Hydra vs. the S.F.W.A.
No, this post isn’t about a spin0ff of Nick Fury.
In this case, Hydra is an imprint of Random House for e-book publications.
The S.F.W.A. is the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, an organization whose mission is to “…informs, supports, promotes, defends and advocates for its members.”
The former is new.
The latter has been around since 1965.
They have recently been in a very public dispute (I’m typically not very comfortable with those).
Hydra’s terms for authors are different from Random House in general’s terms. One can reasonably say that they are offering different terms because the e-book market is different.
That could be okay, of course.
However, due to those terms, the S.F.W.A. says that being published by Hydra is not enough to get you into the organization as an Active or Associate member.
To meet those requirements, you have to have sold stories (one short story for Associate, three short stories or a novel or a professionally produced dramatic script) that qualify.
Think of it a bit like Actors’ Equity or the Screen Actors’ Guild, although this isn’t a union. You can’t just declare yourself an actor and quality for Equity: you have to have done work they accept as proof of being an actor.
I remember when a friend of mine got into S.F.W.A.: we thought it was a big deal (I think it was for a short story in Perry Rhodan, but I’m not sure).
The S.F.W.A.’s rules include that the organization who bought your work has to meet certain requirements also. Those include paying an advance, for one thing. The S.F.W.A. specifically said on March 7th:
“SFWA has determined that works published by Random House’s electronic imprint Hydra can not be use as credentials for SFWA membership, and that Hydra is not an approved market. Hydra fails to pay authors an advance against royalties, as SFWA requires, and has contract terms that are onerous and unconscionable.”
So, at this point, you can’t get into the S.F.W.A. by just being published by Hydra.
Since authors want to be part of the S.F.W.A., that disadvantages Hydra in trying to license a book from an author.
I have a few thoughts about this.
I’m not going to take one side or the other…I honestly don’t know enough about the Hydra deal sheet and how it compares to other situations to declare it fair or not (although wanting to have the rights for the length of the copyright terms seems unusual).
I want to get this out of the way first. I find public exchanges like this, while enlightening for the public (and I certainly read them)…I guess unseemly is the best word.
This appears to be the timeline for the public part:
- 2013 date unknown: Random House announces the new digital only imprints
- February 28th: Victoria Strauss in the Writer Beware blog publishes this post questioning Hydra’s deal sheet
- March 6: S.F.W.A. President John Scalzi published this NSFW (Not Safe For Work…it includes the “F word”) post on Hydra
- March 7th: the S.F.W.A. publishes the above statement.
- March 7th: Victoria Strauss responds to and reproduces an open letter from Random House about the S.F.W.A.’s stance
This is my own prejudice, but I tend to side with the person who is being more polite. I know that shouldn’t be the case…a person expressing themselves in a negative way doesn’t automatically mean that their ideas are bad. John Scalzi’s post includes (not censored the way I am going to do) “Are you effing kidding me?” Now, I don’t believe that was made as an official statement of the organization (it appeared in Scalzi’s Whatever blog), but I would not want someone who represented me to the world acting that way. It doesn’t seem beneficial, and if it was the President of the company for which I work, I would honestly think people would be acting towards removal. Any member of an organization can express themselves like that: an outward facing officer should be able to get the point across in a way likely to bring about change, not to make it more difficult to achieve (in my opinion).
I may just be old-fashioned in that one, though.
Update: I want to clarify here that it isn’t just the use of the “F word” that concerns me in that post. If it had simply said, “Are you kidding me?” it would still seem counter-productive to me. It wouldn’t be the same, but it would still start out the exchange on a negative footing. For example, if a CEO or President endorsed someone’s offer by saying it was “Effing awesome!” (not using “effing”, but using the whole word) that would still be unprofessional, as far as I’m concerned, but wouldn’t put the group in an antagonistic relationship with the other entity.
The other thing is that I wonder if the S.F.W.A.’s rules are too based on an old system. I’m not saying here that they are wrong in this case. My guess is that Random House is trying to attract people who are currently self-publishing, not people who in the S.F.W.A. already. Again, on the surface, their terms seem extreme to me, but someone might opt for that in order to get published.
What I’m wondering about is the inclusion of process specific requirements, rather than goals. People often confuse the two.
I remember when people were really upset that the Kindle didn’t have page numbers (it didn’t in the beginning). They wanted page numbers! Well, actually, they didn’t, but didn’t realize it. They wanted what page numbers gave them.
That may seem subtle, but it’s an important difference.
You could require that store where you shop to have hitching posts for your horse. Later on, you get a car…and they don’t provide parking places. You still have the hitching posts, but you don’t have what you really wanted: convenient access.
In the case of an advance, is it the advance, or the ability to make a living as a writer?
Now, I completely understand that you can’t say in a requirement that an organization has to give writers the ability to make a living. It’s just too hard to enforce, too subject to interpretation. It’s easy to say, “Hitching posts? Check.” It’s harder to say, “Convenient access? Check.” It’s just tougher to prove one way or the other.
To be really clear, I think the S.F.W.A. has the right to set their requirements for membership. I think they just have to be careful that those rules are keeping up with the times (and still protecting authors).
The Oscars have these requirements (among others) for Documentary Features:
“Screenings during each of the qualifying runs must occur at least twice daily and must begin between noon and 10 p.m. The motion picture must be exhibited for paid admission, and must be advertised during each of its runs in at least one of these major newspapers in each city: The New York Times, Time Out New York or The Village Voice (New York); Los Angeles Times or LA Weekly (Los Angeles). The film must have a movie critic review in either The New York Times and/or Los Angeles Times. A television critic review will not be accepted. Advertisements must have minimum dimensions of one inch by two inches and must include the theater, film title and the dates and screening times of the qualifying exhibitions. Advertising must begin on the first day of the qualifying run.”
My thought right away is what happens if the L.A. Times or the NYT stops publishing? Obviously, the Academy would have to revise their rules.
The public exchanges between the S.F.W.A. and Hydra are interesting…but I kind of wish I wasn’t seeing them like this. I would have been fine with the S.F.W.A. first writing to Random House to question the deal (in private), Random House responding in private, and then, if it couldn’t get resolved, the S.F.W.A. going public. Give somebody a chance to deal with it quietly before making it a public spectacle.
What do you think? First, I am interested, especially if you are an author, in what you think about Hydra’s deal. That goes both for people who are in the S.F.W.A., and somebody who is still wanting to get published for the first time. Am I being ridiculous about being concerned with John Scalzi’s language in a private blog? Is public exposure the only way to bring about change? Does outrage deserve to be heard? Is politeness more likely to affect change than vituperation? Feel free to let me and my readers know what you think by commenting on this post.
Update: according to this
Random House has changed the terms, offering an authors a choice of two plans. I think it’s worth noting that in this
they mention the Horror Writers Association, but not the S.F.W.A.. To my knowledge (I checked their website and did a quick web search), the HWA did not call out Random House publicly. My intuition suggests the possibility that the S.F.W.A. was not mentioned in this statement due to what I have referenced above. It’s reasonable to suggest that John Scalzi’s stance had an impact on the change, although we don’t know if it was that or the “recent constructive discussions” Random House mentions (or a combination of the two).
This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.