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This is not how it is supposed to work

I caught the first news about Random House's new e-original imprints--Hydra, Flirt and Alibi--a couple of weeks ago from Writer Beware.  I was eyebrow deep in getting Dead on Arrival and the new issue of Spellbound out though, so I only skimmed over it briefly.

But yesterday John Scalzi got a look at the actual contract for Random House's Alibi Imprint.  There's a good break down as to why this is a bad, bad deal.  Briefly, though: no advance, production costs charged to the author (although taken out at the back end), and contract terms which include life-of-copyright and all subsidiary rights, no contributor copies and dibs on the next book written offering the same contract.

I'll admit my first thought was, "Way to make the small press e-publishers look good, guys."  But that's because I'm a jerk and I'm having one of those days when I just want to run away to wizard school.  I am, however, an adult.  And I have responsibilities and a job to do.  So I don't get to run away and if I'm going to have to face today with all its waiting on hold and dealing with customer service all while dealing with a cranky toddler, I'm going to aim my ire and grouchiness at Random House.

What we're seeing here is yet another erosion of what a publisher is supposed to do.  All the years I've been doing this (and all the years I did other things instead) there were always guidelines on what separated real publishers from the rest.  The rest here ranging from well-meaning but inept writer turned publisher to the predatory scammer aiming to fleece people for all they're worth.

The very least a real, honest-to-goodness, making-money-by-selling-books-to-readers publisher should be doing is this: taking on all the financial risk of publishing a book.  This includes paying for editing and layout and design, for cover art, for promotion and, yes, the author.  That's it, the absolute bare minimum of being a publisher is that.

Crappy publishers might skimp on the editing (and they do), they might slap dash a photoshopped cover together (and they do), they might even just dump the Word file sent to them by the author into a PDF file, upload it to their site and Amazon.com and call it a day (and they do).  But, they do not charge their authors for that work.  They do pay their authors.  Or they at least have a contract stating they will.  Plenty of small presses have screwed that part up, never paying up.  All of the above may make a publisher a crappy publisher and one to be avoided, but it doesn't make them vanity.

And yes, I know many of the big publishers have been adding their own vanity branches over the last few years.  With the one exception of, which I can't think of at the moment, they all have erected a wall between the trade and vanity branches to keep them separate.  Writers aren't submitting to Penguin's advance and royalty paying lines and being offered a vanity contract instead.   With Hydra, Flirt and Alibi, Random House is pole vaulting over that wall.

I expect, if Random House doesn't drop this contract from the imprints, we'll see more of the same from other publishers.  Not the Big Six, I don't think.  But smaller presses, both the inept and the ones set up to scam.  Why wouldn't they include these clauses in their contracts?  If it's good enough for Random House authors then it should be good enough for Jane Writer who has just been offered a contract by Totally Worth It Press.

I don't usually criticize other publishers because I feel it comes off as self-serving.  But I've been stewing over this for all of yesterday and today.  (Also, all of two people read this LJ so I doubt the risk of being called out for this post is all that high.)  This is not how publishing is supposed to work.  Hell, this is not how you are supposed to treat people.  I really hope that the out cry will make Random House change their minds on this.