SFWA vs. Random House, Round Two

Previously: SFWA announced that Random House’s Hydra digital-first imprint was not a qualifying market and denounced its contract terms.

Random House responded that Hydra “offers a different–but potentially lucrative–publishing model for authors: a profit share.”

SFWA’s board of directors replied, “You extol your business model as ‘different’; the more accurate description, we believe, is ‘exploitative.’” SFWA also de-listed Hydra’s Alibi imprint (digital-first crime fiction) and warned, “If the egregious features of Hydra and Alibi’s contracts begin to make their way into the contracts of Random House’s other imprints, particularly Del Rey and Spectra, we will be required to act, up to and including delisting Random House as a whole as a qualifying market for SFWA.”

I’m not sure how Random House will regard that last bit. On the one hand, being a SFWA qualifying market probably doesn’t affect their bottom line very much one way or another. Del Rey and Spectra publish very few debut authors, who are the ones who care most about making sales that will qualify them for SFWA membership. (A quick visual check for those distinctive Random House ARCs on my desk finds books by Elizabeth Moon, Terry Brooks, Connie Willis, Karen Lord, Chris Moriarty, and Peter F. Hamilton, all of whom have plenty of SFWA-qualifying work to their name.) If debut authors take their books elsewhere–not guaranteed by any means, since debut authors are also not very likely to limit their options or turn down a firm offer on principle–Random House might be willing to tolerate that if it means they can keep their digital-first contracts as they are.

On the other hand, this is a lot of negative publicity, especially with words like “exploitative” being thrown around, and if some of those top-selling authors were to decide they no longer want to be associated with Random House, that would be a much bigger deal. There’s also the pending Random/Penguin merger to consider. Of course there’s no such thing as a good time for there to be a stain on Random House’s reputation, but a merged company means that stain could spread from Hydra and Alibi not only to Del Rey and Spectra but to Ace, Roc, and DAW. (Which makes me wonder how many of those imprints will survive the merger, but that’s a separate question.)

I really have no idea how this will play out. In the meantime, pass the popcorn.

(Full disclosure: I’m a non-voting SFWA affiliate member.)