellent points, particularly as regards membership criteria in writer's organizations which are wildly out of date. I will say, though, that there are disaster small publishers too, and sometimes you are better off seeing what you can do on your own. But I agree that mileage can vary based on experience.

  10. The SFWA is screwed up in various ways. Actually they should drop the advances bit, but I would rather small publishers get smart and offer nominal advances, but also drop the current once a member you are always a member policy. They need to represent actual serious writers to have any clout with publishers.

  11. My own small stick-it-to-the-SFWA archaic membership policies this year is pushing Wool(Omnibus edition) to win the Hugo this year as Hugh Howey isn't eligible to be a member despite his sales, his talent, and the movie option he picked up.

  12. It's not just Random House. Ellora's Cave has started demanded Life of Copyright (with ways to get out of it).

    I've signed two, because I was busy reading the OTHER problematic stuff in the contract.

  13. This is wonderful. Thank you. I was having a crisis about trying to explain some of these differences between the Big 6 and small presses...she's not listening to the reality of things very well, she's young and she has this first book and she is sure she's the next J.K...and you've given me some things to say to back up what I've...erm...already said. Maybe I should give up!

  14. I agree with 90% of this. However, your slam at independent authors doesn't do much more than perpetuate a stereotype. With the number of books out there from major publishing houses that contain bad spelling and grammar, cliched plots and boring characters, I don't see how anyone can still recite the "having a 'real' publisher makes you a better writer" cant. Sure, there are a lot of bozos who self-publish. There are also a lot of great authors who do the work, who have chosen their path.

  15. Anonymous5:06 PM

    As an unpublished author, I found your piece to be enlightening and daunting. It seems as though writing the book will prove to be the easiest and least frustrating part the of process, and that makes me want to give up and rely on my day job. If I wasn't a teacher, that might be a tempting option, but Governor Walker has provided strong incentive for pursuing other career options. So, it's out of the frying pan and into the fire of publishing! Thanks for your help!

  16. My first novel was with an e-publisher (no advance but 40% net) and the contract was 3 pages, with my rights returning after 8 years. I wrote a sequel and had it accepted by the same publisher. Now it was a five page contract, retroactively affecting my first novel. I'd get my rights back from the publisher in five years; however, the distribution clause indicated rights wouldn't be returned to me until six month's after the publisher's contract ended with the distributor or whatever was longer. Meaning kiss those rights goodbye.

    I checked with HWA and was told not to sign. I probably should have spent the money on an IP attorney, instead I spent $300 on an editor and $250 for a cover artist. My second novel hasn't sold much, but I still have my rights.


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