Publisher Controversy: Random House in the Hot Seat

Thursday, March 14, 2013
Random House in the Hot Seat (iBrotha

I'm not sure if you've been following the controversy over Random House's new digital-only lines: Hydra, Alibi, Loveswept, and Flirt. Writers have been up in arms because no advance was being offered on these books, like with Random House print authors, and also because copies and other miscellaneous expenses were going to be taken out of the author's royalties. When I first heard about it, I was reading a discussion on the SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) listserve I belong to, and the argument was mostly with Hydra and whether or not a book published with this imprint would qualify a writer to belong to the SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America). It turns out the way the Hydra contract was originally written an author was not eligible for SFWA membership.

The good news is that Random House has buckled under the pressure from the writers (YAY!), and they have revised the contract. They didn't give in 100 percent, but they now offer two different models of payment, and one of these offers an advance.

Authors and others in the publishing world who were up in arms seem to be happy with Random House's changes and have said so on blogs and Twitter. To read fully everything that has been going on, you should visit Writer Beware.

What I was hoping to discuss with Muffin readers today is this whole notion of having to get an advance in order to be considered "professional" enough to belong to a writing association. And in some of the blogs I read about this issue, they said that authors weren't taking themselves seriously if they didn't demand an advance. John Scalzi, an author with a popular blog, even said that we should question publishers that can't offer advances and wonder if we will ever get paid our royalties.

So, I'm sitting at my computer in St. Louis, thinking, Well, golly gee, I have three books under contract and am not going to get advances on any of them. I was super excited to get royalties and someone wanting to publish them. I think it helps me with my writing goals of doing school visits, teacher workshops, and teaching online classes. Plus, I like small and regional publishers, and I think they often don't offer advances to an author the first time they work with her or him. And I take myself and my work seriously.

What do you all think about this? If you have a book, did you get an advance? Was it hard to meet your advance? Did you feel pressure? If you aren't published yet, will take a contract without an advance? Would love to hear from you on this issue! 

Margo Dill is the author of Finding My Place: One Girl's Strength at Vicksburg (White Mane Kids, 2012) and writes a blog at  She teaches online classes for WOW! See her classes here.


Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

Let me try again. I got way too windy on my initial response.

I can't help thinking it's a simple, economics supply-demand issue. There are so many writers, so many submissions, that publishers, in a sense, have the upper hand right now. Add to that the changing world of books, how people are reading and their willingness to buy books, the profits are being spread thin for publishers as well.

As you suggested, I think most writers want to see their creations enjoyed by readers.

I am glad there are large groups advocating for authors. Corporations are, after all, very bottom-line motivated and the creators can get lost in that shuffle

Maya Prasad said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Maya Prasad said...

LOL, I'm giving this a second try too.

I think the biggest dealbreakers with the original terms of Hydra did not have to do with no advance. There were other issues: Hydra wanted the rights to the work forever, they were taking all foreign rights, and they were deducting expenses normally absorbed by the publisher such as editorial work and cover art.

The new terms, even for the profit-sharing model, have an out-of-print clause and allow you to negotiate foreign and subrights. That's an important improvement, IMO.

Also, I don't know about SFWA but RWA does allow monies from royalty to count toward membership qualifications for PAN, their subgroup for published authors.

Amber Polo said...

If a publisher doesn't offer an advance is this telling you that publisher doesn't expect to make much money from your book (and neither should you)?

Margo Dill said...

@Julie: Well said, it is a business and the creative person is often not business-minded. In today's world, we have to be or as you said we will be lost in the shuffle. I am glad, too, that the publisher listened to the outrage though. It reminds me of what happened a few years ago in the children's publishing world with book covers.

@Maya: Thanks for adding that--yes, I knew there were many more issues besides the advance, but the blog post I read that bothered me the most was on John's site: WHATEVER and mostly talked about advances--I guess because I haven't gotten one, I took offense. :)

@Amber: I'm not sure. Maybe it means it's a changing world and nobody really knows what's going to happen yet until you get a book or two published and test the market. I write children's books. I write historical fiction and picture books--neither one of those are high money makers right now, and I know that. I am happy that someone is paying me to write and share that with children/teachers/parents. I guess for me it doesn't matter if it's upfront or after. And I guess I wrote this post trying to figure out if it should matter to me OR if it mattered to most and I was a minority.

To all--thanks for your comments! It's an interesting debate/situation. And I definitely don't think publishers should take advantage of new authors, of course; but I also think smaller and mid-level publishers need to have a good business model or they will find themselves going bankrupt in today's market.

Angela Mackintosh said...

Thanks for posting this, Margo! I was unaware of the controversy with Random House's digital-only lines. When we did the E-Publishing Revolution issue a couple of years ago, I was a little shocked to learn that most e-publishers, with few exceptions, do NOT offer advances. I agree with Julie's point of the changing climate of publishing, but I'm not sure if profits are being spread too thin for publishers. I know book stats have always been vague in the publishing industry, but it appears from the publisher-reported stats that digital sales have increased exponentially over the past few years. But I've also heard from other sources like Digital Book World that profits at the larger publishers have risen while sales have remained flat. Are they making profits because of lower advances, less money spent on marketing, and lower production costs for digital books?

Like many other industries it is lopsided and in favor of the conglomerates. Small and mid-size publishers struggle in the marketplace. I think it's up to the individual author to decide what's right for her. And I don't think you should take offense, Margo, about the comments on the advance. SFWA has always had these strict guidelines in place, despite the changing industry. They even have a list of publications you have to have been published in to qualify to apply for a membership!

But what is AWESOME about this story is the power of the people--because writers, organizations, agents, and readers spoke out against this contract, Random House changed it.

I love discussions like this! I'd love to see more of this on The Muffin. :)

Margo Dill said...

Ang: You are right. :) I should look at it in a more positive light--power to the people--makes me think a little of the scene in Les Mis where the college rebels are waving the flag and singing, "Do You Hear the People Sing?" :) I qualify for PAL (Published Author List) with SCBWI which is my genre anyway, and my publisher is on their list. So there. :) LOL

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