Hydra vs. the S.F.W.A.

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:

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

Huffington Post article

Random House has changed the terms, offering an authors a choice of two plans. I think it’s worth noting that in this

Random House statement

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.


12 Responses to “Hydra vs. the S.F.W.A.”

  1. Joe Bowers Says:

    Without any sort of legal background regarding contracts and all that, my initial reaction to the Hydra deal sheet is that it reminds me of how record companies in the past took advantage of musicians. Knowing that someone is eager to get their work (music or writing) recorded/published, paying a small royalty, keeping the rights to the creators’ work, abuse is a clear possibility. A lot of early blues and rock musicians made huge sales numbers for companies with little compensation. If the SFWA is looking out for writers’ interests, that seems like a good thing in that context.
    Scalzi’s language seems to be a part of the culture these days (even our political leaders are pretty unrestrained in their public discourse, not that they are good examples of behavior ! : ) ), and I can understand that using such words can bring attention to the intensity of a party’s feelings on the matter. If he does it frequently, it tends to weaken the effect, and just make him seem like he has trouble expessing himself in other, more measured, ways. Given that he is a professional, I suspect he can be more “polite”, but in the context of a blog, he may have let his emotions run.
    Just off the top of my bald dome!

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Joe!

      Sure, we know Joe Biden talks like that…but the veep had intended not to be heard by the public when saying sotto voce “This is a big effing deal!”

      In that case, though, Biden wasn’t effectively entering into negotiations with somebody, and that does seem different to me.

      It’s hard for me to separate what John Scalzi (an author) does on a public blog from what John Scalzi (S.F.W.A. President) does representing authors. Private communications? Hypothetically different, although you can’t count on anything staying private. 🙂

  2. rogerknights Says:

    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.

    Here’s what we REALLY want. It occurred to me a month ago and I send it to Kindle Feedback. What do you think?

    Amazon currently allows Keyboard Kindle users to “Go to” a location number or a page number (among other options). But these aren’t the numbers a user who wants to return to a former spot would remember, because they aren’t constantly on display on his screen. They only appear if he hits the Menu button, which happens rarely.

    The number he is most likely to remember is the “%” figure that’s always shown on the bottom line. (It indicates how far he is into the book at that point.)

    I therefore suggest that it would be user-friendly for Amazon to add the following additional option to the “Go to” menu: “Percentage.” E.g., if the user entered “33” in the numeric field, then navigated to the “Percentage” button and pressed the center of the 5-way, the Kindle would take him to a position 33% into the book.

    Even if the user didn’t remember the number, he’d likely have an approximation of it in his mind from occasionally glancing at the progress-bar at the bottom of the screen. E.g., he’d have a good idea of whether it was close to 33%, or 45%, etc. But he would have a much fuzzier idea of what page number or location number a progress-bar of such a length would translate into.

    I think this is a real no-brainer of an idea. Just do it!

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Roger!

      I think having the ability to go to a certain percentage point makes sense, even if it isn’t as useful as a page number, which in turn isn’t as useful as a location.

      In the equivalent of a thousand page book, one percent is like ten pages…not a high degree of precision.

      I agree with you that people are more likely to know where they were by percentage, because it is displayed. For me, I’d rather have the location displayed, but that’s certainly more real estate.

      My opinion? It’s a good idea, and I’m fine with it. 🙂

  3. Leigh Caroline Says:

    I think, when it comes to Hydra/Alias/etc vs SFWA, Scalzi is right to call them out on it both on his blog and in his official capacity, loudly and publicly. Aspiring authors all too often run across something that seems perfect. Wonderful, in fact. Not having to jump through the perceived hoops of getting an agent and being able to submit directly to Random House would be a BIIIG deal, for any writer. Unless they know already the standard set up, they wouldn’t even know the contract is problematic. Is it a deal breaker? Depends how badly you want to be published by that imprint. On the one hand, it’s taking a lot and giving very little. However, if you just want to see your book published, that may be okay. You’d just better be aware that you’re probably better off self publishing and spending ~$500 up front on a high quality cover and an in depth copy edit. You’ll make that back and more, if your books are any good. I think this is just a way for RH to capitalize on the self-pub marketplace without having to really do any extra work.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Leigh!

      I’m fine with what Writer Beware did, which was basically to warn people, as you suggest.

      My concern isn’t with the S.F.W.A. thinking the policy is bad (it certainly could be). I also think it would have been fine for them to publish something like:

      “The S.F.W.A. is concerned about certain provisions in the deal sheet from Hydra, an imprint from Random House. They are different from other offers, including from other parts of Random House. Authors are going to bear responsibility for more of the costs, and be asked to license the books for the entire copyright term, as opposed to rights reverting back to the author after a limited time. We are discussing the situation with Random House, and currently do not recommend this deal. Since the deal does not meet our already published requirements, works published through Hydra will not qualify for membership in the S.F.W.A..”

      Let’s postulate for a moment that we both think the offer from Random House is a bad deal for authors. Did what John Scalzi did make it more or less likely to change? Was the use of a term like “onerous” (which appeared at the S.F.W.A. site) more or less likely to get Random House to reconsider the terms?

      As a trainer in my day job, what I do is get people to change their behavior. If I started out a class by saying, “What you are doing now is terrible and horrible and wrong…” it would be much more difficult for me to get people to do something else. They would simply cut off the conversation (positive reinforcement encourages actions…negative reinforcement encourages inaction since it tends to make people pull away from the situation mentally).

      Your point about warning people is an excellent one. If someone is about to drink from a poisoned goblet, loud and public language is probably appropriate. 🙂 If your goal is to get a large organization to change its behavior, that may not be the most effective technique.

      • rogerknights Says:

        You’re the most diplomatic person (who also has distinct opinions) that I’ve encountered on the web!

      • Leigh Caroline Says:

        That’s true. Strong language does often cause people to ignore anything you say, especially when they feel guilty about their actions or inactions. However, the same strong language can motivate others to rally when they’re in agreement. I think that’s rather the point in this case. Scalzi has a history of making his points by engaging his fan base and getting them riled up, with a clear target to take their passions out on. Historically, it’s worked better with organizations than individuals. Organizations have more concern for their reputation, and that goes double for publishing. It’s an industry where your reputation is so much of your identity, and publishers are already on shaking ground. Whether it will change anything in the long run remains to be seen, but based on my knowledge of publishing, I suspect RH will be the ones to bend if anyone does.

      • Bufo Calvin Says:

        Thanks for writing, Leigh!

        That’s an interesting postulate about the guilt part of the effect: can you point me to something that supports that?

        My intuition would actually be that someone who wasn’t feeling initially at fault would be more put off by strong language than someone who wasn’t (since they likely wouldn’t be anticipating it, while a guilty person might e expecting some sort of verbal criticism), but that’s just my guess.

        For me, someone is likely to use that sort of amplification when the initial argument is not as strong. Whether it seems logical or not, some people will be put off by use of the “F word”. Since one logically knows that’s a risk, why introduce it if the strength of your argument means it isn’t necessary?

        You are getting me interested in learning more about how John Scalzi has been as a President of the S.F.W.A. Certainly, logical persuasion isn’t always the only method to success. 🙂 Routinely getting people “riled up”, though, seems like an interesting alternative for a professional organization.

        I agree with you that Random House may change the terms. It will depend, in part, on how people respond to it. If they don’t get authors signing up, they’ll need to adjust or abandon the imprint. I think it’s less likely that the S.F.W.A. will change its position…the way that they’ve described the current state would make it difficult for them to justify to their members changing to a position of acceptance.

        Publishers may indeed be on shaky ground. The S.F.W.A. also depends on its reputation, in my opinion. It has had some wonderful members in the past. With the number of articles on this specific issue, though, some people may become aware of it for the first time. If you were that organization, what would you want that first impression to be?

  4. Edward Boyhan Says:

    I read Victoria Strauss’s summary of the RH deal sheet, and I have to say that it seems to me to be a terrible arrangement on many levels. The lack of advances doesn’t trouble me, but the assignment of primary and secondary rights for the length of the copyright does. I have been coming around to the idea for a while now that intellectual property rights should only be grantable to “real”: intellects (i.e. not to corporate entities under any circumstances). Creators ought to be able to license access to their rights only within limited frameworks. Exclusivity should be frowned on, but if exclusive rights are granted, this should result in a significant reduction of the term of the copyright

    The 50/50 split on revenues may seem somewhat “better” than the traditional 10-25% royalty arrangements of most tradpubs. On close analysis, however, that 50/50 split is subject to deductions from revenues for the value of the “benefits” offered by the publisher (editors, covers, marketing, etc). As I’ve said many times in the past, I think the “value” of these items is wildly exaggerated, and for eBooks is almost nil. In addition, the publisher gets to determine the value/price of the services they have provided so they can effect adjust their payout percentage to whatever they like.

    As to your concerns about Scalzi’s language — that doesn’t bother me at all — in fact to me attacking the language that one uses to argue a point seems to skate close to an ad hominum argument. In general what matters to me is the substance of the argument not how it is presented, or what the personal characteristics (the language one chooses to use is but one facet of this) of the presenter might be.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Edward!

      I always read what you say carefully, and appreciate you expressing your opinion.

      I’m thinking carefully about whether considering the language that Scalzi used is akin to an ad hominem attack or not.

      My initial thought is that it isn’t. I’m not concerned about, say, an accent or a regionalism.

      This is a person who uses words for a living, and is speaking the same language I am in the same culture I am.

      It’s a written communication…I am more likely to misspeak in the blog than I am in a book, because I take more time to consider the latter, but it isn’t a simple word substitution in a conversation.

      I think I would be diminishing John Scalzi to suggest that the author and S.F.W.A. President didn’t choose to use those words, and to understand the impact that they would likely have.

      I am not saying that John Scalzi is an antagonistic person: I’m saying that those words were chosen by an intelligent person knowing that they would tend to antagonize.

      I don’t think I’ve attacked the person, I think I’ve expressed my concern about an action of the person, so for me, that makes it not ad hominem.

      By the way, I thought that Scalzi’s use of the same word in


      was entirely acceptable and appropriate to the characters.

      I also make my living with words, including in my day job. You said this:

      “…the substance of the argument not how it is presented, or what the personal characteristics (the language one chooses to use is but one facet of this) of the presenter might be”

      To me, the key point for Scalzi in this case should have been how the situation might be changed. In a case like that, the language might be just one facet, but it is the most significant one. The slightest nuance affects how you impact people’s decisions…even inflection of the same word can make the difference. If this had been a formal debate (in writing, ideally) with strict impartial judges, you would be correct. If this is a case of changing behavior, my experience tells me that the words chosen matter.

      I suppose one could argue that the point of the language was to make sure that writers recognized the severity of the problem, and wasn’t meant to impact Random House at all. In that case, it might have been a clever choice. If I was a member of the organization, I would want it to work to make good options more available to its members by working with publishers and others, but that might not have been the intent here.

  5. Round up #153: | I Love My Kindle Says:

    […] recently wrote about Random House’s new digital imprints, including Hydra, and how the S.F.W.A. (Science Fiction […]

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