Publishers Behaving Badly, Part… I’ve Lost Count

This post, by David Gaughran, originally appeared on his Let’s Get Digital site on 3/13/13.

There seems to be a view in certain self-congratulatory circles that publishers have finally got to grips with the digital revolution, that they have weathered the fiercest part of the storm, and that they are well-placed now not just to survive, but to thrive.

There are innumerable problems with that view, of course, but today I’d like to focus on one core truth of this brave new world that publishers have failed to grasp.

Namely, there are only two essential components to publishing in the digital era: the writer and the reader.

All of the old middlemen – agents, publishers, distributors, retailers – have to justify their cut, as the writer can now bypass them and go direct to readers. The only middlemen (IMO) currently making a compelling case for their cut are retailers. Self-publishers are more than happy to fork over 30% to Amazon to access their ever-expanding customer base.

Publishers seem determined to move in the opposite direction: making the proposition of publishing with them less attractive rather than more attractive, reducing advances, worsening contract terms, and treating writers as marks rather than partners – despite whatever guff accompanies the launch of their latest initiatives.

The recent actions of two of the largest trade publishers have drawn criticism from all across the writing community – not just self-publishers – and are thus not as easily dismissed as the rantings of a jaundiced indie zealot.

Let’s start with Random House; the rest can wait in line.

Digital-First Imprints Put Authors Last

By now, you have probably heard of the scandalous terms Random House offered authors via its new digital-first imprints – Hydra, Alibi, Flirt & Loveswept – before being forced to revise some of the terms in an embarrassing climb-down.

If you are already familiar with this part of the story, you can skip to Problems Still Remain below. For those who missed it, or want a quick refresher, here’s a recap.

The original terms offered by Random House were:

  1. No advance.
  2. Assignment of all rights and subsidiary rights for the lifetime of the copyright.
  3. No meaningful reversion clause, meaning you’ll never get any of these rights back – even the ones they don’t use – unless Random House deign to return them.
  4. A 50% net royalty rate. Which sounds okay until you realise that “net” doesn’t just mean what the publisher receives from the retailer, but that amount minus all the costs of publishing and promoting the book.

Watchdog group Author Beware broke the story, and a few days later John Scalzi eviscerated Random House in this excellent post. (The latter especially is worth reading.)

It should be obvious to all of you why you should never sign anything with terms like this. But just to hammer the point home, it combines the worst of both worlds: no print distribution (but you give up your print rights), no advance, you sign your rights away forever, and you have no reasonable means of getting them reverted at any point.


Read the rest of the post on Let’s Get Digital.