How not to be SFWA president

Three-time and outgoing SFWA President John Scalzi appears to want to bring his period of amateurish misrule to an end on a fittingly diplomatic note:

THIS IS A HORRIBLE AWFUL TERRIBLE APPALLING DISGUSTING CONTRACT WHICH IS BAD AND NO WRITER SHOULD SIGN IT EVER. Yes, I’m aware I’ve already said this. It bears repeating. It doesn’t matter whether it’s from Alibi, Hydra or anyone. Run away from it, as fast as you can, arms flailing like a Muppet’s. It’s the only rational response.

I will note that at the moment I have in my email queue a letter from Random House, written in a “more in sorrow than anger” style, which expresses disappointment that I (for one) didn’t talk to them before writing my piece on their terrible regrettable insulting Hydra deal terms, and waxing rhapsodic about their bold new business model. It’s profit sharing, you see, not like apparently any of those other book contracts out there, which comes as a surprise to me, considering how much of Tor’s and Subterranean’s profits I’ve shared in over the years.

I am speaking for myself and only for myself when I say that I looked at the letter that the folks at Random House sent me and wondered just how incredibly stupid they must think I am to believe that just because they sent a letter that read as all reasonable and nice sounding, that would somehow change the fact that the business model of their new eBook imprints is predicated on preying on writers — and preying on the writers most at risk for being preyed upon, the new and the desperate.

This must be more of that smart diplomacy of which we heard so much in the recent presidential elections.  It’s hardly a joking matter, but it is a little amusing in light of expressed concerns regarding my ability to get along with the major publishers.  But while I may have been personally attacked by a pair of Tor editors and been guilty of asking questions concerning the number of Nebula nominations won by Tor Books, it can honestly say it never occurred to me to publicly assail a major publishing house’s basic business practices or make assumptions concerning its views of its authors.

I am not saying the business model of Random House’s ebook imprints is ideal or even fair.  But these are issues best raised privately, not shrieked from the mountaintops.  Despite Scalzi’s hysterical whining – no, Johnny, they’re not “fucking kidding you” – there is absolutely nothing wrong with the no-advance model; I prefer it myself because it reduces the amount of risk to the publisher and costs the writer nothing while simultaneously providing him with a considerably higher share of the upside.  The shared risk model is a good one; why should the publisher have to gamble and assure the writer of revenue that may never be realized?

And the publisher’s risk is real.  I’ve been paid “advances” on three books from two different publishers that I didn’t even have to write due to various reorganizations and turf wars inside the publishing houses.

Instead of jumping up and down and screaming “it’s not fair”, the SFWA president should be speaking quietly with Random House, and explaining what aspects of the contracts are reasonable and which are not.  That’s not only the best way to address situations like these, it is the only way, because SFWA is not about to win a pissing match with a major publisher facing a declining market and a genuine need to revise its traditional business model.

As an SFWA member, I’m embarrassed by the juvenile behavior of the president and appalled that the introduction of new contracts for the new medium appear to have taken the organization by surprise.  I’ve stated that the status quo leadership of the recent past has been amateurish in the extreme; this incident is only the most recent evidence of that.  And, needless to say, if I am elected president, these matters will be handled in a considerably more professional manner.

UPDATE: Publisher’s Weekly is on it, complete with a copy of the letter to Scalzi and the SFWA:

After the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) came out swinging on Wednesday, with its president saying that it would not allow authors publishing with Random House’s e-only science fiction imprint Hydra to use that achievement as a credential for membership, the publisher has responded.

PW’s Genreville blog ran a post about the SFWA’s decision, but Random House said the organization never gave it the opportunity to address the issue at hand, namely royalty rates and overall contract terms. (The SFWA said the main reason for its decision is that Hydra “fails to pay authors an advance against royalties, as SFWA requires, and has contract terms that are onerous and unconscionable.”

In a letter to the SFWA, Random House’s digital publishing director Allison Dobson said that while it respects the organization’s stance “we strongly disagree with it, and wish you had contacted us before you published your posts.” The letter went on to say that Hydra “offers a different–but potentially lucrative–publishing model for authors: a profit share,” and that “as with every business partnership, there are specific costs associated with bringing a book successfully to market, and we state them very straightforwardly and transparently in our author agreements.”