John Scalzi has shown us contracts from two new Random House imprints, Hydra for sci-fi and fantasy and Alibi for mystery/thriller/suspense. Both of these contracts are terrible and disgusting in every way that means something. Both offer no advances, both bill authors for costs that are supposed to be absorbed by the publisher, and both are for the entire length of copyright.
That means the publisher (and as Scalzi points out, Random House is not a struggling upstart) puts all the risk on the author, but still profits from the book’s revenue for the length of copyright.
If you look at a contract like this and think it’s a good idea, you might as well self-publish. If you have to take on all the financial risk of publishing, there’s no reason for a publishing house to profit from your work. Choose your own editor, cover designer (or do it yourself; I did the cover for Charlinder’s Walk and I fully intend to do the same for Suicide is for Mortals), publicist, et cetera. If you need help with formatting, there are some very nice people who can do that for a modest fee. Order as many author copies as you please. Outside of publishing houses, all these people who help you make a book into a quality product are small businesses. You get creative control, you decide when and if the book goes off the market, you retain rights for other countries and other languages. If you succeed in selling tons of copies, the profits flow straight to you. If you don’t succeed in selling tons of copies, you can keep trying, or not, on your own terms, and either way your out-of-pocket expenses are transparent.
Hydra and Alibi are no better than vanity publishers. They have nothing to offer their authors except to put their imprint on the authors’ books. Since they haven’t even begun to attempt to build credibility, their names don’t mean anything.