A Newbie Writer’s Take on Random House’s Hydra Imprint

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about the new Random House eBook imprint. Scalzi outlined its awfulness, SFWA has declared Hydra not to be a qualifying market, Random house responded… the discussion is, shall we say, ongoing.

The thing that strikes me about this whole mess is that I feel what Hydra is offering is basically another flavor of vanity publishing.

When you’re just starting out as a writer and have no major publications under your belt and no real reputation, you get asked a lot if you’re planning on self-publishing. At least I’ve gotten that question a fair bit. And being the responsible over-researched writer that I am, I sought to understand the differences between being published by a publisher, large or small, and publishing your book on your own. I wanted to make the right decisions for myself and do what would make me the happiest in the long-term.

A lot of things go into making a book go from your finished draft to something people might want to buy. Editing, for one. All the editing. The editing for content and continuity, the copy edits. The book-formatting, making it go from a Word document to epub or whatever-all format you’re working in. Cover art. Advertising. Marketing. Promotion. It’s a lot of work.

Frankly, I just want to write stories. I’m not so naive as to think that I can simply throw manuscripts at the wall and eventually something will stick and then I can wash my hands of the whole thing. Increasingly, authors are taking on portions of the promotional work for their books. But by and large, publishers take on a fair bit of the heavy lifting of transforming a book from manuscript to bound pages on a shelf. And I’m kind of lazy, so I’m pretty stoked on the concept of having someone else do that work for me, while paying me for the right to distribute my work.

So here we have two models: one model, where someone pays me to distribute my work, take a cut of the profits, and share a cut of the risk; and the other model, where I distribute my own work, keep all (most) of the profits, take on all of the risk.

But there was a third model out there, that people rarely talk about in a positive way. It’s a model where you pay a publisher to publish your book. The term for this is “Vanity Press” and I don’t think I’ve ever really heard anybody in the industry seriously discuss this as a good model for a career. It’s basically the worst of all worlds: You pay someone else to put your book together, and are expected to carry the burden of distribution. The vanity press has no real vested interest once the book is packaged. They have their money, they don’t need to work to sell your book.

Which, to me, sounds a lot like what Random House is offering with the Hydra imprint. Pay them to put your book together (not directly, of course, these fees will just come out of any money your book makes), and then you split the profits. Oh, and unlike self-publishing where you keep your copyright, and unlike traditional publishing where there are explicitly set periods on the copyright, Hydra keeps the rights forever. Meaning if your book takes off, you can’t scale up to a better deal. You the author take on the bulk of the risk and only keep a percentage of the reward. It’s a watered-down vanity press.

To be honest, even as a newbie like myself who would very much enjoy seeing her book available for other people to read someday, Hydra sounds like a bad deal. I feel like Random House believes that putting their imprint’s name on my book is a privilege for me and I should be happy to get it. It comes off to me as condescending and frankly we authors deserve far better.

EDIT: 03/12/2013 @ 3:30P Pacific

Well. The Internet moves fast, don’t it.

Shortly after my previous post about my thoughts on the Hydra contract, Writers Beware made a post on Hydra’s updated contract. And to be honest, it sounds like a pretty decent improvement. It makes me very optimistic that they were so willing to take on criticism and to respond in a respectable manner, and actually consider the problems with their contract. It also makes me happy that the backlash actually had some impact here. One of the concerns was that if something like this went unchallenged or unedited it could become the New Normal. Thankfully it looks like Random House listened.