Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

How do you solve a problem like the Hydra?

The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and Random House are in a fight over a nine-headed monster. Well, sort of.

Last week, Digital Book World reported on an ongoing disagreement between the publisher and the SFWA over Random House’s new digital-only imprint, Hydra, as well as the response from Random House to SFWA’s claims. So what’s the deal?

The players

The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America is a professional organization for, well, sci-fi and fantasy writers. According to the SFWA website, individuals who are eligible to join the SFWA must be “established authors with three qualifying short story sales,  one qualifying novel sale, or one professionally produced full-length dramatic script.” (Which, in the opinion of your humble author, is a pretty reasonable requirement for membership in the same organization whose esteemed members have included Isaac Asmiov, Anne McCaffrey, and Ray Bradbury.) SFWA also has criteria for the way members’ works are published, outlined in its membership requirements. Again, this is a way to help limit membership in the organization to professional, recognized authors.

Random House’s Hydra imprint, meanwhile, is a digital-only imprint that was launched with a cluster of other genre imprints. The idea behind the imprint is that Random House will partner with authors to help publish digital content. Unlike a traditional publishing deal, authors of the imprint do not receive an advance. Instead, it’s a new sort of twist on the vanity press/self-publishing concept: authors receive in-house support by a team of experienced professionals, including publicists, marketers, designers, and more, in return for a sort of profit-sharing arrangement between publisher and author.

The problem

According to SFWA’s original note to its members: “Hydra fails to pay authors an advance against royalties, as SFWA requires, and has contract terms that are onerous and unconscionable.” To paraphrase: Hydra isn’t a ‘real’ publishing venue.

For professional organizations like SFWA, imprints like Hydra obviously pose a threat: a threat that the work of serious authors is becoming devalued; that the market is being diluted by second-rate content; that the profession of writer is becoming the profession of self-promoter. SFWA clearly states in its self-description: “SFWA informs, supports, promotes, defends and advocates for its members.” One way that SFWA does that is by helping authors identify presses who treat professional, high-caliber authors with the respect and compensation they deserve. (Hence the eligibility requirements– not only to weed out less serious candidates, but also to help authors identify what is “good” in publishing.)

But does that mean, by inference, that Hydra is “bad” publishing? I wouldn’t say quite that. Random House, like many publishers, is facing its own threatening environment: the threat that successful, money-making authors will begin to self-publish and keep more of their profits and take away their revenue from their publisher’s list; the threat of price-shopping ebook consumers who would rather purchase cheap self-published works than spend more for a professionally-produced ebook; the threat that the next big thing will grow up through self-publishing channels and publishers will completely miss the opportunity to bring that author into their stable.

The pros

In that light, Hydra seems to be a sort of farm league for the Random House publishing program. (Excuse the baseball metaphor.) It gives Random House the opportunity to build relationships with untested authors of an uncertain caliber, which could eventually grow into a real publishing contract, or a dedicated fanbase for the author, or just the opportunity for a manuscript that otherwise wouldn’t be considered “publishable” to get professional attention and a chance for distribution through major e-tailers.

It’s a bald fact that not all authors are going to belong to professional organizations like SFWA– and in fact, not all authors are in it for that sort of acknowledgment. Is your goal to earn literary recognition and respect? To get discovered? To get your story out there so people can read it? To prove something to yourself, regardless of what money you do or do not make? There are a lot of motivations for writing, and a lot of solutions to getting your book in print (or, er, e-ink).

So while SFWA certainly has a point, and I sympathize with their position, they’re also sort of stating the obvious: professional, established authors (SFWA’s target demographic) are not going to be publishing through the Hydra imprint. That’s not who the Hydra imprint is engineered for. By the same token, Random House isn’t really doing anything wrong in its author partnership model– and doubtless we’ll see many more of these models crop up as time goes on. This probably isn’t the be-all, end-all of author/publisher profit sharing, but it is certainly a step on the way to developing new ways to publish in the diverse and flexible world of ebooks.

Venn diagram about publishing

Venn diagram comparing Hydra imprint to traditional and self-publishing models. Graphic by Leah Thompson

About Leah Thompson

Writing and publishing professional in the Boston area.

One comment on “How do you solve a problem like the Hydra?

  1. Leah Thompson
    March 12, 2013

    Update: Today, Publisher’s Weekly broke news that Hydra and other Random House e-only imprints are changing their model in response to the SFWA tiff.

    Read about it here:

Comments are closed.


This entry was posted on March 12, 2013 by in Business, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , .

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